Green light for grammar expansion
Education Secretary starts selective school ‘revolution’ with £50m fund to create thousands of extra places
GRAMMAR schools will be able to create thousands of extra places to “close the gap” between wealthier and poorer children in the biggest expansion of selective education in a generation.
Damian Hinds, the Education Secretary, today announces a £50million Selective Schools Expansion Fund which forms the bedrock of Theresa May’s trimmed-down grammar revolution. The money will be available to existing grammars on the condition that they can prove they will take in more children from lower income backgrounds.
It is the first slice of a £200million fund which could result in 16,000 extra grammar places being created over the next four years.
Mr Hinds told The Daily Telegraph schools would be allowed to set a lower pass mark for disadvantaged children taking entrance exams but insisted it did not amount to “dumbing down”.
Mrs May promised a grammar school revolution before last year’s general election and made a manifesto commitment to overturn the ban on new grammars being built. She dropped the pledge when she lost her parliamentary majority at the election, but is determined to make selective education available to as many children as possible.
The £50million in funding will enable grammars to create up to 4,000 extra places, and will also be available for new free schools and new voluntary aided schools.
Mr Hinds said it would be up to the grammars how they ensured that more poorer children were accepted, but confirmed that lowering pass marks for those children was one option.
In an interview, he said it was a “case of saying to schools, ‘what can you do in your local area to widen the net and make sure as many children as possible who can really benefit from that education are able to do so’”.
Asked if that amounted to dumbing down, he said: “No, because schools are looking for potential.” He said that universities often admitted students on the basis of potential rather than pure exam results, and “that doesn’t mean that they are lowering their standards in the slightest”.
He added: “It’s a question of more children from more backgrounds having a chance to access that education where we know that progress can be very good for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds and the gap in performance can close faster as a result.”
There will be no quotas for pupils from lower income households, but the Government has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Grammar School Heads’ Association, which represents 150 of the 163 existing grammars. It requires heads to provide more places for poorer children and enter into partnerships with local schools to raise standards across the board.
Asked how he would define success, Mr Hinds said: “On a simple level I’d like to see more children who are eligible for free school meals and pupil premium funding going to grammar schools.” The money was set aside for selective schools in the 2016 autumn Budget and is expected to be the first of four annual investments in new school places.
If the maximum possible number of places were created over each of the next four years it would mean 16,000 extra pupils benefiting from selective education. Mr Hinds said he would not be lifting the cap on free schools admitting a maximum of 50 per cent of pupils based on their religion, despite a manifesto promise to consider scrapping it. However, in what will be seen as an olive branch to the religious lobby, some of the money will be made available to build new voluntary aided (VA) schools, which are are usually partfunded by Christian or other faith groups. Unlike free schools, VA schools are allowed to give preference to children based on their religion if places are oversubscribed, with no cap in place.
There are 3,298 VA schools, of which all but 52 are faith schools, but only a handful have been built in recent years. A new wave of VA schools would enable faith groups to increase the number of pupils admitted on the basis of their religion.
Damian Hinds’s name does not appear on his office door, which simply reads Secretary of State. It’s an unintended reminder that he is the seventh education secretary in the past eight years.
His two immediate predecessors, Justine Greening and Nicky Morgan, quit the Cabinet because of differences with Theresa May over her education policy, particularly grammar schools.
As the product of a grammar school education himself, Hinds is entirely in step with the Prime Minister’s pet project to increase grammar places, suggesting he should outlast the two-year average of recent times.
But the job he was given in January comes with the “very heavy” burden of being in charge of the country’s future, and Hinds is not about to take anything for granted.
“What keeps me awake at night,” he says, “is the knowledge that what we do here can have a significant impact on what happens in the classroom, for the future of our nation, for the prosperity of the next generation and for the good of our society. That’s a huge responsibility.”
The biggest challenge of all, he says, is reversing the staffing crisis in the teaching profession that has seen a 29 per cent drop in applications for teacher training courses over the past year and eight in 10 teachers saying they have considered leaving the profession.
Part of the solution, he says, is to increase flexible working for teachers to encourage them to stay in the profession longer, rather than retiring early because they no longer want to work full-time.
“Across society there is a question about how to enable people to stay and work longer,” he says. “Quite a lot of people will leave work before their pension age … people can have caring responsibilities later in life, they can have grandparental responsibilities and so having flexible options can be important for older people just as it can for younger parents returning to teaching after time away raising a family.
“This is a people business and great schools are all about great teachers, so constantly we are thinking about recruitment and retention.”
He has no doubt that workload is the main problem in retaining staff.
“Teachers say to me when I ask them that marking, data and planning are the three big drivers of workload. I want to work with teachers, heads, the unions, everybody, to bear down on that.”
Teaching constantly throws up fresh challenges, such as the problem of children spending more and more time on smart phones during school hours, playing highly addictive computer games such as Fortnite, the latest online craze.
Hinds says he cannot “prescribe blanket rules” such as playground bans on certain games because crazes come and go so quickly, but makes it clear that parents are ultimately responsible for solving the problem.
“Parents play a huge part and there is a facility often on consoles to limit screen time and there is no substitute for being involved in that way,” he says.
Hinds, now 48, was educated at Oxford University (he beat Jacob Rees-mogg, his Trinity College contemporary, to the presidency of the Oxford Union debating society), which is once again under fire for failing to attract enough students from disadvantaged and minority ethnic backgrounds.
A report earlier this week suggested that Oxford and Cambridge should build new colleges specifically aimed at poorer students and those from under-represented groups, something Hinds broadly supports.
He said: “I want more people from diverse backgrounds to be able to go to top universities, those two and others. Oxford and Cambridge are both large universities and they are both cities and have large constraints on land and real estate, but I want to see full diversity and for individual universities if that means potentially expanding them, then that’s something that an individual university has to look at.”
The issue of university vice chancellors’ salaries has also come across his desk, and while Hinds is cautious about dictating to universities on pay, he says: “The committee on university chairs are looking at this and one of the things they are putting forward is that vice chancellors shouldn’t sit on their own remuneration committees and I think that makes perfect sense.
“We have to have a balance because yes, you have to attract the right people but on the other hand there is a lot of public money through the student finance system and so it’s important to have a responsible, value
‘This is a people business and great schools are all about great teachers, so constantly we are thinking about recruitment and retention’
approach.” Hinds, who became MP for East Hampshire in 2010, held junior ministerial roles at the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions but was largely unknown to the public before his elevation to the Cabinet in the last reshuffle.
That has not stopped Michael Gove tipping him as a future Tory leader – something for which Hinds is unlikely to thank him.
“People say all sorts of things all the time,” he says. “This is the best job in government and I feel incredibly privileged to be able to do it.”
For Mr Gove, the job of education secretary was a stop-off on his career journey, but for Hinds it was always his intended destination. When he was selected to fight the seat he now represents, he was asked what his ideal job would be, and he replied that he would love to be an education minister.
“I have the benefit of knowing I am in the one job in politics that I’ve always wanted to do, since before I was elected to Parliament,” Hinds says.
“I feel very lucky to be here.”
Damian Hinds: ‘I am in the one job in politics that I’ve always wanted’