More evidence for the success of comprehensive education and why Andrew Neil is wrong

Fiona Millar's picture
Obviously I haven't seen the programme made by Andrew Neil, to which Nigel Ford refers on this site, but I have been involved in several debates with Andrew on the subject of selective education in the last decade and believe he is wrong in his belief that students from comprehensive schools will sink without trace in future generations of political leaders.

We shouldn't forget that the main push for comprehensive education only came in the late 60's /early seventies so the ' comprehensive generation' is only now feeding through into public life. There are several names one could add to those suggested by Nigel;  Charles Kennedy and Danny Alexander, for example, Lib Dems who went to the same local comprehensive school in Scotland. I can also think of many younger MPs and  political activists who went to comprehensive schools so I think this trend will continue.

In my various discussions with Andrew Neil on this subject, I have always found his theory - that there was once a ‘golden age’ when grammar schools reigned supreme,  giving poor children ladders out of poverty and into the best universities - to be based largely on anecdotal evidence rather than hard facts which are as follows.

In 1959, at the height of the ‘golden age’.

  • 9% of 16 year olds got five O levels

  • More than a third of grammar school pupils only got 3 O levels.

  • Fewer than 10 per cent of the population went to university and most came from professional or managerial homes.

  • Most children were failed by the 11 plus test and sent to secondary modern schools where they couldn't take O levels or progress to the sixth form

Fast forward to today.

  • Around two thirds of 16 year olds get five good GCSE’s.

  • Almost 40 % of young people now go to university and, even though the gap in attainment and university access between children from the best and worse off homes is still too great, teenagers from the poorest homes are 50% more likely to go to university than they were 15 years ago.

State school access to Oxford and Cambridge is also frequently used as an example of falling standards in state schools. But contrary to popular, and media, myth the number of state school pupils getting into Oxford and Cambride has risen  steadily since the 1960s, coinciding with a greater percentage of the population  attending comprehensive schools. The evidence is presented clearly in a research note on Oxbridge elitism from the House of Commons library.

  • A survey for the Robbins Report in 1961 found that 34% of all students from Oxford and 27% at Cambridge came from state schools

  • Rates of entry to both institutions from state schools had increased to more than 50% by the late 1990s.

  • in 2008/9 57% of pupils at Cambridge and 53.4% of pupils at Oxford came from state schools.

  • The acceptance rate for state schools pupils in 2008 was 25% at Cambridge and 26% at Oxford although varied by college.

  • The acceptance rate for independent school pupils was 31% at both universities.

For a good dispassionate look at what schools were really like in the mythological golden age of elite education, read ‘State Schools since the 1950’s. The good news’ by former head teacher and Ofsted inspector Adrian Elliott or follow his excellent series in the TES which also look at exams papers over the last few decades contests the notion that qualifications have been 'dumbed down'. While it is true that teachers have got much better at coaching pupils to pass exams,  many of the old ‘O’ and ‘A’ level questions of yesteryear were much duller and less challenging than papers our children face today.

Overall the evidence seems clear. State schools are improving and giving greater opportunities to more young people, in contrast to the supposed ‘golden age’ when only an elite minority prospered at school. Comprehensive education has played a huge part in that process.

Clearly there are people who preferred it the old way and may well resent the opportunities presented to children other than their own. We need to make sure their hidden agenda to divide the system again, doesn't take hold again.
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Nigel Ford's picture
Sun, 23/01/2011 - 12:09

When David Mellor was reminiscing about his grammar schooldays before going to university, back in the mid 60s, he said "but when I got to Cambridge I became aware of how many people there had come, highly polished, from public schools. My own education, by contrast, was a very hit-and-miss affair." So this backs up what you say.

Mind you, fast forward a decade when I was 16, a friend of mine who attended Lancing College ( a selective public school which deselected many Common Entrance applicants for failing to get sufficiently high marks) literally failed every o'level back in 1975.

That period certainly wasn't a golden age for many pupils who attended selective schools be it in the state or private sector.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sun, 23/01/2011 - 12:12

This seems very persuasive to me. What is troubling is that the Coalition is obviously seeking to introduce the old "two tier" system, albeit in a different form, into the state sector again. I think the idea is that the more "academic" pupils will do the English Bacc etc, while the less "academic" will be shunted into technical colleges at 14 ( The narrowing of the curriculum in comprehensives to a dry diet of Victorian subjects will be complemented by the re-introduction of something like the old CSE ( Comprehensives will cease to be comprehensives and more like the "comprehensive grammars" that Toby Young is so keen on.

Rob Davies's picture
Sun, 23/01/2011 - 12:35

Great writing Fiona, exactly the data we need to be blasting forward. This is the golden age of education, or at least it was until recently!!!

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 23/01/2011 - 13:28

When I was ten I'd made up my mind that the 11+ was bonkers and, really, adults shouldn't be trusted to run an education system. My coaching for 11+ was: (a) Never answer "Don't know", always hazard a guess if you don't know the answer, and (b) do this practice paper. On the paper was the question: "Is it true that most people like the colour yellow? Tick Yes, No, or Don't Know." I'd been told never to choose the latter, so I ticked Yes. The correct answer was, of course, "Don't Know" because there was insufficient data on which to base an answer.

I failed the 11+

My friend's daughter has the same opinion of SATs. "We've practised the same paper now FOUR times. Why? I HATE SATS!"

11+, SATS, all bonkers.

Laura Brown's picture
Mon, 24/01/2011 - 09:07

It is great to actually know some of the facts rather than the usual fog of confusion and list of random examples that people in support of selection use to support their arguments.

I'm interested to know whether the programme and those praising grammar schools for their social mobility achievements in the past generally, address the fact that even those very specific achievements might not be the same now. In particular, the rise of 11+ tutoring for children who can afford to pay for it must surely skew the intake of a grammar school away from "clever poor children" and towards kids from richer families who may or may not be cleverer.

Perhaps it is just that I live in a particularly crazy part of South London but this tutoring element must be another argument for getting rid of selection. We have one school, deemed by local received wisdom to be especially desirable, which now only selects 25% of its intake but still manages to create a lot of anxiety, crazy tutoring, children feeling like failures if they don't achieve the ridiculously demanding 98%+ score needed and from all of this, the impression that other schools are less desirable which further fuels crazy anxiety (and in some cases deserting our local state schools altogether and going private/to far off grammar schools etc). All completely unnecessary given the quality of other local schools which is totally lost in the noise created...

Fiona Millar's picture
Mon, 24/01/2011 - 11:23

You are right about the tutoring. See this speech from David Willetts in 2007 in which he acknowledges that grammar schools are not routes for social mobility for working class children because of the way the private coaching market skews the test results. As it happens some of the fully selective authorities like Bucks are now admitting this in private - see my column on this issue in Guardian Education recently.
Willetts subsequently found himself removed from the shadow education post , after a furious row with Tory backbenchers on this subject. He was replaced by Michael Gove who seems more ambivalent about selection. I think that speaks volumes about where the heart of the Tory Party is on this matter. At the Tory Party conference fringe last year ( where I spoke with Gove) many party members wanted to know why, if free schools were indeed to be 'free', they couldn't use that 'freedom' to re-introduce selection.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 24/01/2011 - 12:52

Mr Gove invited 'high-performing' schools to become Academies. These are often selective and if so they can retain their policy of selection. As far as 'free' schools are concerned. they are outwardly non-selective. However, as any fule no, there are ways of loading selection criteria eg

1 faith
2 proximity which somehow misses out the local school on the council estate
3 restricting publicity about the school at the same time as adopting a first-come first-served entry policy.
4 Setting a strictly academic curriculum which will be followed by all pupils. Parents of children with special needs will choose to go elsewhere.

Adrian Elliott's picture
Wed, 26/01/2011 - 10:41

Specifically on the Neil argument about the background of prime ministers I think he is on dodgy ground historically.Events which had nothing to do with social mobility or education, had a major impact.

For example,if Hugh Gaitskill had not died prematurely and unexpectedly in 1963,we would probably have had a public school educated Labour prime minister for most of the swinging,egalitarian,socially mobile sixties.

If the dot com crash of 2002 had come earlier and had a greater economic impact it is possible (although the electoral arithmetic made it unlikely) that we might have had a Tory comprehensive educated PM in 2001 (or even today if Hague had not gone too early for the leadership).

And if this coalition crashes and burns who knows we might have a an ex comprehensive PM before very long.

It's interesting towards the end of the article that when he refers to Ed Milliband he drops the reference to school attended and switches to writing about Oxbridge!

Graham Mellor's picture
Fri, 28/01/2011 - 10:33

The anecdotal evidence of Grammar schools getting a small number of poor children into Oxbridge is countered by my own anecdotal evidence that they largely ignored the much larger number of pupils that weren't high fliers - certainly this was my own experience as a middling attainer in a 70s Grammar and I can't believe a unique one.

Alan's picture
Fri, 28/01/2011 - 11:08

Psychology hijacked intelligence over 150 years ago, yet the ideology remains the same, and to a large extent, so do the tests. I’m sorry, but I don’t think grammar schools are the problem – selection is a separate issue. It’s a shame the bell curve isn’t broad enough to enable this thinking. The English are so behind the times. But if we didn’t have class and intelligence to chew on what would we do!?

Derek Jones's picture
Tue, 01/02/2011 - 19:23

You quote the House of Commons Library in support of your claim that state school representation at Oxbridge has increased since 1969. I read that with incredulity because I was an undergraduate at Oxford from 1959-62 and I was aware that public school pupils at that time were in a minority. Hence I decided to investigate your claim and soon discovered the truth. You should have asked the following question "What percentage of Oxbridge students in 1969 had passed the !!-plus exam and paid no fees?" The answer - 62%. The Commons statistics treated the direct grant schools as private schools, but the reality was that though only 60% (on average) of their pupils had free places provided by the local authorities they accounted for virtually all the university places gained by those schools. I was one of them. The top four schools in Coventry (two boys' and two girls' schools) were direct grant and the majority of pupils paid no fees. I attended one of them, a school that had an intake of 175 pupils per year. There were five streams and only two pupils in the top two streams were fee-paying - and that was because they had transferred from schools in other areas. In compiling statistics it may be true in a legalistic sense that direct grant schools were "independent" but in reality they should be placed alongside the local authority grammar schools as examples of pupils passing the 11-plus and not paying fees.The fact is that in 1969 among the most successful schools in the country apart from Winchester were Manchester Grammar, Bradford Grammar, Leeds Grammar, Haberdashers' Aske's and Latymer Upper, and the pupils they sent to Oxbridge were not fee-payers.

Lex's picture
Thu, 02/02/2012 - 03:53

50 years ago I failed my 11 plus. 45 years ago I left school with 2 O'levels + CSE.
As a family we left UK for Australia when I was 16. Now at 62, I have: Masters degree + 2 Tech. College Diplomas (Dux in 1), written 5 papers, designed in excess of $300 million buildings, won many prizes, a member of many institutes/associations, and traveled the world. I recall all those years ago feeling quite miserable and it was not until I had the opportunity in Australia to put all that 'failure' behind me, grasp the opportunities and aim considerably higher. My only regret is I would have preferred to have been educated in Australia - such is life!

B Way's picture
Fri, 22/06/2012 - 00:54

Comment by Fiona Millar

"Around two thirds of 16 year olds get five good GCSE's." her use of an apostrophe in the plural use of GCSEs is either careless or ignorant. A good English teacher at any school would see this type of error constantly; in fact a good English teacher would weep BECAUSE this error is common.

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