Nick Gibb on Grammar Schools and Secondary Moderns

June 13, 2017

Since Theresa May became prime minister, the Conservative Party has turned back to its 1990s policy of returning to a grammar/secondary modern system. I suspect this created difficulties for Nick Gibb, the schools minister, who had previously opposed the policy, who would have been given a choice: support the policy and continue to influence policy or oppose it and return to the back benches. I’ve never particularly wanted to point out his previous record of opposition to grammar schools, as while this could be used to embarrass him, it would hardly make things easier for those hoping to dissuade the government from going down the route of selective education.

Now, however, following the loss of the government’s majority, it is unlikely that the government has any hope of passing legislation on the matter and it has already been reported that the policy has been torn up. On top of that, I suspects that the Prime Minister can’t last much longer and, if we are fortunate, her replacement will be less interested in the issue. So I thought this would be a good opportunity to remind ourselves how far the Conservatives had moved on before May turned the clock back.

This is what Nick Gibb had to say in 2012, back during his first stint as schools minister, when asked about grammar schools on Any Questions:

When people talk about the grammar school issue, I never get people asking the question “why don’t you bring back the secondary modern?” And in fact most people would go to the secondary modern – most children would go to a secondary modern school – if we brought back selection at the age of 11.

Now our job is to improve the standards in the three thousand comprehensive schools in this country and I believe it’s not getting rid of the grammar schools that was the issue. It is some of the progressive teaching methods that came into the country in the 1960s and 70s such as mixed ability teaching; moving away from traditional subjects rigorously taught; the way reading has been taught in  primary schools that doesn’t use the traditional phonics method of teaching children to read, so now we have…one in ten boys leaving primary school with a reading age of 7. These are the issues we are trying to grapple [with].

…we have to go on the evidence and the evidence that we have when we look around the world at those high performing jurisdictions that have high quality education systems producing young people who will be competing for the same jobs that our young people will be competing for in the global job market. What those countries have in common is that they have teachers from the top quarter of their graduate output; they have autonomy for their schools so that the teachers can run their schools as they see fit, and they have very rigorous external accountability and testing. When you look around the world – Finland, South Korea, Japan – they don’t have selective systems and yet they have very high performing education systems… The things they all have in common – the top jurisdictions – is those three things I’ve just said and that’s where our education policy is geared.

…Our whole raison d’être in our education policy is to close this attainment gap between those from wealthier and poorer backgrounds. We want to improve the standard of behaviour in those comprehensives that the questioner thinks can’t provide the kind of education that some children need. We want to ensure that our three thousand comprehensives do provide that kind of education.

We are changing the curriculum. We are changing the exams. We brought in the English Baccalaureate to try to undo the damage done over the last ten years where students have moved away from things like modern languages and these more traditional subjects. Now we’ve seen a huge uptake in history geography and languages as a consequence of that policy.

I thought then, and I think now, that this is the right answer. Let’s hope that as things settle down after recent events, no more energy is wasted on finding escape routes for the middle class, rather than providing an academic education for all.



  1. I am old enough to have attended a state grammar school, 1963 – 70, and unless the society of the sixties can be brought back, most students leaving at 16 and able to enter a profession, get a job or get a proper apprenticeship, any proposal to bring in the same system is moonshine.
    However, the hypocrisy of the same period is still with us – Labour supporters using private schools. Chakribati and Abbott come to mind alongside Ted Short from the 60s.
    Gibb’s analysis remains the best we’ve had. Hopefully a refocused Ofsted might produce it, rather than the inspection terror still prevailing at present.

  2. I like Nick, and there aren’t many politicians who have risked their political career by taking principled stands that get a lot of backs up. There isn’t anything in the above statement that I’d take exception to, but as always the problem is how we get from here to there. Ministers have very few levers in their hands, and many of them (like Ofsted) are institutionally averse to making the transmission of knowledge and understanding the central tenet of schooling.
    Making SATs and GCSEs more rigorous is all very fine and well, but it doesn’t help all that much if the main result is that grade boundaries sink. Until testing becomes routine in schools–much like it was a couple of generations ago–almost everything kids learn will be forgotten. Our recent paper (http://parliamentstreet.org/research/2017/free-schools-free-society/) suggested a way this could be achieved, but sadly it has not generated much comment,

  3. Is that accurate about the three things high-performing jurisdictions have in common? Was it in 2012?

  4. […] Nick Gibb on grammar schools and secondary moderns, by Andrew […]

  5. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  6. I always felt that the focus on grammar schools was a case of looking at the wrong end of the achievement spectrum. More special schools designed for the students who are of the lowest ability and who can not access current qualifications (more important now that the rigour of GCSE has been increased) or for students who can not cope with the behaviour expectations of mainstream education would have been the more sensible policy.
    Ironically, the grammar school policy was supposed to be popular with parents and a Conservative vote winner,but it was the current funding difficulties which had more of an impact as an educational issue on how people voted

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