The Government says , with respect to its recent Green Paper, ‘ Within our new proposals, we have been clear that we expect selective schools to support non-selective schools, looking to them to be engines of academic and social achievement for all pupils, whatever their background, wherever they are from and whatever their ability’ So the clear presumption is that selective Schools have better teachers and teaching than non-selective schools.. but where is the evidence? The fact that selective schools perform better could be entirely due , or due at least in significant part, to the quality of their intakes, surely? You would have to demonstrate that selective schools add more value to their pupils than non-selective schools across the board to justify such a claim. In which case, where is the data that shows us that this is the case?
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
Possibly but will they help the social mobility agenda?
The appointment of Justine Greening, along with the appointment of Nick Timothy as Theresa Mays chief of staff ( he has backed new selective schools in the past) has increased speculation that Theresa May will allow significant expansion in grammar schools. (Selective state schools).
Asked by Andrew Marr over the weekend if she was “completely closed-minded” to the idea (of new grammar schools) , Ms Greening said : “I think that the education debate on grammar schools has been going for a very long time, but I also recognise that the landscape in which it takes place has changed fundamentally. I think we need to be able to move this debate on and look at things as they are today, and maybe step away from a more old-fashioned debate around grammar schools and work out where they fit in today’s landscape.” That doesn’t amount to a commitment to expand grammars ,but it clearly implies that expansion is not ruled out. The new landscape she talks about is the variety of different types of schools.
Currently there is a general prohibition against academic selection in (most) state schools .And a 1998 Law prevents the establishment of any new Grammar schools. However, existing Grammar schools can expand, providing that any expansion onto a new site is a change to an existing school and not a new school. Which is why the anti-grammar school lobby were very animated about developments in Sevenoaks, Kent, where an existing Grammar school sought to open a satellite, some distance away.
Yes, they know that the law doesn’t allow for the expansion of grammar schools, and for this to happen there needs to be new legislation-which will need a majority in Parliament. (The Tories only have a slender majority) But they suspect that the pro-grammar lobby will seek to use the satellite route to expand the programme elsewhere with political cover from the government .
Grammar schools, secondary modern schools and technical schools formed what was known as the tripartite system, which arose from the interpretation of the Education Act 1944 .Grammar schools provided admission to children on the basis of their ability and offered an academic education. Selection was usually made at the end of primary school in the form of the ‘11 plus’ examination. Secondary moderns provided a more general education with an emphasis on more practical subjects. Technical schools provided a more general education but with a focus on technical subjects.
There are currently 163 grammar schools in England with a total number of 163,000 pupils. This comprises around 5% of the total number of pupils in England. Ten local authorities are classified by the Department for Education as having a wholly selective system and a further 26 have at least one grammar school in their area. The majority are concentrated in Kent (32), Lincolnshire (15) and Buckinghamshire (13).
Not all Tories, by any means, support selection, or the expansion of Grammar schools. But it is significant that two influential Tories, Graham Brady ,who chairs the influential 1922 committee, and Boris Johnson, now Foreign Secretary have long made the case for more Grammars. Theresa May was also relaxed about the idea of a local grammar school expanding , creating a new and very distant annexe. Around 100 Tory MPs are thought to support expansion.
Opponents of Grammar schools are against selection in the state system. They believe that they may offer social mobility to a few, but its only the few. They may be fine institutions for those fortunate enough to attend them. But the real problem is the provision for those who fail to gain a place. And a majority of pupils who enter fail the selection exam. Selective schools tend to cream skim the best pupils, making it harder for those who remain behind
What about the selection process?. Although the 11 plus exam is supposed to measure potential, there are plenty of private tutors who boast that they can get just about anyone to pass the 11 plus providing they put in or ‘invest’ the extra hours (and their parents pay for it). So this means, in practice, that middle class parents, with a decent income, are more likely to get their child into a grammar school than parents from a disadvantaged community. Hence the charge that Grammars are colonized by the middle classes.
If you can tutor for the exam, it rather suggests that it is not simply about measuring potential. And there appears to be no reliable evidence to suggest, in any case ,that 11 is the best age to measure a child’s potential. Children develop educationally at different paces.
But one of the most compelling arguments against grammar schools is that successive governments have seen the holy grail of education in improving the lot of the most disadvantaged pupils and narrowing the achievement gap between them and their peers. So this should be the benchmark against which Grammars are measured. Disadvantaged pupils are broadly those defined as eligible for free school meals. But in 2014, the proportion of grammar school pupils eligible for free school meals was 2.7% but 15.7% across all types of schools.
Remember that Education Minister Lord Nash, served a warning to grammar schools, as recently as July 2014 ,when he stated:
“The Government is committed to closing the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers. Grammar schools and the highest performing non-selective schools currently have some of the lowest representations of children eligible for free school meals in England. We want to encourage all high performing schools, including grammar schools to do more to attract and support disadvantaged children.”
When Chris Cook, a former Tory ministerial adviser (now with the BBC), was the FTs education correspondent he did some number crunching to find out how poor children fared in areas that had selective education. His verdict was unequivocal -poor children do dramatically worse in selective areas. He wrote on 28 January 2013 ‘If you plot how well children do on average by household deprivation for selective areas and for the rest of the country, you can see that the net effect of grammar schools is to disadvantage poor children and help the rich.’
Research seems to point to Grammar schools contributing to rather than easing social inequality and leading to a widening of the income gap between rich and poor. A 2013 study by academics from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the University of Cambridge and York University found that more than four times as many of the 22,000 Year Seven entrants into grammar schools each year were likely to come from private schools, compared with those on free school meals.
Laura McInerney, editor of Schools Week , reminded us this week that in 2013 in Kent and Medway, the largest selective area, children living in the poorest parts of the county had a less than 10% chance of getting into a grammar. Children in the richest neighbourhoods had a 50% chance.
Ryan Shorthouse, Director of Bright Blue (a Conservative oriented think tank) says ‘The evidence shows that grammar schools are not engines of social mobility. Fewer than 3 per cent of entrants into grammar schools in selective regions in England are eligible for free school meals – a proxy for poverty – despite these children making up 18 per cent of all the population in those regions’
In 2014 Professor Simon Burgess from the University of Bristol, said:“Selective schooling systems sort pupils based on their ability, and schools with high-ability pupils are more likely to attract and retain high-quality teaching staff. This puts pupils who miss out on a grammar school place at an immediate disadvantage. In addition they will be part of lower-ability peer groups, which also affects their chances of succeeding at school,” His research also revealed that grammar schools pupils have greater earning power when they left school compared to those in non-selective schools.
So, if this is the case, are Ministers really going to agree that the expansion of Grammar schools is the best way to further social mobility and narrow the achievement gap?
That doesn’t mean that some satellites won’t be approved. Nor does it mean that Grammar schools that exist are not safe. They clearly are under this administration. But one has to wonder whether its good politics to open a new front in education reform while a raft of new reforms are still bedding in, with increased academisation, curriculum reforms, and a new accountability framework . Is it wise to yet again focus on structural changes, which will be heavily contested by most in the education establishment, including all the teaching unions? Surely its better and more productive to make sure the current on-going reforms work, and there is more of a focus on system- wide leadership and raising the quality of teachers and teaching, as these are the variables that have most impact on student outcomes. ? If Grammars are the answer one has to wonder –what is the question? If the question is how best do we improve equity and social mobility in the system and narrow the achievement gap between the most disadvantaged and mainstream pupils then there is no evidence that grammars can do this. And , remember, Greening was educated in a comprehensive school and sees social mobility as a priority.