A return to grammar school selection in England would be an economic disaster, leaving young people without the skills the country needs, Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools, has said.
Speaking to a conference of Catholic school leaders in London, Wilshaw said selecting pupils by academic ability and giving a grammar school education to the top 20% – as happened in most parts of England until the 1970s – would be “economic suicide”.
He said: “What we need – because the economy is now so different from when I started teaching – is for more young people to do better than ever before.” He pointed out that Britain’s main economic rivals did not rely on selective education systems.
“I’m a big supporter of comprehensive education. It can work, one size does not have to fit all – if schools have great leadership it can work,” Wilshaw said in response to a question at the Catholic Association of Teachers Schools and Colleges annual conference.
In October a grammar school in Kent was given approval by the Department for Education to open a “satellite” selective school in another town.
Wilshaw claimed the autonomy granted to schools with academy status – allowing them more control over their own affairs – put them on a par with the freedoms enjoyed by private schools. “What’s the difference between being an independent school and being an academy? Not much,” he told the conference.
He said local politicians needed to do more to improve schools in their area in order to match the rapid improvement in results seen in London, and he intended to single out one city in a forthcoming speech.
“My personal experience in London, and I saw first-hand what happened, was that it was a coming together of all sorts of different things. Politicians and senior politicians said: enough is enough, we can’t have our capital city performing so badly. There was a political purpose in a way that London had never received before,” Wilshaw said.
“The most important thing is that somebody – a powerful political figure like Andrew Adonis who did so much to galvanise academies – needs to be appointed or elected in Birmingham, in Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester, to really support their communities and really support higher standards. That’s important.
“Without that political movement I can’t see much happening. I think you’ll need to look at what I’m about to say about one particular city in the next month, to see what I mean about political leadership.”
Wilshaw, a former head of St Bonaventure’s Catholic comprehensive in Newham, east London, praised Catholic schools for outperforming others in GCSE results. He said: “What’s particularly heartening is seeing the number of Catholic schools in areas of deprivation, where standards elsewhere are often pitifully low, doing well by their children and young people.”
But he said the long tail of underachievement in England’s schools showed few signs of being eradicated. “Unless we raise the performance of disadvantaged pupils in general, and the white working class in particular, we stand little chance of becoming a more economically productive nation or a more socially cohesive one,” he said.
Wilshaw told his audience that Catholic and other faith schools had nothing to fear from Ofsted’s new remit to inspect how schools are preparing pupils for life in modern Britain – a requirement introduced after the “Trojan horse” affair alleging Islamist influence in schools in Birmingham.
But he acknowledged that Ofsted had mistakenly punished some schools when the new regime was introduced – a reference to a Catholic school in Bury St Edmunds that was initially castigated by inspectors for not warning pupils about the dangers of extremism and radicalisation.
“On a handful of occasions, especially early on, inspectors failed to display a touch of common sense. As a result, one or two wrote some rather silly things in their reports,” Wilshaw said.
“However, since this is the [Catholic church’s] jubilee year of mercy, I have forgiven these inspectors for their misjudgments, and they did not have to wear sackcloth and ashes all the way to Ofsted headquarters in London.
“But let me be quite clear about this. It is perfectly legitimate for individuals and faith groups to hold firm to a particular set of values and beliefs, which may run counter to existing social norms. What is not legitimate is to use these beliefs to condone or even encourage intolerance and discrimination.”