Ministers address to Grammar School Heads Association

Neal Skipper's picture
The text of Nick Gibb's recent Key Note address to Grammar School Heads Association has been posted on the DfE website:

Among other things, he comments that:

"Last year, 55 per cent achieved five or more GCSEs at grades A*-C including English and maths. But the free school meal figure was just 31 per cent – and that gap of 24 percentage points has remained stubbornly constant over recent years.

"It is a disparity in outcome that we want closed – or at the very least brought closer to the 2.4 per cent gap that grammar schools have achieved – for the very simple reason that reducing the attainment gap between pupils from rich and poor backgrounds is an absolutely key moral objective of the Coalition Government in general, and of Michael Gove in particular."

The figures on which he bases this statement are mostly available here.

If I've done my sums correctly, the two fully selective authorities of Kent and Buckinghamshire have attainment gaps of 32 and 36 percentage points respectively. In both areas the free school meal figure is below the national average?
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Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 04/07/2011 - 11:31

I'm only about half-way through Nick Gibb's speech. He praises the achievement of grammar school pupils saying that most of them got high grades. Well, so they should since they are selected for their ability to achieve these grades. Then he compares these results with the achievement of other schools, which will either be fully-comprehensive or have their ability level skewed to the bottom. I know it's stating the obvious, Mr Gibb, but you're not comparing like with like. Even those grammar school pupils on free school meals who achieved higher grades than their peers in non-selective state schools would have been chosen because they were potentially high-fliers. So, Mr Gibb, you would expect them to achieve high grades.

Mr Gibb trots out the same old mantra about how the UK has slipped down the OECD international league tables in ten years. Regular readers of this site (which, I presume, do not include Mr Gove or Mr Gibb) will know that the OECD has said it is not possible to compare the OECD 2009 UK results with those for 2000 because the OECD has found that the 2000 figures were statistically unreliable. But still Mr Gibb keeps ignoring OECD advice.

And Mr Gibb said how depressed he was that the recent OECD PISA in Focus briefing paper showed that UK disadvantaged pupils were less likely to achieve high scores than the OECD average. Yes, Mr Gibb, it is depressing, but you haven't read the reasons why this might be so. The OECD didn't mention grammar schools - what it did say that spending more time in class on a particular subject (in this case, Science) was "one of the strongest predictors of which students will outperform their peers". The report went on: "Countries have different ways of ensuring that disadvantaged students spend sufficient time in class, including by making courses compulsory." Yet Mr Gove thinks it's a good idea to let his favoured schools opt out of the national curriculum.

And don't forget, Mr Gibb, that the OECD Economic Survey 2011 said that while the academies/free schools policy could increase parental choice, the policy needed careful monitoring if those disadvantaged students that you care about aren't to be more disadvantaged.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 04/07/2011 - 11:48

Nick Gibb goes on: “Leading experts like Sir Michael Barber and organizations like the OECD and McKinsey, have shown us time and again that the top performing nations have several key attributes in common:

First, they value and respect their teachers and employ the very best people in their classrooms;

Second, they step back and let schools get on with it, free from bureaucratic control;

Third, they encourage collaboration between schools;

And fourth, they hold schools to account in an intelligent way.”

First: the Government respects teachers so much that it will allow unqualified teachers to be employed by free schools.

Second: Mr Gove is giving himself more powers than any other Secretary of State. He will even tell teachers how to teach – teachers of reading will be required to teach synthetic phonics and although this might be a good system, it should be up to the professional judgement of the teacher whether this is suitable for a particular child.

Third: The academy and free schools programme is supposed to allow “competition” between schools. There can’t be collaboration between schools when they are in competition with each other.

Fourth: The way in which schools are held accountable in England is not intelligent. The OECD said in its Economic Survey UK 2011 that the emphasis on grades in England was excessive, and could lead to grade inflation, teaching to the test and the crowding-out of non-cognitive skills. Accountability does not mean league tables, although such ranking appears robust and rigorous. An intelligent system is like the one in Finland, where teachers are accountable to parents, the pupil, and the local area. Finnish teachers are expected to monitor and assess pupils’ progress continuously, and tailor the teaching appropriately. Teachers’ professional judgment is respected.

The Government is introducing policies which are not likely to match the attributes of high-performing countries. But it's too blinkered to realise it.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 04/07/2011 - 12:07

Mr Gibb has now turned his attention to the EBacc saying it should "be a major concern to everyone that nine out of ten state pupils eligible for free school meals are not even entered for the E-Bacc subjects – and just four per cent achieve it." Mr Gibb - the EBacc measure has been applied retrospectively, as well you know. There was no EBacc when the "nine out of ten state pupils eligible for free school meals" were entered for their exams. Even Grammar Schools weren't able to foresee the future and enter all their pupils for the EBacc (because it didn't exist). However, because of their high-ability intake grammar schools were more likely to enter pupils for the academic subjects included in the EBacc.

What if some future government decided that all pupils should have vocational qualifications and introduced a new exam: the EVoc. And this future government decided to apply it retrospectively. I think that many schools (especially grammar schools) would cry "Foul!"

And remember, pupils who took GCSEs this year would have chosen their options before Mr Gove announced the EBacc, so if schools receive a drubbing because of their poor showing in an examination standard which didn't exist when students started their exam courses, then perhaps these schools will yell, "Foul!"

O. Spencer's picture
Mon, 04/07/2011 - 12:53

Hello Janet, me again.

You raise a lot of good points re: the inconsistencies in what the Government is saying and doing.

I am really not a fan of the comparisons between grammars and comprehensives today. Yes, grammars do fantastically well and without them the statistics for the % of state school pupils at top universities would be much worse. Of course, they only exist in small pockets of the country.

I really don't understand the argument that says because the EBacc was retrospective, it is somehow unfair to look at the results as reflective of how good the schools are.

The EBacc subjects are the standard academic subjects all schools should enter pupils for. No ifs, no buts. It shouldn't take a government minister to say 'We're going to rank schools by their performance in the key, core subjects' for schools to say 'Hey we better enter our pupils for these subjects!' it should happen anyway. It is hardly a revolutionary idea to expect schools to enter pupils for examinations in the key subjects.

As I highlighted on several other threads, schools are shortchanging pupils by offering courses that are of little academic worth, but nonetheless presented as 'equivalent' to GCSEs. The EBacc was specifically designed to force schools to discontinue this practice.

I have no problem with any pupil wishing to study music, film studies, media studies, etc. This must complement a broad academic curriculum including English, Mathematics, Sciences, History/Geography and a Language. There is debate as to whether Religious Studies should count as well, that is a debate for elsewhere.

The point about pupils picking options pre-EBacc is likewise not valid. Schools should be teaching the 5 EBacc subjects to GCSE ANYWAY. 'Options' as I understood it from my time at school, refer to what extra subjects the pupil wants to study. I took 12 GCSEs, many took the same amount, if not 9,10,11. The Ebacc only takes up 5 subjects which leaves plenty of room for a broad curriculum outside of that.

There isn't a movement or school of thought that thinks that schools should educate all pupils to a required standard in vocational qualifications. Vocational qualifications are important yes but in many cases build on the academic knowledge. How can you be a mechanic or engineer if you don't know physics or chemistry?

Janet, you sum up the attitude of the educational establishment brilliantly here;
'because of their high-ability intake grammar schools were more likely to enter pupils for the academic subjects included in the EBacc.'

This attitude, of associating he EBacc subjects with the academic elite, exacerbates the vocational/academic divide present in our society. Of course, some people will be better at maths, science, English or a language than others. That doesn't mean that studying any of these subjects should be left for the 'bright' and the 'less able' should be directed to other courses.

If, as you appear to imply, comprehensives avoid the EBacc subjects and leave them for the grammar schools, what happens to those parents who want a grammar school education for their child, but either can't afford to pay fees or don't live near a grammar school. Well, they start to demand things like free schools and Academies in order to copy the grammar model in other schools.

If you are against the free schools movement, why not be more vocal in your criticism of comprehensives who have failed their pupils by not entering them for core subjects.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 04/07/2011 - 15:43

O Spencer - if you think it's fair that the EBacc was applied retrospectively, then read again what I said about a hypothetical EVoc. The trouble with retrospective application is that pupils didn't have to take all of the academic subjects which make up the EBacc, and remember that about 40% of grammar schools "failed" to reach the standard. The last government said, for example, that schools could drop a modern foreign language after age 14. Many pupils did so, but then this requirement was included in the EBacc retrospectively.

I happen to agree with you that pupils should take a broad range of subjects up to age 16, but it doesn't necessarily follow that they should be entered for GCSE. For some students at the bottom of the ability range, a vocational exam might be better.

You say my attitude "exacerbates" the vocational/academic divide because I stated the obvious - that grammar schools are more likely to enter students for academic exams than non-selective schools, and were, therefore, more likely to score highly on the EBacc scale (retrospectively applied). At no time did I suggest that studying these subjects should be the preserve of high ability students. And neither did I say that comprehensive schools "deliberately" avoid EBacc. How could they, since the exam didn't exist until Mr Gove sprung it on schools retrospectively?

A good comprehensive will offer a range of courses and examinations which are suitable for the entire ability range. And a "grammar school" education isn't necessarily a good one just because the pupils who were selected for their ability to pass exams actually achieve the expected results. These high results may actually hide poor teaching, while the low results from a school whose ability level is skewed towards the bottom end may contain some excellent teaching.

O. Spencer's picture
Mon, 04/07/2011 - 17:36

Janet, I take your point about the 'hypothetical EVoc'. But at no time in recorded human history has there been a movement demanding that vocational subjects be at the heart of the school system, nor will there be.

One of the single worst failings of the previous government was to drop the requirement to take a language to GCSE level. Now two questions spring from this - why did the government feel the need to do this, and why were schools so quick to adopt it? It wasn't forced on schools, remember. I suspect it was because the government saw the poor standard of teaching and attainment in MFL and decided it was easier to drop it than invest and improve. I suspect teachers thought instead of giving a lower ability child the chance to pick up invaluable language skills they might be better suited to an 'Applied' NVQ or BTEC.

Yes Janet, all students should take English, Mathematics, Science, a humanity and a MFL or Ancient language to GCSE. In terms of the remaining curriculum, the academic high-fliers should take more GCSEs and the less able should be able to take vocational qualifications. As Reform highlighted in a report,
“the English system expects students to achieve two academic GCSE, English and maths at age 16. Other developed countries typically expect four or five as a minimum. Of the ten leading developed countries, eight require exams in at least four academic subjects.”

We should follow the trends of other developed countries by requiring pupils to sit exams in core, traditional subjects, while offering them the opportunity to study courses they find interesting as well. The Netherlands is a good example, where no matter which stream you are in, you study the core subjects. The difference is those in the academic stream fill their remaining classes with more academic subjects, and those on the vocational route can choose vocational courses.

To turn your EBacc/Grammar school point on its head - why are comprehensive schools less likely to enter pupils for EBacc subjects? Because the ability of pupils there will be lower than those at a grammar? Why should that matter? Why does the fact that ability range may be lower prevent schools from entering pupils for the core subjects?

My comprehensive school entered nearly all pupils for the subjects comprising the EBacc. Now, with no language requirement, it doesn't, only the bright do a language at GCSE. The top end of the ability scale at my scale was as every bit well-suited to academic subjects as those in grammar and private schools. So why should some schools avoid this?

I clearly said that some comprehensives avoid entering students for the EBacc *subjects*. They couldn't have deliberately avoided the EBacc as you say because it hadn't been invented. They could avoid rigorous academic subjects, and many do.

O. Spencer's picture
Mon, 04/07/2011 - 20:19

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 05/07/2011 - 08:04

O Spencer - thanks for the link to the vocational baccalaureate pilot, I was unaware of this interesting development.

You say that there has never been a time when there were proposals to put vocational education at the heart of education. In fact, there was. In the mid 1980s the then Conservative government made a laudable attempt to do just that. It instigated the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative (TVEI) which was designed for all schools not just comprehensive or secondary moderns. The idea behind TVEI was that all pupils should have a vocational education with such things as work experience, Industry Days, good quality careers education and guidance and so on provided as standard. Much money was invested in TVEI related in-service training (TRIST), the development of exams in such subjects as Business Studies, and the development of vocational qualifications which could be taken by all pupils and run alongside academic qualifications. Unhappily, this initiative fizzled out but not before work experience became standard in all schools.

You ask why comprehensive schools are less likely to enter pupils for EBac subjects. The question should really be why WERE they less likely to enter pupils. The answer is, because these subjects were not mandated when pupils took exams or started courses. I expect that the majority of students are entered for Maths, Science and English, and the shortfall comes from not entering students for a modern foreign language or history/geography (remember, RE isn't one of the EBacc subjects, neither is a popular subject like Business Studies). However, I expect that next year will see a rise in the number of pupils in all schools taking EBacc subjects if only because schools are going to be judged on their results in these subjects.

Could you provide a link to the Reform report?

O. Spencer's picture
Tue, 05/07/2011 - 13:09

Hello Janet,

The Reform report 'Core business' can be found here -

It was clearly influential as it spelled out the EBacc policy Gove then implemented.

If everyone takes the academic route to 16 - there is then a suitable point to branch off into further academic study or vocational study/training/job.

Gove's argument is that sticking to solely Maths English and Science isn't enough if we are to keep up with the best internationally. RE isn't a core subject anywhere else, although I suspect it crops up in Social Studies and History in most countries, as it should do here.

You are full of praise for Finland, yet there are compulsory examinations at 16 there in Mathematics, Finish, Science, History, Swedish and a Foreign Language.

What do you think the reasons behind the last government's decision to scrap compulsory language to 16 were? And why did so many schools take up that option? Do you think schools should force pupils to take a language to 16/GCSE? If not, why not?

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 05/07/2011 - 16:17

O Spencer - thanks for the link to Reform. I'll read it later. Earlier in the year Mr Gove made a speech citing the leaving exams in other countries as his rationale for the EBacc. However, what he didn't do was give the level of each of the tests. Did they demonstrate academic excellence or basic achievement? We need to know this when we compare the examinations taken in the United Kingdom with those in other countries. For example, in Germany only students at the “Gymnasium” schools take the Abitur examination which is designed to show academic achievement. Students at Hauptschule are awarded a Hauptschule Certificate which demonstrates that students completed their secondary education until age 15 and did not drop out. When Mr Gove cited Germany he only mentioned the students going on to sixth form, who would take the Abitur, not the students who would have left school at 15. However, he chided the UK benchmark of 5 GCSEs, including English and Mathematics, for not being as rigorous as the Abitur, yet the Abitur is not a benchmark for all students in Germany – it is only for those students who are academically above-average. The Abitur is like the old GCE Ordinary Levels.

Mr Gove knows perfectly well that pupils take GCSEs in more than English, Maths and Science. Nick Gibb (Minister for Schools) said that in 2010, the average number of GCSEs entered per pupil was 8 (figure rounded up).

You mention Finland. Yes, there is a National Matriculation Exam taken at the end of upper secondary school, but it is used to certify a pupil's achievement and is not used to assess the quality of the school.

I have concern about the term "academic route". "Academic" is defined in my dictionary as "scholarly, unpractical". Clearly, pupils need practical as well as academic courses (see info above re TVEI), and some pupils will lean more to one than the other depending on their ability. But, all should have a core curriculum and I have no difficulty with the subjects Mr Gove places in this core. Neither would I have difficulty with these being examined at GCSE if GCSE were the same as in 1987, when gaining low grades was not considered a "fail". However, I do have difficulty with schools being judged on how many of their pupils gain GCSE C and above in ALL of these subjects. It is inevitable that selective schools will gain a higher score on this measure than comprehensive schools, and comprehensive schools will do better than schools whose ability level is skewed towards the bottom end. And it is also inevitable that the latter schools will be judged as failing.

I have no idea why the last government scrapped compulsory language after 14. It is yet another example of the constant interference and about-turns that have dogged education since the late 1980s and still continue to do so. In the school at which I taught before retiring, all pupils studied a language up to 16, either GCSE or a non-GCSE French/Business Studies course which linked French with such things as marketing, travel and tourism. This was accredited by an exam board (can't remember which one) but I expect it sprung out of the TVEI programme. It was a popular course and kept pupils studying a language when they might otherwise have dropped it.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 05/07/2011 - 17:04

O Spencer - I've had a quick look at the Reform info. It was published in 2009 so is a bit out-of-date as PISA 2009 figures were not out (PISA 2009 showed UK pupils average in Reading and Maths, above average in Science). The report used TIMSS 2003, but TIMSS 2007 showed England to be the top performing European country in Maths and Science. It's true that in 2009 England only has two "compulsory" GCSEs (compulsory in the sense that they were wanted for league tables). However, just because there were only two subjects listed didn't mean that pupils confined themselves to these two. Average number of GCSEs entered per pupil in 2010 was 8 (see above).

Some high-performing countries had a large number of compulsory exams (like Japan with 5), others did not (like Australia with 2, and Sweden with 3).

The report said GCSE was less rigorous than in other countries. This is confirmed by OECD who said the large number of pupils getting high grades suggested grade inflation, and the excessive emphasis on grades and league table position could be a factor in this*.

Particularly interesting was the core curriculum in Japan: Japanese, social studies (history/geog), maths, science, fine art, music, industrial arts, homemaking and foreign languages. That sounds quite good to me - emphases the arts, industry and practical life skills as well as academic.

The report criticised combined science as being less rigorous than three separate sciences (but NB PISA 2009 showed UK students above average in Science). However, the UK would have great difficulty in recruiting enough physicists, for example, to teach in schools. On Radio 4 last week (Today, I think), a representative from Oxford Instruments said he met more physicists working in the City than he did in industry. And I'll bet there's a lot more physicists working in industry than there are in schools. With the possibility of making good money in the City, physicists aren't going to be coming into schools with its relatively low pay (compared with what a physics graduate could earn elsewhere) and attack on conditions of service.

*OECD Economic Survey 2011

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