Chief Inspector’s thoughts re grammar schools are soooo last century, says Grammar School head

Janet Downs's picture
"Anyone who thinks grammar schools are going to increase social mobility needs to look at those figures. I don't think they work.”

Sir Michael Wilshaw, Observer, 14 December 2013

This brought an angry response from Charlotte Marten, chairwoman of the Grammar School Heads’ Association (GSHA), who accused the Ofsted Chief Inspector of using “familiar and comfortable battle lines” to attack selection.  According to The Times, Ms Marten said Sir Michael was stuck in the 1970s.

Sir Michael was responding to calls for the re-establishment of grammar schools which, according to their supporters, helped social mobility.  But Sir Michael doesn’t agree: grammars might do well with the top 10% of the ability range but it was at the expense of the poorest.

OECD evidence supports Sir Michael: the most successful school systems in PISA tests don’t tend to segregate.  Selecting pupils at a young age for different “tracks” or schools is “negatively related to equity”, OECD found.

Ms Marten agreed grammar schools took fewer FSM pupils but said it wasn’t clear whether it was because such pupils didn’t enter the 11+ and were ruling themselves out.  She rightly said disadvantage has a negative effect on pupils’ learning - Sir Michael would counter this by saying disadvantage is no excuse.

The OECD backs up Ms Marten: pupils from poorer families don’t do as well in school as children from middle class families.  But, and the evidence swings back towards Sir Michael, there are “resilient” pupils who buck this trend.  Where Sir Michael and Education Secretary, Michael Gove, go beyond the OECD evidence is saying that all pupils can do better than might be expected from their background if schools and pupils put in the work.   Even in high-performing Shanghai, where 70% of disadvantaged pupils do better in school than might be expected based on background, there are still 30% that do not.  And in Finland, 50% do better; 50% don’t.

The UK does particularly badly in fostering resilient pupils.  In the UK only 24% of disadvantaged pupils (FSM) do better than would be expected. 

Ms Marten argues in the November 2013 GHSA Newsletter that the proportion of FSM pupils in grammar schools who achieved Level 5, the “indicator of grammar school potential”, is “significantly greater than the overall FSM proportion in the top 500 comprehensives”.

The Sutton Trust found 95% of top-performing 500 comprehensives only had an average of 7.6% FSM pupils.  This state of affairs, the Trust found, was more likely in schools which were their own admissions authority.  This suggests some schools are manipulating admissions to deter pupils who could have a negative impact on league table position.  This was backed up by the Academies Commission 2013.

But pointing out possibly dubious selection practices in some comprehensive schools doesn’t justify academic selection.  In any case, the proportion of FSM pupils in grammar schools, average 3%, is still below the proportion of FSM pupils in the top 500 comprehensive schools (7.6%).
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