David Laws – 2014 Speech on Grammar Schools


Below is the text of the speech made by David Laws, the then Schools Minister, at Broadway House, Toothill Street, London on 19 June 2014.

It is a great pleasure to be here today and have the chance to say a few words on social mobility.

I would like to set out how government and grammar schools can work together to help every child succeed, whatever their background.

We may not see eye to eye on every point.

But I do think, between the Department for Education and grammar schools, we share a common goal in wanting to raise expectations, standards and access, so that regardless of a child’s background we offer them the best possible chance to fulfil their potential, in yours and other good and outstanding schools.

It is shameful that, in this country, the best way to predict a child’s exam results is to look at their family income and social background.

Breaking this stubborn attainment gap between richer and poorer pupils is my party’s key objective in the Department for Education. It is what drives me as a minister – it is behind the pupil premium – and it is at the heart of this coalition government’s education policy.

I know that it drives many of you too – and may well be what brought you into teaching in the first place.

The grammar school sector has a long and distinguished history and has been part of the English education system since the Middle Ages. Many of you can trace your school’s history back to the 16th and 17th century, if not earlier.

The political argument of the 1970s, as to whether selective schools should continue in the state sector, resulted in a significant decline in grammar schools. Today just 5% of schools are grammars, compared to a peak of 38% just after the Second World War.

Since the 1980s the number of grammar schools has remained fairly constant at around 164.

No political party now proposes to change this. The debate about grammar schools seems to have been put in the political deep freeze – with no plans either to increase or reduce the number of what are extremely popular schools in their localities.

I am not here to revive arguments about the relative merits of grammar schools and comprehensive schools.

I am here because I accept that grammar schools are a significant feature of the landscape in many local areas, and as Schools Minister I want us to be able to work together openly and constructively on social mobility and other areas

Grammar schools are often excellent schools. I accept them as an established fact of our education system and want to consider what greater role they can play in breaking the cycles of disadvantage and closing the opportunity gap.

I want to work with you, not preach at you, and help you to do what many of you are seeking to do already.

In doing so, I want to challenge you to improve the social mix of your schools, while accepting that the government and the non-selective primary sector also has a big responsibility in this area too. You cannot do this alone.

Original purpose of grammar schools

Many grammar schools were originally established to be engines of social change. Grammar schools were often established by charitable trusts or individual benefactors whose ambitions were to provide for the education of all local children, not just the privileged who could pay for it.

You will be aware of many schools established in the 16th and 17th centuries to help poorer children. Harvey’s Grammar School in Folkestone, for example, was established in 1674 for “20 poor boys of Folkestone”. The Blue Coat School in Liverpool was founded in 1708, and the founders described the school as “a school for teaching poor children to read, write and cast accounts”.

Before we look forward today, I therefore ask you to pause and look back.

How far do you meet those proud aspirations?

Are you, as some would have it, “stuffed full of middle-class kids”?

Or are you opening up opportunities to all bright children regardless of their background, or can you do more?

Why is entry to grammar schools so often maligned?

In my first month as Schools Minister, back in 2012, I was sitting at my desk in the DfE one day when a pile of answers to parliamentary questions was put before me to approve.

One of them that caught my eye asked how many disadvantaged children attend each English grammar school.

I knew the figures were bad. But as I read down the list of schools I was shocked, genuinely shocked, to see how few children from poor backgrounds are going to your schools.

In some schools the number of pupil premium or free school meal eligible pupils is actually single digit numbers.

You cannot be proud of that and you and us at the Department for Education should want to do something about this.

Critics often point to a culture of intensive coaching that can put off those with the potential but not the means to pay, and this could be one reason for the low levels of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds in grammar schools.

Proportionately, grammar schools have the lowest levels of FSM admissions in England.

Last year, 21 grammar schools had fewer than 1% of pupils eligible for free school meals.

Ninety-eight grammar schools had fewer than 3% of pupils eligible for free school meals, and nearly all grammar schools (161) had fewer than 10% of pupils eligible for free school meals.

That is compared to a national average of 16.3% across all secondary schools in England.

Too often the proportion of disadvantaged children entering grammar schools is out of step with their catchment areas. For example, in Buckinghamshire in 2011, 14% of the year 7 cohort across the county were eligible for the pupil premium. But only 4% of those admitted by grammar schools were eligible for the pupil premium.

In Lincolnshire, it was 21% across the county, compared to just 7% in grammar schools.

I accept of course that this discrepancy is not just confined to the selective sector.

Many top-performing, non-selective schools also fail to attract a fair proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals.

Two-thirds have a percentage of FSM pupils that is 5 percentage points or more below the local area average.

So in the same way I’m challenging you and working with you, I will also be looking at those schools to do what we can do to help pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

What can government do?

I recognise that these headline figures hide a more complex underlying picture.

I asked analysts in my department to undertake a more substantial piece of work to dig deeper into the data, so we could really understand why so few bright but poor children end up in grammar schools.

This work presented an interesting picture.

It showed that a key barrier is the low level of free school meal pupils achieving level 5, typically a proxy for pupils you admit. So this is not just a challenge for grammar schools, but for the whole education system.

In other words this is not just something that can be blamed on grammar schools. I totally accept that.

But I simply cannot and will not accept a system that fails poorer children in this way.

My promise to you, alongside my challenge to you, is that this government will do everything in its power to make sure that more children from poorer backgrounds achieve their full potential.

We have introduced the pupil premium – £2.5 billion this year alone – targeted at those pupils who need extra help.

This money is supporting primary schools, feeder schools in all your areas, to boost the attainment of disadvantaged pupils.

We have made it easier to identify high-achieving pupils from low income families by asking primary schools to monitor the academic progress of disadvantaged pupils in key stage 2 increasingly closely, with better data available through the RAISEonline system.

We are introducing free school meals for all infants, which in pilots raised attainment in English and maths, particularly for disadvantaged children.

And we have made the early years a top priority – extending free early education for all and giving 2-year-olds from lower income homes a free early years education for the first time ever.

Next year we are extending the pupil premium to disadvantaged early years children, while raising the primary pupil premium, skewing the budget to the age range that makes the most difference.

Finally, but crucially, we will not accept persistent weak performance and leadership in any school.

Schools in poor catchment areas often underperformed in the past, often for many years.

Now both the DfE and Ofsted will act swiftly to intervene in failing schools, so that they have the leadership and governance which they need.

Taken together, and over time, I believe that these crucial policies will start to shift the dial for poorer children – so that more and more reach level 5. There are already signs that the attainment gap is narrowing, particularly at key stage 2.

What can grammar schools do?

But what about those disadvantaged children who are academically able and do already achieve level 5?

In wholly selective areas fewer than half of pupils eligible for FSM achieving level 5 go into selective schools, compared with two-thirds of non-FSMpupils.

This cannot be right.

We calculated it would require a shift of just 200 level 5 FSM pupils to go into grammar schools in wholly selective areas to remove this particular bias – the failure to recruit pupils who should already be able to access your schools based on their attainment.

I was surprised that the number was so small, and actually so achievable.

Sadly, this speaks volumes of the work we need to do to secure better results in primary schools.

Your first, incredibly modest, job is to get these children into your schools. Over a decade, that would still be 2,000 more able pupils accessing some of the best schools in the country.

But, I think we would all acknowledge that aiming so modestly is not a satisfactory or inspiring ambition, and something neither you nor I are keen to do.

I want us to aim much higher than that.

My ambition is that all selective schools should aim for the same proportion of children on free school meals in their schools as in their local area.

This would mean an additional 3,500 free school meal pupils in selective schools every year, or an additional 35,000 pupils over 10 years.

There are likely to be many barriers in the way of this ambition and it is not something we can achieve overnight.

The problems range from parents not applying; pupils not revealing their full potential in the tests; local primary schools not considering your school as an option.

This presents a challenge to you and to us. I want us to be ambitious, I want to challenge the preconceptions about grammar schools and I want the sector to be able to show that it is responding to this challenge.

So we’ve talked about setting a longer-term ambition, but what can we do in the short term? This is something I have thought about a lot and forms part of the programme of work we have been doing jointly with the GSHA.

I am encouraged to see grammar schools leading the way in using the pupil premium as part of their admissions arrangements. This was a freedom set out in the 2012 Admissions Code and I am pleased to be able to say that 32 grammar schools have implemented an admissions priority for pupils eligible for free school meals this year.

This is a remarkable step and reflects a laudable commitment to putting the rhetoric around social inclusion into practical action.

In this area of pupil premium priority, your sector has been the leader.

I would like to thank the GSHA for working with us to support this move and encourage you all to think about whether this is something you could consider at your school.

We would like to see every grammar school adopt this approach.

There has been controversy recently about whether introducing a pupil premium admissions priority means you will automatically face an objection from the Office of the Schools Adjudicator.

Let me be clear. Anyone can object to the OSA, and you may face complaints.

There are people who will always resist change.

But as long as you have properly consulted on the changes and worked with the Education Funding Agency to make sure that the technical details in your funding agreement reflect this – then there is no case for schools to answer. The Admissions Code permits academies and free schools to give priority to pupils eligible for the pupil premium. And the recent determinations on this are clear on that point – these schools are lawfully permitted to prioritise pupil premium pupils.

We in the Department for Education will fully support any school that chooses to change its admissions criteria in this way – in fact, I want to see all grammar schools give preference to pupil premium pupils over the next few years.

But has the battle been lost before pupils even get to the point of admission? In some areas, a cottage industry has grown up offering coaching for entry to selective schools. Many children who have been “hot-housed” through coaching for grammar school entrance tests then struggle when they arrive because they have not acquired those independent learning skills that are crucial to further and higher education and the job market.

We all recognise that parents are passionate about getting their child in to a school that they think will best suit their child.

I don’t blame any individual parent or family for doing everything they can to help their individual child to get ahead. Doing your best for your child is a natural human instinct and one which we should commend and not criticise.

But these kind of coaching schemes put another barrier in the way of those children whose parents are unable or unwilling to pay for the additional coaching.

The GSHA is against coaching, not just because of access issues but because it can be a negative educational experience and the pressures this creates on children can outweigh any gains. So I really welcome the association’s work to encourage a move to entry tests that are less susceptible to coaching, and I am heartened to hear that at least 40% of grammar schools are now moving to the introduction of coaching resistant tests.

Again, I hope that all grammar schools will soon do so, and it will be interesting to see the impact of this.

The GSHA will be working with us, the Sutton Trust and the University of Durham to explore ways in which access to grammar schools by highly able deprived children might be improved by looking more closely at the testing process and what may be limiting the engagement of pupils with it.

I welcome that commitment.

Lastly, and probably most importantly, is the outreach work you do with your local primary schools and parents.

We can do what we can to raise attainment, make entrance tests more accessible and to give some priority in admissions – but unless parents and pupils see your school as suitable for them, then our efforts are wasted.

How many of you are partnered with your local primary schools, how many are engaging to identify those high-performing pupils who are not currently accessing your provision?

Best practice/call to action

Well, I know some schools are doing great work.

Pates Grammar School in Gloucestershire has held awareness events in local schools for pupils, staff and parents, and many of the rest of you will be doing this.

High-performing local pupils have been invited into the school, to knock down the local perception that this is a school for ‘rich kids’. The school is increasingly seen as an aspiration for local families.

There is also great work taking place in the 5 Edward VI grammar schools in Birmingham.

These schools are working towards obtaining an intake of 20% from disadvantaged families.

They have introduced coaching resistant tests and are building close links with primaries to engage in a test familiarisation project. We at the Department for Education want to see more clusters of grammar schools engaging in projects like these and reaching out to the local community.

I want all schools to build on the progress that is being made and seek to close the gap by increasing parental engagement, and stronger working with local primaries – with a focus on identifying potential.

In conclusion

In conclusion I want to place on record my gratitude to those grammar school headteachers that have already initiated real changes.

I know that you are deeply committed to educational excellence and seeing disadvantaged children attend your schools, and flourish in them.

And I want to thank the GSHA for their engagement and work.

But we are starting from a very low base.

And it is no surprise that grammar schools are today often struggling to make their case for a big role in English education when one of the biggest claims once made, about social mobility, looks so hollow on the basis of the figures we are all aware of and which I cited early on.

We all recognise grammar schools need to return to their original mission and great aspiration of being engines of social mobility.

If you can do this then instead of being treated as a small corner of the educational debate, you will be entitled to make your case with confidence and persuasiveness.

For our part, government will leave no stone unturned in our mission to raise attainment, for all children, in primary schools.

We do not expect you to change the world by yourselves.

None of us in this room can be complacent in our goal.

We have begun the journey, but there is a long way to go.

Let us be ambitious about what we can achieve together, and continue with that joint commitment and determination to make the difference for all children.