Was axing grammar schools responsible for “collapse” in standards? The Mail thinks so but there's a flaw in their argument.

Janet Downs's picture
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“The collapse in educational standards was caused by the end of the British grammar school system, experts said last night.”

Daily Mail, 23 October 2013

The experts, from Glasgow University, plotted the decline in cognitive ability between ages 16-65 as shown by the recent Adult Skills survey. This decline should be expected because cognitive ability declined with age, the experts said. Their graphs revealed:

1 Numeracy: performance in England/Northern Ireland was below the international average until age 55 when performance was above the international average.

2 Literacy: performance was below the international average until around age 27 when it spiked. Performance fell below the average until the mid thirties when it spiked again. Performance matched the international average until age 55 when performance was above the international average.

The experts put forward possible reasons for the above-average performance of the over-55s and poor performance of 16-24 year-olds in England/Northern Ireland. These were:

1 Changes in education policy.

2 Changes in professional practice in schools, including methods of teaching reading.

3 Changes in wider society including the disintegration of established communities caused by industrial decline.

4 Changes in “school selectivity eg comprehensive vs selection by ability)”.

5 Opportunities to continue learning throughout life had not been sustained.

The authors stressed their list of possible causes was speculation. But this didn’t stop the Mail from picking only one for the “collapse” in standards: the closure of grammar schools.

But there’s one big flaw in this argument. Northern Ireland continued with a selective system - three out of ten secondary schools are grammars. And Northern Ireland’s score for literacy and numeracy among 16-24 year-olds varied but little from England when the scores were given separately*.

So, England closed most grammars; Northern Ireland retained them. But the scores for 16-24 year-olds in both countries were below the international average. If the Mail were correct and ending selective education caused a “collapse” in standards then we would expect the Northern Ireland scores to be far higher than England’s. They weren't.

It appears, then, that “axing” grammar schools couldn’t be the cause the poor performance of 16-24 year-olds in England and Northern Ireland.

Neither the Mail nor the experts seem to have read what the OECD said about the scores of 16-24 year-olds and over-55s: the lack of “improvement” between younger and older adults was not “necessarily because performance has declined in England/Northern Ireland (UK) … but because it has risen so much faster in so many other countries across successive generations”. In other words, as I’ve said before, the “improvement” gap is bound to be wider in countries where the 55-65 year-olds left school with minimal education and where there is now universal education.

The OECD also pointed out that “social background has a major impact on literacy skills” in England and Northern Ireland.  The disproportionate effect of social background on education achievement needs to be addressed.

The academics are correct that there needs to be “an urgent debate between policy makers and education practitioners in different parts of the UK” (although I'm unsure whether this would apply to Wales and Scotland when they weren't included in the Adult Skills Survey).  But debate should be based on the valuable insights offered by the OECD (see here) and not by cherrypicking bits from various reports which happen to chime with the prejudices of newspaper editors.

If the education system is to blame then it's the whole system as I argue here.  Picking on the end of selective education when the OECD has made it clear in the past that the best-performing school systems tend to be those that do not segregate children academically until at least the start of upper secondary (age 16) is misleading.

 

*pages 260 and 265 of the OECD Skills Outlook 2013

 
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