Centre Right think tank, CMRE, says increased selection is not a viable strategy for the education system as a whole

This is what Gabriel Sahlgren the Director of Research at the CMRE think tank said  about selection   in  an opinion  piece  in the Daily Telegraph on 8 May.

‘Conservatives have proposed academic selection. In this model, children would compete for places based on their performance. Parents wouldn’t just choose schools – but schools would choose pupils, too. This is not a viable strategy for the education system as a whole. Indeed, research suggests that between-school selection doesn’t raise performance overall, but often decreases equality. Rather than promoting a more cohesive country, selection may therefore merely divide us further.

Most importantly, academic selection decreases parental choice and risks the competitive incentives in the system; it induces schools to focus more on picking pupils than on improving their performance.’

I  suggest  it  would be helpful, and appropriate ,  before any future government decides  to increase selection in the schools system, for it to set out clearly the evidence base that informs this policy decision.  At present, as far as I am aware ,there is no think tank,   no reputable academic or research organisation or institution , nor  any organisation promoting social mobility which  either backs the policy of increased selection or has provided evidence that such a policy  will  do any of the following: improve performance across the system, raise the performance overall of disadvantaged pupils, narrow the performance gap between disadvantaged and mainstream pupils ,increase social mobility, improve equity,  or significantly help ‘ordinary families’ educationally, all of which appear to be  priorities on the current  education  agenda.  If evidence informed policy and practice  has any meaning, then this should be a minimum requirement, before any government wastes scarce resources, political energy and capital on introducing and driving through any such policy in the face of   available evidence and expert opinion


The Government is heading rapidly down a cul de sac in its policy to increase selection in the maintained sector. Either it will have to execute a U turn (not unheard of-think, Nicky Morgan) or it will come to a grinding halt , using its scarce resources and haemorrhaging political capital, to prop up a policy that cannot possibly deliver the outcomes it wants-a significant number of new, good school places for ‘ordinary working  families’ and increased social mobility.

The Grammar school model is currently demonstrably failing to help the most disadvantaged pupils and is no engine of social mobility. Justine Greening has accepted as much, and now talks about  the need for a  ‘new model ‘for Grammar schools ,  conceding past failures of Grammars to cater for the less affluent.

Selective schools continue to be dominated by the most affluent. Over half of pupils in selective schools are in families with income above the national median and fewer than one in ten are eligible for the Pupil Premium. Ironically  one  enduring  education success of this and the previous government, has been the Pupil Premium ,which specifically targets the most disadvantaged cohort with extra per capita funding  . Grammars really haven’t played any significant  part  in this success story.

The government has shifted its attention now  to what it calls ordinary working families. Although there is no official definition of an ordinary working family, the government   describes students fitting into the category as those who are not entitled to pupil premium, but who come from families earning “modest” or below median incomes.The Education Policy Institute tells us that Department for Education’s definition of  the OWF group occupies the centre of the income distribution of children in maintained schools.’ Crucially, though , the child of the OWF  currently ‘experiences attainment and progress outcomes that are above average’.

Seeking to change that model by incentivising, or  compelling,  Grammars to take more   pupils from these  ordinary working families  presents a huge new  practical  challenge. . How do you hold schools  to account ? Do you introduce a quota system? Do you dump the eleven plus in favour of another test?  Indeed, can you design a new  tutor -proof test (unlikely)?  Or ,do you lower the pass mark for young people whose families fall below the median income threshold?  The Government risks falling between a rock and a hard place here, alienating both the education establishment and grammar schools.

The three bodies that know most about social mobility and its drivers, are the Social Mobility Commission, the Sutton Trust and Teach First . None of these organisations  though believe that social mobility, remember the top  priority of Justine Greening as Education Secretary, will increase one iota on the back of increased selection. The Sutton Trust believes that Grammars should demonstrate how well they can support  the bottom third of pupils, before they  roll out  increased selection across the system.  Greening struggled on the BBC R4  Today Programme, on 13 April ,to name a single expert or institution that supports her policy (to be fair its not her Policy ,its Nick Timothys of N0 10). She couldn’t,  because there aren’t any. When NO 10 phoned around those whom it could normally rely on to support its education announcements, on the release of its Green Paper on selection, all ducked their heads below the parapet. They had a quick squint at the evidence, saw the prospect of a car crash, and made their excuses .All these organisations are alarmed too at the shift away from targeting the most disadvantaged cohort, and narrowing  the achievement gap,  to the group that  was called those who are just about managing (JAMs) ,( now called  ordinary working families’ (OWFs).

There are  many,  including  key figures who have been  broadly supportive  of the governments education reforms,   who cannot fathom  why the government is pursuing such a high risk policy,   that is not evidence -based, and  has  such little prospect  of  meaningful  educational ,or political, returns. .


The Green paper suggesting ideas  for  more selection in the state system has been heavily criticized. Mainly because it fails to highlight any evidence that increased selection will improve choice ,or, crucially improve the lot of the most disadvantaged either in terms of attainment or social mobility.  In fact, unless handled properly it could make their position infinitely worse.  The authors of the paper themselves seem to accept that the current selective system is unfair on the most disadvantaged pupils, because it suggests a raft of measures, incentives, conditions and sanctions   to  try  to make sure that these newly  selective  schools  will take their  fair share of the most disadvantaged pupils. (as clearly there is a perceived   risk  that  unless they are  heavily regulated and scrutinized that they wont)   So much for school autonomy, and the removal of red tape.  It  was good while it lasted. This envisages something of a bureaucratic  and regulatory nightmare .  The Green paper does seem to concede  though that the current  11 Plus test  can be coached,  (and therefore rich families have an advantage) and  that poor  children in areas that have grammar (selective ) schools tend to do  worse than poor pupils elsewhere.

This is what the  the  Green Paper says (Pg 21, Para 4):
‘Many selective schools are employing much smarter tests that seek to see past coaching and assess the true potential of every child. However, under the current model of grammar schools – while those children that attend selective schools enjoy a far greater chance of academic success – there is some evidence that children who attend non-selective schools in selective areas may not fare as well academically – both compared to local selective schools and comprehensives in non-selective areas.’

I assume  when the Green Paper refers to  the much smarter tests  that ‘ see past coaching ‘  its referring to those designed by CEM (Durham). There are few academics who have done more than Robert Coe of Durham  has to champion evidence based /informed practice in the teaching profession . But CEM  may be struggling to deliver  on these smart tests.   Becky Allen points out that a so-called ‘tutor-proof’ test ,offered by CEM and ‘introduced across Buckinghamshire (selective area) for 2014 admissions (they apparently have around 40% of the 11+ market) hasn’t really proved itself. ‘It claims to make selection fairer by testing a wider range of abilities that are already being taught in primary schools, rather than skills that can be mastered through home tutoring. Following the introduction of the test, Buckinghamshire – a local authority with very low FSM rates across its schools – saw the number of FSM pupils attending grammar schools fall in 2014 and 2015.’  So, not so smart then.

In short,  it would seem that  a test that ‘ sees past coaching’ has not yet  been developed. It may be a long wait .


The Eleven Plus exam determines whether or not a child gets into a grammar school. Critics claim this is an arbitrary age at which to test children on their abilities and potential and that the exam is unfair on disadvantaged pupils who tend not to have educated parents, who can help them, or access to private tutoring. There has long been a claim that the exam is cleverly designed to be tutor proof and is structured to identify ‘real’ potential and ‘intelligence’ . But, If you believe that intelligence is not fixed (Carol Dweck) and there are different types of intelligence (Howard Gardner) then you are not likely to rate this exam.
There is of course too, a cottage industry in private tutoring that exists precisely in order to get children into grammar schools . So this claim has always been open to challenge. In addition, at least 18% of successful grammar school applicants attended private primary school, most of which, offer bespoke support for grammar school applicants.
In addition, Becky Allen points out that a so-called ‘tutor-proof’ test ,offered by CEM (Durham) and ‘introduced across Buckinghamshire for 2014 admissions (they apparently have around 40% of the 11+ market) hasn’t really proved itself. ‘It claims to make selection fairer by testing a wider range of abilities that are already being taught in primary schools, rather than skills that can be mastered through home tutoring. Following the introduction of the test, Buckinghamshire – a local authority with very low FSM rates across its schools – saw the number of FSM pupils attending grammar schools fall in 2014 and 2015.’
Recent analysis from the IFS found that attending a grammar school is good for the attainment and later earnings of those who get in, but that pupils in areas with selective state education who do not pass the 11-plus entrance exam do worse than in areas without grammars.
Proposals in the Green paper suggest that Ministers have doubts about the 11 Plus too. It says that selective schools would have to admit children at different ages, such as at 14 as well as at 11 and 16, to cater for pupils who develop later academically.




Given the ‘derogations’ and funding agreements its not so straightforward


The DFE says ‘All academies and free schools must comply with the School Admissions Code. This ensures their admission arrangements are fair, clear and objective.’ ‘The purpose of the Code is to ensure that all school places for  maintained schools (excluding maintained special schools ) and Academies  are allocated and offered in an open and fair way.’ So far, so straightforward.

But, there are what are called ‘derogations’ from the Code. The Secretary of State  has Funding Agreements with individual academies (ie Funding Agreements are not all the same)

It is through the individual Funding Agreement that the Secretary of State has agreed different admissions arrangements for academies and free schools. The DFE likes to stress, though, that this happens only in limited circumstances, ‘where there is demonstrable evidence that it will benefit local children’.

In addition on opening, all free schools are permitted to allocate places outside of local authority co-ordination in their first year only; while all academy schools that have opened since 2012 can grant admissions priority to pupils eligible for the pupil and service premiums. The revised School Admissions Code currently before the Commons proposes extending this freedom to all state-funded schools.

So what does derogation mean in practice?  Well, for example, 46 free schools are able to give admissions priority to founders’ children.  But Founders’ status is granted ‘ only to those individuals who have played a material role in setting up the school and who continue to be involved in the running of the school.’ And, another example, Birmingham Ormiston Academy which became an academy in 2011 is permitted to select the majority of its intake by their aptitude for the performing arts . Why? Because it is operating as a regional centre for the performing arts. So in the DFEs words.. ‘ The derogation enables children to obtain a specialist education unavailable elsewhere’.

Admissions policy  is a bit of a minefield and one thing it is  not is straightforward.School  choice  rather too often can mean   that the school rather than the parent exercises choice.


Governments response to consultation  on Code




Look at the facilitating subjects-they do help


Its worth reminding ourselves, just occasionally, that Universities are independent and autonomous organisations and so are responsible for their own admissions decisions. The social mobility and access agendas, and the work of the access regulator OFFA can sometimes muddy the water on this issue.

It has been made clear by Russell Group universities (ie the self-appointed elite) that if you want to maximise your chances of admission to their universities they rate some qualifications as more rigorous and robust than others. The term  Facilitating subjects  is now often used when discussing admissions to HEIs.

Facilitating subjects are a group of subjects that the Russell group of universities identified in their Informed Choices publication that are usually considered to be helpful and/or required for particular courses at their universities. Informed Choices says that pupils need ‘ to have clear information about how the subjects that they choose to study in the sixth form or at college  can affect their options at university and their chances in life. That way, they can make well-informed decisions.’

Such openness and transparency by universities can, it is thought, help applicants and advisers understand the prior qualifications needed or preferred by applicants to specific courses.

Informed Choices says.. ‘some university courses may require you to have studied a specific subject prior to entry, others may  not. However, there are some subjects that are required more often than others. These subjects are sometimes referred to as facilitating subjects’.

Subjects that can be viewed as ‘facilitating’ subjects are:

• Mathematics and Further Mathematics

• English (Literature)

• Physics

• Biology

• Chemistry

• Geography

• History

• Languages (Classical and Modern)


Informed Choices -a Russell Group Guide to Making Decisions about Post 16 Education-  2012



Latest Sutton Trust report suggests best state schools are socially selective


Most Schools have control of their own admissions process, though they have to abide by a national admissions “code”. Significantly, selection on the basis of aptitude is permitted in certain circumstances. (see below) Guidance on this is set out in chapter 2 of the Schools Admissions Code.

Admission authorities for maintained schools must comply with the Code. Local authorities are the admission authorities for community and voluntary controlled schools, unless the function has been delegated to the school governing body. For foundation schools (including trust schools), voluntary-aided schools and academies, governing bodies are the admission authority.

Grammar schools, of course, all 164 of them, which are state schools, have long been able to select their pupils. Pupils must sit an 11 plus exam. Around 5% of all pupils in state secondary schools are currently educated  in grammar schools .

So what about selection by aptitude? There are two permitted forms of selection by aptitude. Under section 100 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, where the school used such selection in 1997-98 and has continued to use it since then without significant changes. And under section 102, where schools may select up to 10% of their intake on the basis of aptitude in their specialist area(s) provided that the admission arrangements do not involve any test of ability or any test designed to elicit the pupil’s aptitude for other subjects.

The designated subjects where specialist schools are able to select by aptitude are:

 physical education or sport, or one or more sports;

 the performing arts, or any one or more of those arts;

 the visual arts, or any one or more of those arts;

 modern foreign languages, or any such language;

 design and technology, and ICT (but only schools that already selected for those subjects before the 2008 school year may continue to do so).18

But, in  practice, very few specialist schools select pupils on the basis of aptitude for the specialism. And specialist schools are  for the most part not really specialist in a meaningful sense-just look at the qualifications their pupils take and the number of ‘specialist’ teachers they employ for their chosen  ‘specialism’.

There has long been a perception that best performing schools are involved in covert selection. The incentive to select pupils is clear. The brighter your pupils and the wealthier and better educated  their  parents ,the  higher  the school is likely to be  in  the league tables  .So there is a strong incentive for schools to engage in subtle forms of selection. This was highlighted recently by an investigation by the Academies commission led by Christine Gilbert, the former head of Ofsted. The commission said it had heard examples of some academies “willing to take a ‘low road’ approach to school improvement by manipulating admissions rather than by exercising strong leadership”. It said it had received numerous submissions suggesting that “academies are finding methods to select covertly”, such as holding social events for prospective parents or asking them to fill in lengthy forms when applying for a place.

“Such practices can enable schools to select pupils from more privileged families where parents have the requisite cultural capital to complete the [form] in ways that will increase their child’s chances,” the report said .

It warned  that as more schools  become academies, in charge of their own admissions, “there is a risk that admissions ‘game playing’ may be extended further”.

The Sutton Trust in its latest research report claims that   ‘England’s highest performing comprehensive schools and academies are significantly more socially selective than the average state school nationally and other schools in their own localities’. It continues ‘ The average rate of free school meal (FSM) eligibility and uptake at the top 500 comprehensives – all have more than 69% of pupils achieving five good GCSEs in 2012 – is just below half the national average figure, 7.6% compared to 16.5%, and 15.2% in their respective local authorities. There are nearly 3,000 comprehensive schools nationally. FSM is a measure of the overall social selectivity of a school.

95 per cent of the top 500 comprehensives have a smaller proportion of their pupils on free school meals than their local areas, including almost two thirds (64%) which are unrepresentative of their local authority area, with gaps of five or more percentage points.’

The report also shows that there is a big difference in the social background of pupils attending good schools that have converted to academy status (‘converter academies’) and those academies that have been established with sponsors to improve results (‘sponsored academies’). The 186 converter academies within the top 500 have significantly lower FSM intakes, averaging just 5.8%. Schools in the top 500 are also more likely to be faith schools or single sex schools than the national average.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, said: “Who gets admitted to these schools matters because they are the ones most likely to attend the best universities and most likely to succeed in the top professions. They open the door to social mobility. The schools in this study, by and large, are not using forms of overt selection. But they are exercising a form of social selection.

Lampl continued:“The bottom line is, how good a school you go to depends on your parents’ income. We have one of the most socially segregated school systems in the developed world, an outlier with only 4 out of 29 advanced countries having a worse record, according to the OECD last year.”

The solution, the Sutton Trust believes, lies in the use a system of ballots, particularly in urban areas, so a proportion of places would be  allocated randomly – or by applying  banding across the range of abilities to achieve a genuinely balanced intake.

Fair-banding admissions schemes are often seen as a way of breaking the middle-class dominance in the best-performing state secondaries since they are thought to prevent affluent parents from monopolising places by paying a premium to live in their catchment areas

Banding works in different ways    But ,typically ,11 year-olds, applying for school places, sit an IQ-based “attainment test” and are then divided into five to nine ability groups. The same number of children from each ability group are then given places at the school.(Dunraven school in Streatham  introduced this type of banding in the 1990s- It puts children in five different bands and gives priority to those children who are in care or in foster care. )

Policy makers believe in the right for parents to choose a school for their child and that this is an important principle informing policy. But,with one vital caveat. It must be made to work in a way that is transparent and fair for all families, not just the wealthy. This is where it can become problematic. Given the strong incentives for schools to select and the difficulty in policing admissions policies, and admissions by property price, some believe that there should be ballots .Others, including the IPPR, think that it might  be better for admissions to be administered by an impartial body such as a local school commissioner. This, the IPPR feels, would prevent accusations of unfair play, save  headteachers from endless rounds of appeals, and free schools up to focus on the core business of teaching and learning


The Sunday Times pointed out that only 5.7% of pupils at the London  (Catholic) Oratory in Fulham, where two of Tony Blair’s sons were  educated, and where Nick Clegg MP, the deputy PM, is sending his son,  are eligible for free school meals, a marker of low family income and of a school’s social mix. The average for England’s 3,000 state secondaries is- 16.5%.