The myth of the 'grammar school' comprehensive

Adrian Elliott's picture
Opponents of comprehensive education have often argued that the most successful comprehensive schools are simply grammar schools in disguise; so socially and academically exclusive as to be indistinguishable from schools which select their entry.

No commentator on English education could deny for a moment that there are huge differences in intake across the system which is the main determinant of educational outcomes at most schools and many would argue these differences have hugely damaging social and educational consequences.

But on the smaller point of these so-called ‘grammar comprehensives’, data in the latest DfE performance tables would suggest their existence has been over-stated. The Sutton Trust published research in 2005 showing that the percentage of pupils on free schools at the top performing comprehensive schools was well below average (although still twice that of grammar schools which wasn’t as widely reported).

The new tables show the percentage of pupils on intake in three categories high, medium and low performing. The high performers represent the brightest,in test terms, 25% of the child population at 11, equivalent to the expected level for grammar school level.

I looked at the percentages of high performing pupils on entry to six schools in North Yorkshire – the three grammar schools in the county , Ermysted’s (boys) in Skipton, Skipton Girls’ High School and Ripon Grammar (mixed) and three high performing 11-18 comprehensive schools, Harrogate Grammar School,St.John Fisher and St.Aidan’s – all in Harrogate.

The percentage of high performers are as follows with the percentage achieving 5 higher grades GCSEs in brackets

Ermysteds 92 (99), Skipton Girls 94 (100), Ripon 87 (100)
Harrogate Grammar 46 (82),St.John Fisher 47 (84) St.Aidan’s 57 (88)

What is clear is that although none of the intakes of these comprehensive schools is anywhere near representative of the child population nationally (and probably not of Harrogate) nor is their intake remotely a grammar school one.

In two of the three school most of their pupils would have failed the 11+, in the third school over 40% would have done so. Despite this they are achieving results which are not far behind that of the grammar schools.

Of course, 5 GCSE passes at C or above is a fairly crude measurement but then so is the division of the entire child population into three academic categories. Just as we don’t know the number of A and A*s achieved in the three schools nor do we know what percentage of the different schools’ intakes fall into the top 10% or 5% of the child population . A few years ago the head of one of the most successful independent schools in the country said there was little chance of getting into his school if you weren’t in the top 2% of the population academically!
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Adrian Elliott's picture
Tue, 31/01/2012 - 21:52

'The Sutton Trust published research in 2005 showing that the percentage of pupils on free schools at the top performing comprehensive schools was well below average'.

Should read free school meals of course.Obviously too much on here about free schools!

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 01/02/2012 - 09:45

Adrian - you rightly point out the importance of looking at a school's intake when making judgements about a school. You also rightly point out the crudeness of using raw results to judge a school (something the OECD has warned about in England).

Even using the government's preferred measure - percentage of pupils that achieve 5+ GCSEs A*-C including Maths and English - it would be interesting to discover how far high attainers in grammar schools outperform, if at all, high attainers in neighbouring schools. In Boston, Lincolnshire, an academy (inexplicably designated "modern") and a comprehensive with a secondary modern intake both outperformed the selective schools for the percentage of higher attainers gaining the benchmark (see breakdown below).

What is also puzzling about the Boston figures is the lower than expected number of high attainers at the selective Boston High School (girls). Given that all of the intake passed the 11+, this did not seem to be mirrored in SAT results. This either demonstrates the unreliability of 11+ tests or could it be, as mentioned on another thread, that the Boston Grammar Schools struggle to fill their places so offer places to those pupils who actually failed but were at the "top" end of the middling range?

What this demonstrates in the mess which results from a selective system - comprehensives which are skewed towards the bottom end, selective schools creaming high attainers but barely outperforming neigbouring school in results for high ability pupils, non-grammar schools being perceived as second-best and second-rate, and in Lincolnshire there's even an academy designated "modern".

And yet grammar school advocates want more of this because, allegedly, it's what parents want.

Breakdown of figures:

Boston Grammar (Boys) - intake 84% high attainers - 95% achieved benchmark
Boston High (Girls) - intake 72% high attainers - 99% achieved benchmark
Giles Academy (actually designated "modern" not comprehensive) - intake 15% high attainers - 100% achieved benchmark
Haven High (designated comprehensive but in reality it's secondary modern with only 6% high attainers, 40% low attainers) - 100% high attainers achieved benchmark
Middlecot School - intake 14% high attainers - 92% achieved benchmark
St Bede's Catholic VA (designated "modern"), only 6% high attainers - number so low that the high attainment benchmark figures were suppressed.
William Lovell VC (designated "modern") 16% high achievers - 85% achieved benchmark.

Tim Bidie's picture
Wed, 01/02/2012 - 16:35

Your numbers on Harrogate are very interesting and confirm, exactly, the anecdotal opinion of parents in the area.

The vast majority of parents know well what the situation is regarding local education.

There is a belief, a theme among educationalists, that the upper tier of pupils help to pull a lot of the less able up by their bootstraps.

I accept that view but would qualify it by saying that if, say, a top tier of 20% of the most capable pupils are suddenly removed from a school, the next 20% will step up to the mark. They may not be as capable, but, if the theory holds true, they will be that bit closer to the bottom 20% in ability, thus providing a more achievable goal for the others.

So Grammar schools are part of a patchwork of schools that many admire. Where they identify demand, they expand. So be it. Let it be.

The strategic role of government must be simple and it must be to support/reinforce success and address/remediate failure.

It really isn't complicated. It is the lower achieving schools in Harrogate that require attention.

As the Ofsted Chief Inspector has said:

“The essential truths are that a poor leader runs a poor school; a good leader runs a good school. A good teacher can make a difference in a classroom; a poor teacher makes little or no difference. I think we know what makes a good school. We just need to make sure it happens on the ground now.”

Nigel Ford's picture
Thu, 02/02/2012 - 11:24

There's not disparity between the ebacc performances with the 3 grammar schools averaging 60.66% and the comprehensives 53.66%.

I know not too much can be read into ebacc as it is narrow and was sprung on schools as a quantifiable criterion retrospectively, but Ermysted's performed worse than the 3 comps.

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