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


One reason why Theresa May seems now to be focusing more on those’ hard working families just about managing’ rather than on the most disadvantaged cohort, as refllected in her speech to Conference and the recent Education Green Paper,  is for sound political reasons, in that they are the voters disillusioned with establishment politicians, who feel they are not being listened to, are on stagnant incomes  and who voted in huge numbers for Brexit . She  wants to attract them back into the fold, with what she sees as more ‘inclusive’ policies.  Another reason could be that despite successive governments best efforts and attempts to intervene to help the most disadvantaged and to close the attainment gap between them and their mainstream peers , only  glacial progress is being made in this area. Could it be that the government has all but given up on narrowing the achievement gap between pupils on Free school meals and mainstream pupils ? As Sir Michael Wilshaw pointed out recently the attainment gap between FSM and non-FSM secondary students hasn’t budged in a decade. It was 28 percentage points 10 years ago and it is still 28 percentage points today. Thousands of poor children who are in the top 10% nationally at age 11 do not make it into the top 25% five years later. He added that the fact that a quarter of a million youngsters leave school after 13 years of formal education without a GCSE in English and Maths is a national disgrace.
One interesting issue raised ,and question put, in the recent Green paper, was how to identify and target these hard working families who don’t quite qualify for FSM. The short answer is that ,at the moment it  is difficult and it seems pretty widely accepted that the FSM measure is too clunky and indiscriminate to be an accurate indicator  for the most disdavantaged, and isnt much use for the group that  May seeks to target, . Neither The Pupil data base nor the standard returns made by schools give the granular details necessary. However work is being done behind the scenes with HMRC and other agencies to improve the metrics and data to enable more forensic targeting. So watch this space.


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 .



What about evidence informed policy?

Ryan Shorthouse, who heads the  Tory think tank   ‘Bright Blue’ thinks that expanding grammar schools would be a big mistake putting politics(or ideology) before evidence.  Sam Freedman, formerly an adviser to Michael Gove,  with a research pedigree, now working for Teach First, says  that there is not a jot of evidence that Grammar schools CAN   improve social mobility, which seems to be the main justification for the possible   move, in Tory ranks at least.

Freedmans concerns are broader though.  Having worked in DFE he understands the amount of political capital, time and resource,  that will  have to be  used up  to seek to push expansion through, and  with no guarantee of success. Meanwhile other reforms that have more potential impact on pupil outcomes may be put on the back burner and not be given  crucial attention and traction..

Tory Neil Carmichael,  Chair of the influential Education Select Committee, has also  just pitched in to the debate,  warning that efforts to re-establish grammar schools would be a “distraction” from improving the quality of education for all.  He said “What we need to be doing is ensuring that schools that are not doing terribly well improve, and grammar schools are a distraction to that central purpose. One of the messages from the Brexit vote was that we are leaving too many people behind. Grammar schools may help some people but they also leave more people behind.”

Research  by Anna  Vignoles and others  for the Sutton Trust  in 2013  found that less than 3% of entrants to grammar schools are entitled to free school meals –  an important indicator of social deprivation .The average proportion of pupils entitled to free school meals in selective areas is 18%, and its higher on average in other areas where grammar schools are located.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies  research found:

‘Our key conclusion is that there is a substantial difference in the likelihood of a child who is eligible for free school meals enrolling in a grammar school as compared with a similar child who is not eligible for FSM. This remains true even if we allow for the fact that FSM children have lower levels of prior attainment. In other words, amongst high achievers, those who are eligible for FSM or who live in poorer neighbourhoods are significantly less likely to go to a grammar school. For example, in selective local authorities, two-thirds of children who achieve level 5 in both English and maths at Key Stage 2 who are not eligible for free school meals go to a grammar school, compared with 40% of similarly high-achieving children who are eligible for free school meals. This is a substantial gap.’

Research from CMPO at  Bristol University (April 2006) found ‘the substantive under representation of poorer and special needs children in grammar schools. ‘  It also found  that  ‘only 32% of high ability children eligible for free school meals (FSM) attend grammar schools compared with 60% of non-FSM pupils’.

If social mobility and improving the outcomes of the most disadvantaged pupils are the reason for refocusing on grammar schools (and therefore further structural reforms) the evidence really  isn’t there to back it.

Some Grammar schools have also been challenged on the amount of value added they offer, given  the quality of their intakes. In other words some of their pupils should be making more progress and achieve  better end qualifications than they do, given their performance when they enter the school. In the vernacular of Ministers  some Grammars, rather too many,  are “coasting”

Under a 1998 law, the number of selective state schools is fixed and any other new or existing state schools cannot use academic criteria for admission. But existing grammar schools are allowed to expand.

To allow brand new Grammars to start up would require Primary legislation. Given that some Tories, the Labour party and Lib Dems oppose Grammar expansion, the arithmetic is against getting such legislation through the Commons . And that’s without  factoring in the Lords where there will be a majority against new grammar schools (Labour,Lib Dem Peers many cross benchers and some Tories  would oppose) guaranteeing  significant delays   .Which leaves the  expansion option. Existing grammars expanding on their existing site, or into an annexe possibly  in a different  location  (but still part of the same school). This might work, but would carry big  risks and take time . And couldnt be done quickly at scale. And this is a government with a slender majority, aiming to be more inclusive and with much on its plate.  Its probably better to stick with evidence informed policy.

One  other  legislative option though, which is possible, given that a stand alone  Bill focused on enabling new Grammars wont get through Parliament, is to  insert a permissive  clause into the up coming Education for All Bill,  and then  whip Tory backbenchers into line.  Certainly possible, but also risky .

It is hard to see how Ministers would be prepared to launch such a high risk strategy with few ,if any ,  political  or educational returns.   But we live in strange political times in which its unsafe to make many or indeed   any predictions.  But, then again, maybe there is some kite flying going on here , to test reactions? If so, the message is  surely pretty  clear.  Its High risk , with very  limited returns.  Its probably better to make sure current reforms can bed in,  and to   address  the system wide  shortage of high quality leaders, and to focus more on raising the quality of teachers and teaching, key performance  drivers.

Entry into Grammar Schools in England- Jonathan Cribb, Institute for Fiscal Studies; Luke Sibieta, Institute for Fiscal Studies,

Anna Vignoles, University of Cambridge







Whats pressing on her agenda ?
Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary ,has attracted headlines over her apparently relaxed attitude to Grammar school expansion. But arguably she has  other more pressing priority  issues to address. Here are some:

Schools funding shortfalls. School budgets are stretched. Income is down on average around 7% so Heads and governors are having to make significant adjustments. Some may be tempted to use the Pupil Premium to make up the shortfall, as there is no obligation to ring fence the PP.
National Funding Formula– there are funding inequities in the system and these need to be addressed but there are on-going delays because its not easy . And there are political sensitivities ie there will be both winners and losers.
Teacher recruitment and retention crisis. – Around 40% of teachers who begin their initial training are not in a state school job five years later. That means of 35,000 or so individuals training to become teachers each year some 14,000 are not teaching five years later. And only about 40% of Teach First graduates are still in teaching five years on. Its costly training teachers and this all looks wasteful. There is a shortage in Stem specialist Teachers . Remember the government says ‘ High-quality teachers are the single most important factor determining how well pupils achieve in schools.’
Leadership crisis – there is a shortage of high quality Heads particularly in disadvantaged areas. How do you transform schools in deprived areas, if you are short of leaders? The National College is not really set up to deliver a pipeline of good heads, so what is the short term solution? Many Heads are close to retirement. Its estimated that maybe as much 40%  are due to retire or move out within 18 months.
The ITT system in a bit of a mess as there is now a mismatch between demand and supply. Although Primary places are pretty full, the same cant be said for Secondary.

School Places An additional 750, 000 school places are required by 2025. There is a significant shortage of Primary places across the system, but critical in some areas. Recent projections by the Local Government Association suggest that the population bulge that has hit schools at the Primary level is having a knock on effect  now at the Secondary level
An incoherent assessment and accountability system– which lacks easy  comparability with the past – how long will it take before we know if the system is improving?  Try giving a brief verbal overview of the new accountability framework and you will see that its complex and therefore not easily understood by key stakeholders (ie parents)
An incoherent system of school governance – the transition from an LA-based system to a school-led system is struggling . There is a shortage of good governors with the right skills particularly where there is most need (ie deprived areas). And the government has signalled that it wants more skills  based governance to  drive  improvements. But where exactly will these new governors come from, and where are the incentives?
Autonomy/Accountability-There is confusion over the implications for the system of autonomy and accountability and getting the balance right. . Increased regulation is creating a new bureaucracy (DFE,RSCs and Ofsted) perhaps stifling innovation, and reducing autonomy. So making it more challenging surely to deliver improved outcomes?
Academisation programme- a shortage of funding, sponsors and unrealistic time frame suggests a need for a re-think on the programme (New Bill?) Too many MATs are still underperforming. The rate of free school starts appears to be slowing and academy sponsors appear put off by mixed messages from the government and its agencies about expansion and the lack of incentive to do so. In addition there has been a signal lack of transparency in the process of approving schools. It is unclear-  its a secret garden, in which people are making important decisions according to criteria that are opaque . Indeed no one seems to know the ultimate criteria for deciding on competing proposals for different types of schools
The Free Schools Programme– The government is committed to 500 Free schools in this Parliament .But there is some evidence that local authorities are doing their utmost to stifle the growth of new Free schools ie through planning permission etc. But local authorities are very aware of the demand for new places. There may be a case for developing two separate programmes: a basic need new schools programme, on which the school commissioner’s office and the Education Funding Agency would work closely with local authorities to identify the local need and find a suitable provider to meet it; and on the other hand a free schools programme, through which the DfE would allow new schools to open in areas or poor provision or where parents have very little choice
The new Careers Strategy has been delayed-both Ministers (Gyimah, Boles)who had responsibility for adult guidance and schools guidance, are gone. Will a new strategy be ready by the end of year? It seems that Robert Halfon has taken over the mantle.  But does he get that good Careers guidance is not just about getting more employers into schools?  Gyimah and Boles didnt.
New Skills Strategy and establishment of Institute of Apprenticeships, needs the setting  of clear milestones. Taking forward the Sainsbury panel recommendations, streamlining the system and creating a common framework of 15 routes across all technical education. The routes will group occupations together to reflect where there are shared training requirements. Rather than the current crowded landscape of overlapping qualifications, the aim is to ensure that only high-quality technical qualifications which match employer-set standards are approved. The new, employer-led Institute for Apprenticeships will regulate quality across apprenticeships and its remit will be expanded to cover all technical education
HE Bill-Overseeing significant reform of HE-  the Higher Education and Research Bill through Parliament (Second Reading -19 July). At least the new SOS will have a  very capable Jo Johnson to help  guide this through.


Is the government trying to sideline parent governors-in favour of professionals?
School governors give an enormous amount to the education system in England, yet their contribution is largely hidden from public view. Their work for the most part is undertaken for no tangible reward. There are around  300,000 or so school governors in England . The Government understands the importance of school governance and governors and sees school governing bodies as one of the levers  to drive  system wide education reform. Because of the importance Ministers attach to governors and governance, they see the need for more high quality ‘professional’ governors serving on governing bodies. They also want to preserve some parent involvement although there have been claims that they want governing bodies to become wholly professional, run almost like businesses at the expense of this parent involvement .

The role of parents in school governance has been  seen as important by many for some time
Back in 1984 Sir Keith Joseph said:
“We mean to give parents an increased role within it. Parents, too, are partners in education. They bring to this task unique responsibilities, a close knowledge of the children and a personal dedication to the full development of their qualities and talents.”—
[Official Report, 25 May 1984; Vol. 60, c. 1381.]

The National Governors Association say about parent governors:
“Elected parents are an important part of sound governance… They have knowledge that others governing from outside the school do not have and through election, they ensure that boards do not become small groups of like-minded people who appoint their friends, colleagues and in some cases even relations. Those disposed to governance by clique must not have that option.”

But critics say the government is side-lining parent governors.

The charge is that a new amendment to a regulation -School Governance (Constitution and Federations) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2016 (S.I. 2016, No. 204)-strengthens the professional voice on governing bodies but at the expense of the parent voice. The amendment actually provides that the governing body of every Federation of two or more maintained schools includes two parent governors. Currently, the parents in each school in a federation can elect one parent governor. In a federation of five schools, for example, there will be five parent governors. Labour argues that to limit the number to just two elected parents seems unnecessarily prescriptive. The government argues that the amendment simply brings Federations in line with other state schools. Academy trusts, however many schools they contain, have never been required to have more than two parents on the board. That allows governing bodies to remain at a workable size, enabling them to make sound and strategic decisions for their group of schools. Nick Gibb MP, the Minister, points out that the Department’s advisory group on governance, which includes all organisations with a key interest, including the National Governors Association support the measure.

In a debate on the Amendment on 14 June 2016 he said that the amendment to the School Governance (Federations)(England) Regulations 2012:

“was requested by the National Governors Association and the Churches. It was prompted by concerns that requiring the governing body of a federation of multiple maintained schools to have a parent governor from every school may result in a membership that is larger than they need or want. That can be a particular issue in larger federations or those that involve voluntary aided schools, where they need to maintain a majority of two foundation governors over all the other categories of governor.”

He added
“The amendment reinforces the principle that…, a parent governor’s role, like that of every other category of governor, is to govern in the interests of all the children in federated schools, not just in the interests of the pupils from their child’s school. In reducing the number of parent governors to two, federations have the freedom to retain or recruit any particularly skilled and effective individuals, for example, by appointing them under a different category of co-opted governor. There is nothing to stop a federation or a foundation asking parents to be a foundation governor of a foundation school, or indeed to fit in to any of the other categories of governor that make up the governing body, to a minimum of seven.”

So this seems to shed a rather different light on the government’s intentions.

 It is worth noting  though ,in this respect ,  that Regional Schools Commissioners  have an obligation to check that the trustees of a MAT have the necessary skills and expertise before the funding agreement of an academy or free school joining the MAT is signed


Sir Michael Wishaw said at a Sutton Trust conference recently   that independent schools should lose charitable status if they did not sponsor an academy. A bit harsh.

Having upset the FE sector, then heads of  Multi Academy Trusts  and now the independent sector one wonders who might be next in Sir Michaels cross hairs, as he heads towards the end of his term as chief inspector.

Most independent schools, of course, are modest in size and intake with few assets, so one assumes that Wilshaw is talking about the big ones with large endowment funds and big intakes. . If so, he should have made this a little clearer.

Of course its not up to  Wilshaw, nor indeed Alan Milburn ,who is now the social mobility guru,  to tell schools what they should be doing. Milburn is on record as saying he wants independent schools to lose their charitable status, so is hardly a disinterested adviser.   Its up to governors/trustees  of course  to decide how  they spend their money to fulfill their  charity purposes and deliver public benefit. Sponsoring an academy is a complex challenge which needs great expertise and resources that few independent schools actually  have. They normally  have to deal with largely compliant pupils who want to learn  ,with supportive parents,  sadly , unlike rather too many state schools.  State school teachers often  have to wrestle with daily challenges that would place many independent school teachers well out of their comfort zones.

There are significant reputational risks involved  with supporting an academy . So,  Heads and governors need to give serious consideration to these before making a decision on academy sponsorship.

Under Sir Anthony Seldon, Wellington College took on an academy near Tidworth. Sir Anthony did more than any other Head to persuade independent schools to support academies and to bridge the unacceptable divide between the independent and maintained sectors.  In this he had an ally in the form of Lord Adonis. Wellington College remains committed long term to its academy. But it hasn’t been easy.  Although the school now has a ‘Good’  Ofsted rating   it  has found the project challenging- starting strongly, dipping, then continuing on an improving trend (although exam results fail to capture the real transformation underway in the Wellington academy with the support of the mother school).  Dulwich College is another school to take on an academy but gave up, and with brutal candour admitted that  it was  not very good at it,despite being one of the top performers in the independent sector.

Eton College  sponsors Holyport College, a free school which opened  in 2014. Eton gave the new school money for an all-weather sports pitch, new furniture for its boarding houses, cast-off music technology equipment, a piano and a minibus — as well as providing   specialist teacher support. Bradfield College, sponsors nearby Theale Green School ‘ helping with  its  improvement plan. Yet results to date have been far from encouraging. Last year Ofsted inspectors judged Theale Green, ‘requiring improvement’.The London Academy of Excellence, though  a Stratford-based sixth-form college which is sponsored by a host of private schools including Eton, Brighton and Highgate, encouragingly , recently announced that eight of its pupils had been offered places at Oxbridge

If schools are to become more involved given the trajectory of government policy they would probably have to be part of a multi academy trust now which brings its own  particular challenges, for a singleton independent.

The fact is that schools that have charity status can satisfy the public benefit criteria in different ways.  Its not just about academy support, or indeed bursaries.

Around 97 per cent of all independent schools do engage in partnerships and many independent schools are engaged in major long-term projects to raise aspirations in their local community. It is clear to most in both sectors that collaboration between the state sector and the independent sector can have major mutual benefits and independent schools can be forces for good in terms of social mobility.

There are many  ways in which effective collaboration can take place. Some of the strongest and biggest schools have, of course singly or in partnership with others, sponsored academies. Many schools continue to grow their provision of means-tested Assisted Places. Almost all schools can do something in terms of partnership which can enrich the experience and raise the aspirations of pupils. There are facility shares, teacher swaps, help from specialist teachers, shared professional development, sports fixtures  art, music , joint theatre projects, joint research , masterclasses, Sunday schools,   shared cadet forces, holiday clubs, holiday revision  and so on.  There are now many flourishing independent state school partnerships, which are all well established and very successful, each offering a myriad of opportunities and benefits to all the schools concerned. The Department for Education is sufficiently  impressed with the effectiveness of these partnerships and it has committed £176,000 to nurturing new projects, awarding seed money to 18 schools to encourage them to set up new ways of working with local schools.

A big question remains though. If the most successful multi-academy trusts are very careful now about what schools they take on because of the reputational risks involved ,and they are experienced at running state schools,  one has to ask how many more private schools will want to risk their reputations by being associated with a state academy with less than outstanding exam results?   There are  clearly merits in  supporting academies and frankly it’s a much better option than awarding a few bursaries ,with much  less  return,  and with fewer beneficiaries   but there is as yet little evidence that the independent sector has grasped this baton and is  running  with it.  My guess is that with accelerated academisation there will be more academy support from the independent sector, but not much more.

Meanwhile, the sector will  continue to be attacked  from various quarters because it is seen as  a soft target. at a time when the politicians are wrestling, fairly ineffectively it has to be said ,  with promoting equity ,social justice and social mobility. Improvements in this area need a cross cutting  collaborative  strategy involving schools, FE colleges, Universities,  the third sector, employers,   the professions, careers advisers, parents et al.   One thing is for sure, displacement attacks on the private sector will not make this complex agenda any more easy to  deliver.