Monday, 11 June 2012

More grammar schools please, but open them up

There can be few issues that polarise so violently or predictably, with England’s poor record on social mobility causing them to make headlines once again. Almost universally condemned by the left, and splitting the right. One could argue that the anger directed at grammar schools is completely out of kilter with their number: only 164 of them remain in England, versus the almost 3,500 state secondary schools, which includes comprehensives and academies.

The rationale behind its opponents states that its policy of selection by academic ability hands grammar schools an unfair advantage. The brightest pupils are creamed off, leaving their peers to go to their (not nearly as good) local comp, labelled failures at 11. It doesn’t aid social mobility, contrary to conventional wisdom, and helps very few children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and so on.

Some of these arguments I accept, many borne out in a number of studies over the years. And yet, I still find myself not only backing grammar schools, but wanting to see more of them built, and existing ones expand.

For some campaigners, selection is always wrong. There is no middle ground. Successive governments have recognised what a political hot potato this issue is, with Labour putting a halt to the building of any more grammars, and the Tories, much to the dismay of some of their backbenchers, abiding by this policy, but with a clever caveat.
What we now have is expansion by stealth; a slightly farcical situation where the government has given grammar schools the green light to set up annexes, in effect satellite schools, which they’ll be responsible for.  

It was in fact Labour who gave us a new type of selection with academies, where 10% of the student intake is accepted according to aptitude, in areas such as sport, music, or drama.
If we look at the area of social mobility, the picture is rather mixed. A major study last year which tracked the progress of thousands of adults now aged 53, found that working class children who attended grammar schools were no more likely to rise up the social ladder than their comprehensive school peers. All grammar school attendees were found to have earned slightly more than their parents.

What it did reveal was that any successes were cancelled out by losses at the then secondary moderns. Which doesn’t necessarily mean that grammar schools were bad for working class children, but that their presence had a negative impact elsewhere.
Yet, a separate finding, on behalf of the respected charity the Sutton Trust, revealed that children born in 1970 fared significantly worse, in terms of inter-generational mobility, than those born in 1958. The reason, according to one the study’s authors, Professor Stephen Machin, was the closure of grammar schools:

“Of course, the grammar school system was perceived at the time as being very elitist and a force for not being very good for social mobility. It's rather ironic that it's actually turned out that some kids from low income backgrounds did benefit from that system. And probably that system got more people through from the bottom end of the system than we currently have today.”
An extensive study of over 125,000 children contradicted other findings and found the social impact of grammar schools to be ‘negligible:’

“Grammars have a widespread, low-level, impact on pupil enrolments across the sector. A relatively small number of non-selective schools do see a significant proportion of pupils 'lost' to nearby grammars, but the research suggests that this does not damage such schools, at least in terms of academic achievement."
Where grammar schools badly fall down on is in the social make-up of their pupils. Around 2% of those admitted are entitled to free school meals (FSM), an indicator of children living in low-income households, compared to the national average of 16%. Their admissions policy, more than anything, needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.  Professor David Jesson estimates that disadvantaged pupils make up fewer than 500 of the 22,000 entering grammar schools. On top of this, 15% of its annual cohort, shockingly, comes from private schools.

“England's remaining grammar schools are currently enrolling half as many academically able children from disadvantaged backgrounds as they could do.”

The upsurge in admissions tests, to go alongside the increasingly rare eleven-plus, is partly blamed for this:
“It is distinctly possible that the under-representation of poorer children in grammar schools stems from each grammar school operating separate admissions policies and sometimes exams. This places more onus on parents to apply to the grammar school and prepare children for the tests, a process that fell to primary schools when admissions were more standard. It is possible that this more pro-active parent choice approach is leading to a gulf in access between affluent and poor children.”

For the lucky few working class children who do make it, the results are remarkable. Researchers at Bristol University concluded that:
“...the small minority of poor pupils who make it into grammar schools do exceptionally well, getting nearly eight grade points more – equivalent to eight GCSEs being raised from a C to a B... selection does work in favour of bright pupils from poor backgrounds if they can get into the grammar schools in the first place.”

In a speech last year given to the Grammar Schools Heads Association, Schools Minister, Nick Gibbs, revealed that 98% of pupils at grammar schools achieved five or more good GSCEs at grades A*-C (including English and Maths), with those claiming FSM getting an astonishing 95.6%, a gap of just 2.4%. For state schools, the figure stands at 58%, and a sad 30.9% for FSM pupils. So much for entrenching social divisions. Grammars are clearly not failing disadvantaged pupils who are more than three times successful than their state counterparts.
According to Education Secretary, Michael Gove, things are not helped by an ingrained culture of low expectations towards poorer children in state schools. Research has suggested that they begin at 11 already lagging behind their peers, and this gap only widens as they progress. It is the state system that fails those most in need.

So, what needs to be done redress the balance? The first thing is that the remaining grammar schools should be allowed to expand, with new ones built. With one large condition: they are forced, by law, to widen their intake so that at least, in line with the national average, 16% of pupils come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Secondly, admission tests need to be standardised with all primary schools rigorously preparing their pupils to take them. In other words, a return to something like the eleven-plus system.
In 2007, the LSE found that an increase in the overall number of children permitted to attend grammar schools in Northern Ireland had a ‘net positive effect,’ with a significant boost to the results and overall performance of working class kids. Is it any wonder that 70% of people, from all social classes, support their retention, and 76% back the introduction of new ones, especially in urban areas without them?

And yet, selection according to academic ability still remains as taboo as ever. Middle class campaigners dogmatic in their opposition, whilst working class children fall further behind.

A slightly edited version of this article first appeared on Shifting Grounds on Mon 11 June 2012

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