Grammar schools: Tory manifesto claims and the evidence that debunks them

How evidence-based are the Conservative manifesto proposals on grammar schools? Not at all, says a Professor at the UCL Institute of Education, as she digs into the DfE’s own figures.

Professor Alice Sullivan of the UCL Institute of Education was ‘amazed’ at the claim in the 2017 Conservative Party Manifesto that ‘slightly more children from ordinary, working class families attend selective schools as a percentage of the school intake as compared to non-selective schools’. So she dug into the evidence offered and discovered that this claim goes ‘beyond selective use of evidence, and enters the territory of statistical jiggery-pokery’.

Read about this on the IOE London blog. The ‘UK’s leading centre for education research’ is a rather more reliable source of evidence than ‘statistical jiggery-pokery’.

A grammar school in Glossop?

Yesterday I emailed Andrew Bingham, Conservative candidate for the High Peak and MP, 2010-17, about his party’s policy on grammar schools. His reply was commendably prompt – but strangely equivocal.

Here’s the text of our exchange:

Dear Mr Bingham

As you say in your campaign leaflet, ‘this election has come as a surprise to all of us,’ particularly as the Prime Minister had previously set her face against such a move. Coinciding as it has with a holiday ending at the weekend, it has also left me only a short time to consider what the local candidates are offering.

As you may recall, I have contacted you previously about Conservative education policies. Most recently this was about the White Paper on forced academisation. Almost before you had opportunity to reply, that policy appeared to have been kicked into the long grass. Now I see that, although though your own leaflet has little on specific policies, your party’s manifesto promises to open the way to the creation of more grammar schools.

As a former teacher, with experience of working in secondary modern, grammar and comprehensive schools, and now as a school governor, I should be interested to know whether you support the creation of one or more grammar schools in the High Peak. Would there be a grammar school for Glossop, for example? Or would students have to travel to Buxton or further afield? How many secondary modern schools do you think we shall need? You might perhaps be able to say what percentage of pupils would be able to attend the grammar school, and how those at the secondary modern schools might be prepared for the modern world.

You may be aware that the recently retired Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw (himself a former headteacher) has strongly opposed the creation of more grammar schools, as has the previous Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan. There is also a wealth of education research that casts doubt on claims that grammar schools lead, in the word of the green paper, to ‘Education Excellence Everywhere’ [I should have used the title of the grammar school consultation, Schools that work for everyoneEducation Excellence Everywhere was the now-defunct academisation White Paper]. Do you have counter arguments to offer?

I realise that I have asked a series of detailed questions to which you may not have all the answers. Since this is in your party’s manifesto, however, I think we need to be told how it will affect children in our town – or whether it is a gimmick for a few areas with little national impact or benefit.

I look forward to hearing from you.

This was his reply this morning:

Dear Mr. Rank,
Thank you for your email. With regard to grammar schools I have no fixed view at this stage. I can see both the benefits and disadvantages. What Theresa has said is that a Conservative Government would look to lift the ban on the creation of grammar schools, there will be no compulsion on schools to become grammar schools. I have said to people who have asked me that I would look very carefully at any proposals to see if they would be something I could support. I went to what was then Long Lane Comprehensive School, now Chapel High, so I have no first hand experience of the grammar/secondary modern system but I would be very interested if re-elected and when any proposals come forward, to speak to you in greater depth on the matter.

You are correct in your recollection on compulsory academisation, I was against this at the time and welcomed the change in heart to this as I, together with other colleagues, had expressed our opposition to it.

We do not know what the result will be on Thursday, either locally or nationally, however, if I am successful I can give you an undertaking that I would be very happy to meet with you personally to get your views on the contents of any proposals so that I can get a better insight into your thoughts as someone who has worked in the sector and has a more detailed knowledge than I.

Kind regards,


I have now replied to say that though his approach to his party’s manifesto is interesting, it hardly indicates support for an election promise. Anecdotes and personal experience can be a useful way into the argument, but they aren’t a secure basis for national policy – especially when based on memories many years old. If MPs are interested, the evidence that counts is already in the public domain. Here are a few links:

The Department for Education conducted a consultation on grammar schools under the (surely ironic) title ‘Schools that work for everyone’ which ended on 12 December 2016 – yet the results have still not been published. Well-substantiated rumour has it that this may be because responses were overwhelmingly critical. Time for a re-think, or even a U-turn?

UPDATE: 9 June 2017: Conservative MP no more
I shan’t after all need to meet Andrew Bingham to explain the fallacies in the Conservative grammar school policy, as he was last night defeated in the general election and the new MP for High Peak is Labour’s Ruth George. If the Tories hang on in a hung parliament, it will be interesting (if depressing) to see whether the argument over grammar schools needs to continue.