Why the 11+ and grammar schools should be abolished?

Nigel Ford's picture
An article in today's Daily Mail  shows the extreme lengths parents will go to get their child into a grammar school.

Some of it seems utterly demented and puts unfair pressure on children with the stress even causing couples to divorce. Parents are putting their own feelings ahead of their child as it is a giant ego trip for them if the child passes the 11+, so that their status in society remains high.

What I can't understand is that GCSEs and A'levels which are still the staple diet of grammar schools (rather than other exams) are so accessible to many more pupils, with top grades becoming more commonplace, that I wonder how these grammars occupy their pupils' minds for 5 years until their GCSEs in view of the intense level of tuition they've undergone leading up to the exacting 11+ exam.
Reading the article, it also seems that the ethos of grammar schools is rather stifling and does not seem conducive to the social wellbeing of a child.

Back in the winter of 1994 when my son was in his final year at primary school, it appeared likely I was to be offered a job in Folkestone (which would have involved moving) where the disparity in GCSE results between the local grammar schools and the sec mods was huge. The raw results of the latter were even worse than my local comprehensive, but fortunately the job never materialised. Since that time I feel the pressure cooker situation on young children in areas like Kent has got worse year by year.

I know supporters of the 11+ will say the best way to resolve the situation is to introduce more grammars to meet this demand, but I really don't think this is the answer.
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Fiona Millar's picture
Wed, 12/10/2011 - 19:45

Well said Nigel. You can come and here me make the arguments against selection tomorrow night at the Policy Exchange "Fight Club", link here http://www.policyexchange.org.uk/pages/policyfightclub.cgi

Nigel Ford's picture
Thu, 13/10/2011 - 10:02

Give it to em with both barrels.

Good to see that you've got a youngish Tory MP in your corner who attended a comprehensive school before going to Oxford.

geoffrey's picture
Wed, 12/10/2011 - 22:09

There is absolutely no way any government would abolish Grammar schools, because to do so would make it impossible for them to present statistics in which state schools could be made to appear anything but hopeless. Try eliminating grammars from school results listings.

There is also no way in which any government wishing to appear 'fair' would attempt to abolish (probably illegal) or curtail the activities of private schools. After all, they attended them, and are probably a bit untrusting of those who didn't. And don't get me started on the Conservatives!

Nigel Ford's picture
Thu, 13/10/2011 - 10:24

Geoffrey - With regard to your 1st para, I think there are some politicians who would like to abolish grammars if it helped accentuate the different outcomes between private and state schools, so it could mitigate their reasons not to use the state system for their children.

I think this idea that grammars advance social mobility is a bit of a red herring. Firstly because these days they're very much the preserve of the middle classes, not too many pupils are on FSM. Grammars are no longer an escape route for the clever working class pupil, if indeed they ever were.

If you think that maybe the top 25% of comprehensive school students make it into good universities, what would be the point of bringing back grammars and sec mods? All that would happen is that those 25% of comp pupils who made it to top universites would come from grammar schools.

At least under the present system, it allows the late developer at a comp to make the necessary progress which he/she couldn't at a sec mod. The comprehensive system also stops the social apartheid that prevails under the 11+ system.

Sarah's picture
Wed, 12/10/2011 - 22:44

Of course the raw results of a secondary modern school will be worse than a comprehensive school. Think about it. A grammar school creams off the 30% (or whatever %age) of the most academically able in the area. The secondary modern - or comprehensive (which becomes the equivalent of a secondary modern whenever selection is operating in its area) then is left with the remaining group of children of lower academic ability. This of course is reflected in its GCSE results which are largely a measure of how the most academically gifted pupils have performed - as oppposed to a measure of the effectiveness of teaching in the school.

How could the outcome possible be any different.

Schools perform on the basis of their intake - it's virtually as simple as that. There are no good schools or bad schools. There are schools with intakes that are likely to succeed in academic tests, and others that aren't.

Which is why if you have a very bright child and like the feel of your local comprehensive (even if it's a de facto secondary modern) you can feel absolutely confident sending your child there. Unless you are only bothered about the 'type' of children your child will mix with - in which case you should find a nice middle class enclave and send your child to a school there. But don't kid yourself that they'll get a better quality education.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 13/10/2011 - 16:43

Lincolnshire is also a selective county and the County Council has recognised that because of this selective system many of its secondary modern schools will struggle to reach Mr Gove's proposed target of 50% of pupils achieving 5 GCSEs A*-C including maths and English. The Council is so worried that these "failing" schools, which are only poorly-performing because the brightest pupils have been siphoned off, will be forced to convert to academies that the Council is recommending that all its schools, primary and secondary, convert. There's been no discussion, of course.

Nigel Ford's picture
Thu, 13/10/2011 - 09:53

Sarah - With apologies for boring anyone who may have read what I've said before, but in Tonbridge where my twin neices attend a primary school, the girls sec mod, Hillview,(which takes boys in the 6th form) has exam results which surpass many genuine comps as it does several public schools in Kent.

In a way this is unsurprising because Tonbridge GS accepts pupils from as far away as Sussex and London and the demand for places is massively oversubscribed bearing in mind nearby Sevenoaks has no GS. This means that the local sec mod takes in high calibre pupils who have had 11+ coaching but narrowly missed a grammar school place. The grammar school probably creams off far less than 30% of the local pupils, more like 10-15%. However unlike in Tonbridge, most other areas in Kent, particularly in the Medway and Thanet areas parents and their children don't have the luxury of a thriving sec mod to fall back on.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 13/10/2011 - 16:53

Research last year showed that pupils from comprehensive schools outperformed their peers with similar A levels from independent and grammar schools when at university. This was contradicted by another report from Cambridge University which found that there was no difference in the type of degree awarded to students with the same A level grades - pupils from all types of school with the same A levels were awarded the same type of degree. However, the table at the bottom of the TES article which reported the Cambridge research shows that comprehensive pupils have a slight edge when it comes to the number of "firsts".

The research appears to show that the much vaunted "success" of independent and grammar schools does not carry forward into university. No reason is given, but perhaps it might be because independent and grammar school pupils are taught how to pass exams rather than develop independent study skills.


Allan Beavis's picture
Thu, 13/10/2011 - 22:41

Earlier this year a report by researchers at the universities of Oxford and Bath Spa concluded that grammar schools do not improve social mobility for working class children. Attending a grammar school did improve a child’s chance of earning slightly more than their parents, but then so did children from middle-class homes. Any advantages of going to a grammar school were cancelled out by the social disadvantages experienced by those who went to secondary moderns.

The justification for academic selection is that grammars exist to help children from more deprived backgrounds get a leg up the mobility ladder. Since grammars cater to a largely middle class group, who can afford private tuition for years to prepare the child on the techniques to pass an exam at 11 and have the wherewithal to compete for places in an even more competitive sphere, then children from less well-off backgrounds don’t stand a chance, thereby destroying the whole purpose of the system.

Academies and Free Schools – again, touted as increasing “choice” and the saviours of disadvantaged children - may well become more overt in pupil selection in the future. If the example of grammar schools has taught us anything, it is that the children of the already advantaged will make up the lion’s share of these schools’s population. And all this at a time when child poverty is expected to increase to catastrophic levels as a result of the current coalition’s policies which are clearly failing vulnerable children.

For the past decade, Finland has consistently been at, or near, the top of nations examined by OECD/PISA. Just as consistently, the variance in quality among Finnish schools is the least of all nations tested – meaning that each and every Finnish child can get a good education in virtually any school in the nation. Finland is not a Socialist country. It is capitalist. BUT it is egalitarian, so there are no private schools and no selection and children are not subjected to segregation by exam.

Governments here claim, as they further add to a confused and fragmented state school patchwork quilt, that their policies are preparing students for global competitiveness. The guiding principles are Competition, Accountability and “Choice”. The laudable and internationally lauded principles in Finland? Equity, Creativity, real school autonomy and prosperity. For every single child, not just the ones who successfully jumped through a hoop at 11.

Allan Beavis's picture
Thu, 13/10/2011 - 22:44

Unfortunately, the youngish Tory MP was incoherent, muddled and prone to not straying too far from the party line

Adrian Elliott's picture
Fri, 14/10/2011 - 13:57

One of the main arguments on this issue, which is constantly repeated, is that in the heyday of the selective system bright working class children succeeded in grammar schools whereas their equivalents today fail in comprehensive schools.

There are many arguments one could advance against this view but one which doesn't,in my opinion, get heard enough is that the comparison is flawed in a very fundamental sense .

In the so-called 'golden age' of the grammar schools, 75% of the population were judged to be working class by the registrar-general's office; today the figure is barely a third of that. A fairer comparison would be between the performance of the unskilled working class in the fifties and all w/king class children today. There is overwhelming evidence that whilst all working class children were under-represented in g.schools (and under-achieved when they did get there) the children of unskilled working class families and the unemployed in particular hardly figured at all in g.schools.

This argument heard so often from Andrew Neil and others should be addressed head on much more than it is.

Fiona Millar's picture
Fri, 14/10/2011 - 20:09

Yes it was rather daunting to be speaking with someone who was wholly opposed to nearly everything I said!

JimC's picture
Sun, 16/10/2011 - 13:25

"No reason is given, but perhaps it might be because independent and grammar school pupils are taught how to pass exams rather than develop independent study skills."

Or it could be that pupils who are not actually that intelligent do better at independent schools.

JimC's picture
Sun, 16/10/2011 - 13:31

So all schools would be good if they had an equal share of rich children? This is hardly a ringing endorsement of Local schools.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 16/10/2011 - 15:10

International research, as is often repeated on this site, found that in schools with a majority of advantaged pupils ALL pupils (whether advantaged or disadvantaged) do better than ALL pupils in schools with a majority of disadvantaged pupils. OECD found that the impact of socio-economic background was greater in the UK than the OECD average. Grammar schools take very few pupils on free school meals. According to government figures, there were 96,680 pupils eligible for free school meals in English state secondary schools in 2010. Of this 96,680 only 610 attended grammar schools - a tiny 0.6. That makes nonsense of the "social mobility" argument.

OECD also found that the best-performing school systems in the world were, on average, school systems with greater levels of inclusion ie where pupils are not segregated academically or according to socio-economic background.

http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/61/2/48631582.pdf (p455)

http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/33/8/46624007.pdf (p5)

JimC's picture
Sun, 16/10/2011 - 17:07

"International research, as is often repeated on this site, found that in schools with a majority of advantaged pupils ALL pupils (whether advanataged or disadvantaged) do better than ALL pupils in schools with a majority of disadvantaged pupils."

It is next to impossible to contrive a situation where every school has a majority of advantaged pupils so I really don't know why you keep going on about it.

"OECD found that the impact of socio-economic background was greater in the UK than the OECD average. Grammar schools take very few pupils on free school meals."

Look I'll agree that children on Free school meals are more likely to go to a rubbish school but I'm not going to agree that said schools are rubbish because they have a large cohort of children who are poor - having no money isn't a direct cause of children doing badly at school. I'm not in favour of trying to socially engineer a network of mediocrity, we should be improving schools in working class areas by having higher aspirations for working class children instead of making excuses.

botzarelli's picture
Fri, 21/10/2011 - 09:04

Dr Eoin Clarke wrote a peculiar blog post about how comprehensives outperformed independent schools and (in something of a non-sequitur) how this meant that free schools were mad, bad and dangerous. The data he was looking at came from the DfE and sounded interesting so I had a look at it too - http://botzarelli.wordpress.com/2011/10/20/mad-bad-and-dangerous-statist...

One thing which particularly surprised me about the data was that it showed the GCSE performance of children at secondary moderns to be barely below that of children at comprehensives (78% getting 5 A*-C GCSEs compared to 81% at comprehensives). I've always assumed along with most other people that secondary moderns could only possibly be terrible sink schools and that anyone who believed in some form of selection really had to focus first on ensuring that the education for those who "fail" the 11+ be excellent. Or, rather, to get away from the idea that not being "academic" in the stuffier sense of the word was failure.

Given that Secondary Moderns almost invariably will get no more than the bottom 70% of the ability range in their area and quite possibly even less if substantial numbers of the wealthier grammar-school near-misses go private, these results look astonishingly good. Perhaps they are a rather unfairly maligned part of the state system - maligned by proponents of comprehensives who need to believe that Secondary Moderns are sink schools, by proponents of independent schools who want to attract parents of children who don't get into the local grammar school and proponents of grammar schools who want to preserve their own mystique and elite status.

How about someone standing up for the Secondary Modern they send their children to on here?

Allan Beavis's picture
Fri, 21/10/2011 - 10:36

I wonder where your assumption that proponents of comprehensives malign secondary moderns come from? I’m not at all certain that they do. The fact is both comprehensives and secondary moderns admit and teach children of all abilities – grammars don’t, selecting unfairly, as if “cleverness” in a child is determined at the fixed point of age 11. The segregation of secondary moderns and grammar schools is rooted in our recent history and was determined, post-war, by class segregation, which is still prevalent today.

A much more worthwhile exercise would be for the “Caring Conservatives”– and in particular the current SPADS, commissioners and Secretary for Education at the DfE – to stand up for secondary moderns (and comprehensives while they are at it) by acknowledging their successes and referring to them on the DfE website instead of relentlessly spewing out dubious data and statistics on the growth and success of Academies only. This divisive policy only serves to widen the perception that anything not an Academy, Free School or grammar (but they don’t focus on these so much as they are politically sensitive) are failing and not worth bothering with.

And this is why perhaps some people believe that Free Schools are mad, bad and dangerous. Having read your blog, I note that you are propagating the untruth that “Free Schools are not allowed to be any more selective than comprehensives and are bound by the same admissions codes”. This is not so – they can opt of them.

Fiona Millar here http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2011/10/free-schools-able-to-opt-o... explains that the free school funding agreement paragraph 12(c) states:

(c) the admissions policy and arrangements for the school will be in accordance with admissions law, and the DfE Codes of Practice, as they apply to maintained schools, subject to any exceptions in Annex B;

To date, despite the government saying they will publish Funding Agreement of Free Schools already opened this September, we have not seen a single one and we have no idea what exemptions to the Admissions Code are mooted or even agreed.

I suggest you amend your blog.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 21/10/2011 - 11:28

You are right, botzarelli, the secondary moderns are much maligned as are comprehensives. Unfortunately, secondary moderns are likely to find themselves unable to reach the proposed benchmark of 5GCSEs A*-C including maths and English as the figures show (Chart 5 see link). If BTEC and "all equivalents" are removed from the figures then the average achievement of secondary moderns falls below 50%. That's not to say they are failing (although Mr Gove would say they were). But they are victims of a selective system.

The figures in the Stats First Release are contradicted by figures released shortly after the 2011 GCSE results were announced. Unfortunately the link to these figures is now broken but they showed that for GCSEs A*-C, comprehensives achieved 66.9%, academies 72.2%, secondary moderns, 57.7%, maintained selective 95%, and independent 90.4%. These figures, however, are for the number of GCSEs A*-C and not for those gaining 5 GCSEs A*-C. Nevertheless, it makes the figures for independents in the Stats First Release (link below) look a little odd, but as botzarelli says on his blog, the independent schools in the Stats First Release included independent special schools which would inevitably bring the total achievement down.


botzarelli's picture
Fri, 21/10/2011 - 11:29

Thanks for putting me straight on the admissions point. I don't think it makes that much difference though - if the overall results in openly selective areas are better than in non-selective areas the possibility that Free Schools might introduce an element of selection into non-selective areas is not uncontroversially "mad, bad and dangerous". I am happy to accept that GCSE results are not everything, and that the data shows that comprehensives have a higher proportion getting 5 GCSE A*-C including maths and English than Secondary Moderns so the meaning of the data can be argued over.

The point is that one thing the data does not do is provide a slam dunk for comprehensives against either selective state education or independent education, let alone have any relevance to Free Schools.

I haven't seen any posts on here or articles more generally extolling the virtues of specific secondary moderns or secondary moderns as a whole.

botzarelli's picture
Fri, 21/10/2011 - 11:34

I have updated my blog in any event as well as approving your comment and replying to it Allan - after all, if I didn't I'd be guilty of the same vice that prompted the blog in the first place!

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