The Sutton Trust is right to highlight covert selection, but tackling England's socially-segregated school system won't be solved by opening up private or grammar schools to a few more FSM pupils.

Janet Downs's picture
“…the schools in this study, by and large, are not using forms of overt selection, they are exercising covert selection,” said the Sutton Trust’s report Improving social mobility through education.

The report recommended random ballots or banding across all abilities to address this issue.

But the press release added a further recommendation which wasn’t in the full report.

“At the same time, independent day schools should be opened up by a state funded system of open access, and grammar schools by a combination of outreach and fairer admissions.”

But independent schools would be unlikely to accept pupils, disadvantaged or otherwise, who were average or below-average ability. Grammar schools certainly wouldn’t.

This suggestion assumes private schools are always better than state ones. But this isn’t so. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development found that although UK private schools outperformed state schools in PISA tests the situation was reversed when socio-economic background was taken into account. UK state schools outperformed private ones. And the Institute of Fiscal Studies found a school’s results depend on the quality of intake.

The report's foreword, written by Sir Peter Lampl, the Trust’s chairman, describes private schools, 7% of English schools, as “world-class”. But this isn’t so if Ofsted* is to be believed. Ofsted directly inspects nearly half of England’s independent schools. In 2010/11 it found teaching in private schools was not good in one-third and outstanding in only 7%. 4% of them were inadequate. Teaching was “often well planned but seldom inspiring”. At the same time Ofsted found 20% of English state schools were outstanding, 50% were good and 2% inadequate at their last inspection.

It’s not possible, therefore, to describe all of England’s independent schools as “world-class”.

But what of the rest – the ones that Ofsted doesn’t inspect directly? According to the Daily Telegraph "top 100" tables 2012, there was only one independent school in the top ten - in 10th position. All the 100 schools had 100% of pupils gaining 5 GCSEs A*-C including maths and English so the Telegraph ranked them according to GCSE point-score. St Paul’s, George Osborne’s old school, was 17th; Westminster, often named in Government dispatches, was 33rd and Eton, where the Prime Minister was educated, was 41st.

There would be few disadvantaged pupils in the Telegraph's "top 100". And they select according to the ability. So, unlike schools in most top-performing school systems, these schools segregate by ability and by social background.

That said, there are some fully comprehensive schools with a high proportion of FSM pupils in the Sutton Trust’s “top 500”: one LA maintained school, one voluntary-aided faith school and one converter academy. Although one of these relied heavily on equivalent examinations (pupils were entered for an average of 11.1 exams but only 5.7 were GCSEs), there were similarities in each school’s approach. They emphasized high standards and offered “personalised” support.

Perhaps this is what the Sutton Trust should be advocating: more targeted teaching, more formative assessment and a commitment to fully comprehensive schools in addition to fair banding and random ballots. After all, it was the Sutton Trust that found comprehensive school pupils outperformed their equally qualified peers from independent and grammar schools at university. And research published in 2011 concluded “Overall, our findings suggest that comprehensive schools were as good for mobility as the selective schools they replaced.”

It’s not clear, therefore, why a Sutton Trust afterthought thinks a few more disadvantaged, bright children entering independent and grammar schools would do anything to make the English school system less segregated.


*  Ofsted Annual Report 2010/11 downloadable here.

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