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!