Daily Mail distorts facts to attack comprehensive schools and promote selection

Janet Downs's picture
“Comprehensive schools prevent pupils from poor backgrounds achieving their potential, a study has claimed.”

Daily Mail, 15 March 2014

But the research summary says the opposite:

“…early selection with numerous tracks of study, a great significance of public selective schools, as well as of private schools with fees, jointly amplify socioeconomic inequalities in performances between students essentially by magnifying the effect of schools’ social composition on students’ competences.”

The research looked at 22 European countries to test how far selection and the presence of private schools affected the difference in performance between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils.

The full report* found selecting pupils early lowers the effect of socio-economic background on the children in the selective school. This would appear to support the Mail’s argument. However, what the Mail didn’t say was early selection increases differences between schools. The earlier selection begins, the wider the gap between schools.

The full report also concluded the existence of private schools fostered “socioeconomic inequalities in performances between students”.

The Mail’s article missed these findings. The writer used one small part of the report to say comprehensive schools “prevent pupils from poor backgrounds achieving their potential”. But it said no such thing: it said selective education widened the gap between schools.

The Mail wasn’t entirely wrong, however. It correctly said “the results showed how much influence wealth had on pupils’ marks. Overall, 9.4 per cent of the variance in UK performance was explained by the student’s social background, compared with a European average of 4.5 per cent.”

But its conclusion that grammar schools are needed to eradicate the effects of socio-economic background is wrong. The report showed selective systems, particularly where selection is early, worsen the effect of socio-economic background on pupils not selected (the majority). This confirms OECD findings: top performing school systems tend to be ones that do NOT segregate pupils academically or by virtue of where they live (OECD Education at a Glance 2011).

Four countries were held up by the Mail for special praise: the effect of a child’s socio-economic background had been “virtually eliminated”. These were Germany, Hungary, Romania and Austria. And the Mail implied they all retained selection. But Hungary and Romania don’t separate children until age 14/15. Austria selects early as does Germany but Germany is moving away from selection following its “PISA shock” in 2000 (Andreas Schleicher OECD).

What the Mail didn’t say is that in these four countries, the socio-economic status of the school has a considerable impact. In the UK, about 8% of the variance in performance was explained by the social background of the school. In Romania it was 17%, Austria 23%, Germany 29% and Hungary 30%. This confirms the researchers’ findings: selection increases the effect of a school’s social background on its pupils’ cognitive achievement.

ADDENDUM 16 March 2014 8.17am

The Mail also forgot to mention Finland. Around 3% of the variance in performance in Finland is explained by students’ social background which is more than the four countries praised by the Mail (Germany 1.4%, Hungary 1.4% Romania 1.6% Austria 2.6%). But the variance in performance attributed to the social background of the school is the lowest of the 22 countries – less than 1%. Finland has, of course, a fully comprehensive system.

*Le Donné, Noémie, "European Variations in Socioeconomic Inequalities in Students' Cognitive Achievement: The Role of Educational Policies", in European Sociological Review (2014) first published online February 18 2014. Full report available only to subscribers here. Follow the same link for the abstract (free).
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rogertitcombe's picture
Sat, 15/03/2014 - 19:32

I know it seems obvious that socio-economic factors affect school attainment but it isn't true. It is an illusion. The left hates the truth, which is that socio-economic factors affect mean general intelligence. Higher IQ children on average have higher IQ parents and live in posher neighbourhoods because their parents get better jobs that pay more. As Janet points out, selective schools become dominated by the children of richer parents because they on average are brighter. In the English system selective schools have an academic curriculum that if taught well challenges the intellect and raises the general intelligence of the pupils so that they can access even more intellectually demanding curriculum and become even more intelligent as well as better educated. However many English selective schools now and in the past have got by (because they can) with poor teaching that does not produce this virtuous upward spiral.

In the English system schools that serve poorer communities admit children of lower general intelligence that struggle to get enough C grades to meet floor targets. The only way for such schools to survive has been to degrade the curriculum with easy equivalents and exploit cramming, teaching to the test and selectively teaching the easy bits of the syllabus to get C grades in English and maths. None of this develops the intellect so there is no boost to IQ.

All attempts to address perceived under performance of children from poor backgrounds have failed because the children are not under performing at all. They are performing in line with their lower average IQ which is not raised as a result of the dismal experience of undemanding, boring curriculum that leads nowhere combined with high pressure cramming in English and maths that results in shallow learning and no academic progression. Such pupils can only be kept from rebelling by zero tolerance behaviour control methods making schooling an even more horrible experience for pupils and teachers alike.

To combat social and academic polarisation it is necessary to change the focus of teaching and learning in all schools from passing exams in order to successfully compete in the market for bright pupils, to adopting teaching and learning methods that result in all pupils gaining in IQ as well as learning stuff. This requires all pupils to engage with academic curriculum in order to stretch the intellect and gain in IQ. I use the euphemism of 'promote cognitive development' to appease the left that recoils from the term 'intelligence'. The only problem is that schools with poorer children will perform according to their lower average IQ so will get poorer results with so few C grades that they will be labelled failing schools even though they are making all their pupils cleverer, which is much more important than getting 14 x C grades through BTECs with crammed Cs in English and maths bolted on without the pupils having a clue about either vital subject.

The English marketised system must always produce this polarisation and will always fall behind systems like that in Finland where a more egalitarian society and intellectually demanding teaching for all, by highly academically trained teachers selected from the cream of university graduates are allowed to develop each child without destructive stresses of competition and the folly of performance related pay.

By such means their education system supports social convergence and ever rising standards of education in a society where levels of education and mean IQ rise year on year. This is called the Flynn effect.

The Flynn effect has gone into reverse in England because our education system has been degraded and corrupted by marketisation and the neo-liberal ideologies of Thatcher, Baker and Blair.

All the international patterns and trends explained by Janet in her post become clear when what I have set out is understood.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 16/03/2014 - 08:22

Roger - thanks for reminding me about Finland's educational system. Its success was missing from the Mail's article. I've added an addendum to the article above.

rogertitcombe's picture
Sun, 16/03/2014 - 10:23

Janet - The following is from the abstract to the study you quote.

"we analyze socioeconomic inequalities in cognitive competences among students reaching the end of compulsory schooling"

"Using the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2000, 2003, 2006, and 2009 data sets, we examine a broad set of institutional parameters that might play a role in the generation of social differentials in cognitive achievement."

" We find descriptive evidence that institutional parameters that foster freedom in education, such as an early selection with numerous tracks of study, a great significance of public selective schools, as well as of private schools with fees, jointly amplify socioeconomic inequalities in performances between students essentially by magnifying the effect of schools’ social composition on students’ competences."

"Our hypotheses about the equalizing effect of national support measures, such as financial aids for disadvantaged students, are not empirically confirmed."

In other words, marketisation, choice and competition, that undoubtedly raises standards and reduces prices of peoples 'wants', like cars and consumer gizmos, have the exact opposite effect for providing basic needs that every citizen has a right of access to.

Here the effect is to lower standards through a race to the bottom (privatised exam boards), distort provision (inequality of access to good schools), degrade curriculum (the vocational equivalent scam and teaching to the test), degrade teaching (resort to long discredited behaviourist repetition, punishment and rewards) and massively inflate the costs to the taxpayer (How much is Academisation and Free Schoolery costing, compared a democratically accountable LA provided school system where all spending is transparently audited and open to public inspection?).

The lesson is that, 'bog standard is best', in a universal system that prioritises continuously raising the quality of 'bog standard' and ensuring that such bog standard excellence is universally available through a network of local schools to which all pupils regardless of ability and personal wealth have equal access.

It appears that genuine academic research using the vast resource of PISA data produces the exact opposite conclusions to those of the Daily Mail and the free market fantasies that have driven the English education system through the Thatcher, Blair and Cameron/Clegg eras.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 16/03/2014 - 11:49

Roger - it's unacceptable that the Daily Mail presented research as saying the opposite to what it actually said. The abstract makes that quite clear.

The Mail rightly said the researchers set out to test the hypothesis that selection harmed disadvantaged pupils. But what the Mail neglected to say was the researchers found the hypothesis to be true. Instead, it picked on the small part of the report which said early selection helped the pupils within the selective school by increasing the effects of an advantaged background. But it ignored the next conclusion which found early selection widened the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged schools.

Disadvantaged pupils tend to end up in schools with a high number of similar pupils - the tiny number of disadvantaged pupils in grammar schools (which would, in any case, be in the top ability range) does nothing to help the majority of children, disadvantaged or otherwise, who end up in schools with a high disadvantaged intake. The research found the effect of socio-economic background was amplified when pupils attended such schools. The wider the gap between schools - the greater the effect of socio-economic background.

This finding is consistent with OECD research.

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