The rules of grammar

Acclaimed children’s author and poet Michael Rosen has slammed the government’s plan to allow new grammar schools

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Acclaimed children’s author and poet Michael Rosen has slammed the government’s plan to allow new grammar schools, claiming it will damage educational prospects for significant numbers of children.

The former Children’s Laureate has called for a broad campaign by politicians, trade unions and others to oppose the policy.

Speaking ahead of his appearance at Manchester Literature Festival, where he will be performing some of his favourite poems, Rosen, a frequent critic of government education policy, says that prime minister Theresa May should instead follow the co-operative model as pioneered through the London Challenge by educator Tim Brighouse.

Worse for majority

Rosen said: “Statistics people will tell you that if you create grammar schools you won’t make education for all better – you will make it worse for the majority of children.

“For the kids who don’t go to the grammar schools, their schools will be significantly not as good, for a variety of reasons which we can all think up, like creaming off people, like because the best teachers are sucked into the grammar schools.

“And actually, the kids who go to the grammar schools will not actually do significantly better than if they were at comprehensives. At the very most, all they’ve ever found is that it may well help some children get an eighth of a GCSE mark better.

“So you have a choice as a government. Shall we do all that we can to bring about a kind of Tim Brighouse, London Challenge-type situation with schools co-operating? Or shall we create grammar schools? This government has chosen to do the second thing – to make schools significantly worse for significant numbers of children.”

Attainment gap

Announcing the plans, Theresa May said expanding grammar schools would create a meritocracy, and that arguments against selection deny opportunities for poorer, brighter children.

She said: “There is nothing meritocratic about standing in the way of giving our most academically gifted children the specialist and tailored support that can enable them to fulfil their potential. In a true meritocracy, we should not be apologetic about stretching the most academically able to the very highest standards of excellence.”

She said grammars could take a proportion of pupils from lower income households, or also establish a non-selective school alongside them.

But Rosen dismisses the notion that grammar schools could improve social mobility. He said: “What is this social mobility thing? Why have they stopped talking about equality? Why have they stopped talking about the attainment gap and closing it?”

Anxious children

In her speech, May said selection could take place at 11, 14, or 16 in a new grammar system. But Rosen fears what impact the widespread reintroduction of the 11-plus exam would have. “If you create a test that is a high-stake, life and death, good-bad school-type test, which is what I had – which we all had in the 1950s with the 11-plus – people get anxious about it. And teachers are going to be judged on the basis of how well or not well they’ve done it.”

He said he was excited about returning to Manchester Literature Festival, explaining that there is a “buzz” around the festival akin to a “mini-university”.

Rosen’s talk will be interspersed with his well-known poems, ad-libbing throughout and responding to questions and comments from his young audience. “So, people watching might think of it as sort of it’s a little bit in the mode of the old style Billy Connolly, or something like that, but my twist on it.”

Michael Rosen will be appearing at Manchester Literature Festival (, 7 Oct, at 10.30am, 1.30pm and 4.30pm. Suitable for children aged seven plus and their families. Tickets £5

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