Stories + Views
Allison Pearson needs to do her homework
In the Daily Telegraph today journalist Allison Pearson claims that a return to selective education would restore the UK “to the premier league”. She trots out the usual misinformation about the so called ‘golden age’ of pre comprehensive English education in which“children from modest backgrounds” were able “ to compete with offspring of the wealthy for university places, thus breaching bastions of hereditary privilege and creating a more diverse group of people at the top of society”
Not for the first time in this highly charged debate, the pro grammar school lobby has got its facts wrong. It is not the case that the pre comprehensive education system provided a better standard of education for all children. Nor did it give a hand up to many poor children. That myth is usually based on anecdotal examples of individuals rather than the hard evidence, which points in the opposite direction.
The 1959 Crowther Report – commissioned by a Conservative Government to improve the education of 15-18 years olds – had a close look at what selective education meant in practice. Several interesting facts emerged – of the entire national cohort of 16 year olds in the late ’50s only 9 % achieved 5 or more O levels. That figure today is around 70%. Moreover 38% of grammar school pupils failed to achieve more than 3 O levels
The report also pointed out that the rapid rise in school rolls after the war ‘ largely increased public clamour against a competitive element in grammar school selection, which seems to parents to be contrary to the promise of secondary education according to “age, aptitude and ability” ‘ So much for the imposition of comprehensive education against parents wishes ( another myth regularly trotted out by supporters of grammar schools).
The Committee used a national survey of English 15-18 year olds carried out in 1957 by the Central Office of Information, and a survey of National Service recruits carried out 1956-8. The latter was, of course, boys only.
In both surveys, boys from homes of semi-skilled or unskilled workers “were much under-represented in the composition of selective schools…Likewise they are over-represented in membership of non-selective schools. The converse is true of boys from professional or managerial homes, who have far more than their proportional weight in selective schools and far less in the case of other schools”. This is no different today – the proportion of children eligible for free school meals in the remaining grammar schools is around 2% compared to a national average of 17% in all other schools.
Specifically, the Social Survey found that whilst 1 in 10 fathers of grammar and technical school leavers were semi or unskilled workers, almost 1 in 4 fathers of secondary modern or all-age leavers fell into this group.
The National Service survey concluded that ”a majority of the sons of professional people go to selective schools, but only a minority of manual workers’ sons do so”. “A non-manual worker’s son is nearly three times as likely to go to a selective school as a manual worker’s”.
On school leaving ages, the survey reported that 38% of the sons of the professional and managerial classes stayed till 18+ compared with 9% unskilled manual workers'; 40% of professional and managerial sons left before 17 compared with 81% manual workers.
The overall picture is of an education system that wasn’t even serving grammar school pupils particularly well, let alone those rejected at 11.
Ms Pearson ends her article by comparing the selection of a 15 year old boy with an aptitude for football by a premiership club with academic selection at 11, before calling on Sir Michael Wilshaw, the new Chief Inspector at Ofsted ( who she likens to a premiership manager) to restore the same competitive principle to schooling.
Again, sadly, she hasn’t done her research. Most scientific evidence now suggests that teenagers brains can change, IQ isn’t fixed, as the early advocates of selective education believed, and judging children on the basis of a single test is neither reliable, nor comparable to the footballing skills of a 15 year old ( although early potential in football is often not fulfilled).
Professor Cathy Price of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London recently published her research in the journal Nature.
The paper suggests that the results could be “encouraging to those whose intellectual potential may improve and… a warning that early achievers may not maintain their potential”.
Professor Price said: “We have a tendency to assess children and determine the course of their education relatively early in life.
“But here we have shown that their intelligence is likely to be still developing.
“We have to be careful not to write off poorer performers at an early age when in fact their IQ may improve significantly given a few more years.”
Finally – she may be looking to Sir Michael in vain. He has always been a firm advocate of all ability comprehensive schools with balanced intakes. In Melissa Benn’s excellent book “School Wars” (p 108) he describes selective education as “a disaster”.
Do your homework next time Allison.