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Our education system is failing. It’s time to give grammar schools a go

A student at Harrow school

‘The high fees of private schools, unaffordable to the majority, bring social success. This is an unacceptable situation for an advanced democratic country,’ writes Tony Pitman. Photograph: Alamy

Simon Jenkins (The return of the 11-plus is Theresa May’s first real Trump moment, 9 March) seems to be happy with the status quo in education, but few others are. Employers are dismayed at low standards, the inspectorate complains, parents look around desperately for good academic schools, and social mobility stopped some time ago.

Students from the private sector disproportionately dominate all aspects of our society. In other words, the high fees of private schools, unaffordable to the majority, bring social success. No wonder families scrimp and save to get their children into these schools: they know their value. This is an unhealthy and unacceptable situation for an advanced democratic country. But too many politicians and commentators accept the status quo for the maintained sector because they are wealthy enough to opt out of it.

It is time for a free grammar school in every town. This will create more of a level playing field, kick-start social mobility and do away with the handicaps that so many maintained-sector students arrive at Oxbridge with. Entry could be either by test (with flexibility to admit students at a later stage) or by teacher/parent agreement. Such a system works well in Germany and has done for decades. Clearly those not in grammar schools must be well provided for so that they can reach their potential too, in a way that did not happen in the old system. But rest assured: grammar schools are not today the “distraction” Simon Jenkins thinks they are – they are essential for a functioning democratic Britain.
Tony Pitman
Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire

In his kind profile of me (Education, 7 March), Peter Wilby referred to the success of Mansfield College, Oxford in its outreach to state school pupils. This year Mansfield made 91% of its offers to students from the state sector, the vast majority of them from non-selective schools, and 20% are from BAME backgrounds. This does not happen by magic or positive discrimination; it is the result of sustained commitment over many years by my academic staff. It involves visiting schools, connecting with teachers, fair interviews conducted to bring out the best in untutored applicants. It also means creating a welcoming, highly supportive environment. Excellence exists all across our country. You just have to stop looking for it in the usual places and extend the right kind of invitation. What works is a cultural shift in deciding what excellence looks and sounds like.
Helena Kennedy QC
Principal, Mansfield College, Oxford

There is a very simple and cheap answer to the prime minister’s obsession with grammar schools (Letters, 9 March). Simply rename all state secondary schools “grammar schools”. The excellent local school attended by my four children, and so far five grandchildren, is called Ilkley grammar school, a name it inherited from an old boy’s selective school, but for more than half a century it has been mixed and fully comprehensive, catering for the full range of abilities and needs, including Oxbridge scholarships.

Unhappily, like the Barnet school and many others mentioned in the same edition of the Guardian (Grammar school asks parents to help pay off £100,000 deficit, 9 March), it has had to resort to asking parents for substantial financial contributions to fund the large and growing gap between income and basic educational needs. Whatever happened to free state education?
Robert Leach
Silsden, West Yorks

The most distasteful aspect of Theresa May’s grammar school announcements this week was her use of the words “fair” and “meritocratic” in the same sentence.
Cal Fell
Saxtead Green, Suffolk

The announcement in the budget of investment in technical skills is welcome – but we hope it is new budget and that it won’t take away from anything that currently encourages training. Traditional A-level and university students also need work experience and internship opportunities to help them develop the right skills for the modern engineering workplace. Our annual skills survey found that 62% of employers feel that school leavers and graduates don’t currently have these skills.

We need the entire education system to equip young people with the “work-ready skills” that are so needed by employers. Increasing the opportunity for more people to follow a work-based route into engineering will also help employers build the specific skills, experience and knowledge relevant to their business and their sector. Alongside all of this we need investment in skills for those already in the workforce to prepare them for the changes to come. We hope that the government’s forthcoming industrial strategy can bring together the different strands of skills funding to ensure that the engineering sector continues to fuel a successful UK economy.
Professor John Perkins
Chair, education and skills panel, Institution of Engineering and Technology

The aim of the new funding formula for schools isn’t unreasonable in itself: after all, fairness in the allocation of resources is something that we can all accept (Letters, 9 March). What is wrong with the present exercise is the way it is being applied, which leaves many schools losing money and teachers.

But there is another approach. In the 1970s, it was realised that the spread of health resources was seriously out of kilter. As a result, the resource allocation working party was established at the then Department of Health and Social Security to examine not just the way resources were shared, but how to implement any consequent changes in their distribution – and it is the latter half of its remit that can help here. The decision was taken that no authority would lose money, but that equalisation would take place with a general levelling up: over-resourced areas would stand still while under-resourced ones would benefit from any extra money. There is no reason why such an approach should not be used now in education. Except that under the government’s present spending plans, there will be no increases in real spending. Yet another reason for this foolish policy to cease.
Richard Carter
London

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