So, the end of a ban on new grammar schools is under serious consideration. Crucially, this is significantly different to thinking of a full scale ‘return of grammar schools’ or introducing any more county-wide selection systems. Nevertheless, if the question is ‘should we have more grammar schools?’ the short answer has to be a firm NO – in my view:
a) However good an individual new or existing grammar school might be, we can’t justify them as a means to improve the education system as a whole; certainly not in terms of social mobility claims. (See Chris Cook on this.) Grammar schools are explicitly an elite opt-out route, not a solution to the challenge of raising standards overall.
b) A PM and/or Secretary of State who pursues the grammar school policy would essentially be signalling that they don’t really have faith in comprehensive state education or in the ideas of community or social cohesion; they would be saying ‘parents need more opportunities to opt out of a system that isn’t good enough for them‘; that’s an unacceptable position to take for the people charged with improving that system.
But it’s not simple. And it’s especially complicated by the (widely held?) view that it’s a mistake to close successful schools. It’s more or less politically off-limits to close the remaining grammar schools, even if we don’t want any more. My view on this is that we need a much wider debate about selection and a more honest appraisal of the reasons teachers and parents choose to opt out of the process that, ideally, we should all be engaged in: building an excellent national system of secular community comprehensive schools.
It’s instructive to read two Sutton Trust reports on the social selectivity of schools:
In 2010, the World’s Apart report, showed that of the top 100 most socially selective schools in England, 91 were comprehensives; only 8 were grammars; 11 of the 91 were faith schools. The most socially selective grammar is about 30th in the rankings behind a list of comprehensives.
In 2013, the Top Comprehensives report showed that social selection is a major feature of the top 500 comprehensives even where there is no explicit selection process. Faith schools are over-represented in the top 500 but these schools have much lower rates of students on FSM than the national average. Only 26 of the top 500 take more students on FSM than the local average.
I think these reports help to put the grammar school issue in a wider context. They are just one part of a bigger issue.
In the school-choice marketplace, a central challenge to mainstream comprehensives is that the onus is on us to demonstrate that we can match the opportunities that overtly selective schools provide; we need to project confidence and level up, not fall into a trap of suggesting that it’s all unfair; that some schools are too good; that we can’t compete. As I say in this post about bridging the disadvantage chasm, a key priority has to be to ensure the most advantaged students in our schools are getting what they need: a strong learning ethos; excellent behaviour; a strongly academic curriculum, lots of extracurricular opportunities and so on. But, of course, the truth is that when you have lower resource levels and/or genuinely open admissions, this is easier said than done.
Where parents have a lack of confidence that their children will get these things, they’re more likely to look for alternatives. There are several opt-out routes if you don’t think the local comp is good enough, where you fear your child may be in a minority of any kind or, more reasonably, if you don’t live close enough to be sure of a place at the comprehensive school of your choice. (School choice uncertainty is super stressful and there’s a horrible paradox to contend with: if the local comp is too good, the catchment shrinks and you can find you don’t live close enough; if the school is a little less popular, the catchment area expands – but perhaps not for reasons you really want!)
Here are the opt-out options:
- Have enough money to pay fees
- Have enough money to buy a house or rent temporary accommodation in the right area
- Demonstrate belief in the right faith
- Support your kids to prepare for an entrance exam and hope they do better than enough other people’s kids.
Some would have us believe that the last of these opt-out routes is less fair than the others – but is it really? Let’s take a look.
Wealth selection: Independent schools
It is extraordinarily deeply embedded in our cap-doffing socially stratified culture that the most affluent people can and will seek to educate their children away from everyone else. Lots of great people work in independent schools but no one who does so is going to claim they are doing their bit for social justice; they’re giving those that have the most advantages even more advantages and presumably have a personal rationale for that – as well as perhaps feeling a bit guilty about it. (It’s a relatively easy life and rewarding to teach students who are generally high functioning and engaged, free from government interference and the pressures of the accountability system?)
Obviously there is a range of excellent as well as mediocre independent schools but whatever the actual quality, fees will pay for smaller classes, lots of enrichment opportunities and good facilities – as well as the crucial bit: guaranteeing the presence of ‘people like us’ and the absence of the ‘other (underprivileged) children’. You only have to look at the ethnic profile of the students walking to our neighbouring Indy school to see that. It’s the kind of explicit elitism that is enshrined in our institutions and accepted as an inherent characteristic of British life even though, as John Tomsett expresses clearly in this post, independent schools do more harm than good. Way more!
Obviously, since we’re nowhere near staging a revolution, this isn’t going to change. People can do what they like with their money – right? But still, let’s not focus on grammar schools without at least reminding ourselves of the far bigger influence of the state-independent divide. It is still news when a government minister went to a state school or sends their children to one. In that context, (where those in power would believe there is ‘no question’ that independent schools provide a superior education to a comprehensive) it makes it possible for some to argue that grammar schools are the best we can offer within the state sector for those who can’t afford school fees.
I’m a card-carrying atheist but I do recognise that for lots of religious people it’s uncontroversial that a school’s ethos should explicitly align with their faith perspective. However – even setting aside my objection to state funded educational structures being determined by faith (essentially God delusions of some kind) – the tendency for faith schools to be socially selective relative to their geographical communities can’t be ignored (-with exceptions, obviously). It’s odd to me when some faith school leaders attack selective schools when they are actually running one themselves. This is often denied – possibly because it rather spoils the whole mission thing ( as if secular schools don’t also have values, a mission… don’t get me started on that tack…). I think we really have our heads in the sand on this issue; it’s too painful so we don’t go there. But, in the context of the grammar school debate, we should. Any school that sets up a filter is being selective; it might be more subtle in some areas but the Sutton Trust reports show the effect this has.
House Price Selection
There are lots of great comprehensive schools that do offer an excellent academic curriculum and all anyone could want from a school – as well as the opportunity for children from different sections of the community to learn from each other. However, the spread of the best schools is uneven and there are numerous towns and regions of cities where school choice, reputation, catchment radius and house price are inextricably linked. Some people have far greater power in this market than others; across the country it’s literally the case that the better school options are located in the more expensive housing areas.
Is this fair? More fair than selective tests? It’s almost certainly cheaper to hire a private tutor for a bit of 11+ coaching than pay the stamp duty and estate agent fees required to move into the catchment area of your choice. In the ideal world, everyone would be happy to send their child to the local school; in the real world, some schools are more popular than others and not all choices have equal value. If you are arguing against academic selection, are you not actually arguing in favour of house price selection? Lots of people struggle with that question when I’ve asked.
Ethos selection – the ‘take it or leave it’ brigade.
‘Take it or leave it’ might sound reasonable as part of the rhetoric of setting high standards. But it doesn’t work if all schools take this stance; it only works as an opt-out position. There’s no fairness if some schools have to back-stop the system while others set themselves apart. Imagine if every school took that stance – we’d have our most challenged, disadvantaged students roaming the streets. The rhetoric communicated by some schools fuels the social selection that the Sutton Trust highlights. These ‘back door’ selection processes are real. They apply enough of a filter to deter parents with the wrong kind of children.
Aptitude selection: Grammar schools
There is no evidence that grammars support social mobility in general; not beyond a few anecdotal case studies and endless references to the illusory golden era of the 40s/50s/60s. (Back when only 10% went to university). The problem of low numbers of students on FSM passing 11+ selection exams has actually been an issue amongst Grammar School Heads Association members for some time – even though the correlation between attainment and socio-economic advantage isn’t something grammars create; that’s happening all along throughout the primary years. Arguably grammars are no more socially selective than the ‘top tables’ that exist across the nation’s Y6 classrooms. Let’s not pretend we have a utopian equitable system at KS2 and then grammars come along and create social inequality. The divergence happens way before anyone takes the 11+. Do we discuss this enough?
The remaining Grammars exist for historical reasons and, since they do, it’s reasonable for any parent to consider them as an option for their child. People in the grammar school world would argue that there is a case for offering specialist provision for the highest attaining students in the state sector. Why should it only be independent schools that can offer the kind of ethos and curriculum that grammars can, in a peer environment that is fully focused on academic learning? I’m certain that if you closed KEGS, the state sector would be losing a genuine asset to the system. It’s a special kind of school.
However, a key question is the ratio of selective to non-selective school places; the degree of creaming in an area. A few super selective schools dotted around the country is a very different model to structural county-wide section or seeking to limit selection to a specific area. The catchment for KEGS was 25 miles across and allowed 20% of students to apply from beyond that circle; it didn’t create a secondary modern next door. It would be very difficult to open any new grammars that did not have a direct impact on other schools, creating the secondary modern that nobody wants. It’s also hard to balance selection with community obligations; KEGS was so selective that it played no part at all in the wider safety net provision for the area. The argument was that unless students met the right academic standards, they’d flounder. What we should have said was – we’re in a supremely strong position, let’s do our bit and open up some places to support a cohort of less advantaged students regardless of ability.
Even if we accept that existing selective schools of all kinds will remain, arguments against creating more are overwhelming. It’s a backward step. Instead of looking for ever more ways for parents to opt out of the system, every ounce of effort should go into developing excellent comprehensives meeting the needs of all students and a system of fair admissions. You can’t argue against academic selection unless you are proposing something else. In my estimation, most opponents of grammars seem overly content with the status quo of house price selection and a bit of faith selection. But there are other models:
- Lottery? Ballot selection is the method favoured by the Sutton Trust. Logically I understand this but as a parent I don’t like removal of choice. It would be a very radical and hard-to-sell shift for people to accept that their children have to go to a school picked out of a hat; we tend to want more control over our lives.
- Banding? This can work and could be used more widely – but banding based on what? The nature of the assessment is open to debate. It’s a complex bit of engineering to achieve fair banding across a region and there is the problem of the perverse outcome of some children doing too well on a test to gain entry to the school they’d prefer.
- Partial selection? What if all state schools (not just academies and free schools!) could have 10% or 25% selection? It’s got to be worth modelling at least. This would generate a lot more fluidity and, just possibly, more mobility around the high house-price areas. The criteria could be based on aptitude testing or faith but limited to ensure every school retains a healthy intake mix.
Above all, whatever happens, it surely has to be beyond question that all schools (literally ALL) should contribute to safety net arrangements – providing for excluded students and high needs students through a local place allocation mechanism. Perhaps in inverse proportion to their outcomes? Now, that would be something! We certainly can’t move forward with new schools operating as islands aloof from the wider system; not if we’re really serious about equity and social justice.
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