Do selective school system reduce education gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children?

Janet Downs's picture
The Daily Mail is in no doubt – “comprehensive schools prevent pupils from poor backgrounds achieving their potential”. But the study the paper cited actually said the opposite: selecting students early for schooling based on ability “amplify socioeconomic inequalities in performance”.

The Mail singled out four European countries which, it said, had “virtually eliminated” the effects of disadvantage: Austria, Germany, Romania and Hungary. But only two of these (Austria and Germany) select pupils before the age of 15 and Germany is moving away from selection.

But is it true these four countries have reduced the effects of socio-economic background to practically zero? Not according to the latest figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development based on results from the 2012 PISA tests.

OECD number-crunchers took the “score point difference” in maths (the main focus of the 2012 tests) between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils, calculated how much this difference could be blamed on background as opposed to other criteria and produced a “strength of relationship” percentage. Countries with a score below the OECD of average of 14.6% were doing better than countries which exceeded the average in reducing the effect of background on pupils’ performance.

England’s score was 12.4% which shows England was doing slightly better than other countries in reducing the effect of socio-economic background. But the four countries praised by the Mail had scores above the average meaning they were not as good as reducing the effect:

Austria: 15.8%
Germany: 16.9%
Romania: 19.3%
Hungary: 23.1%

In contrast, the Mail said two European countries with comprehensive systems, Sweden and Norway, had been poor at reducing the effect of socio-economic background. But the latest OECD figures show Sweden’s strength of relationship score to be 10.6% and Norway’s was 7.4%.

These figures turn the Mail’s analysis upside-down.

However, it would be unwise to use this data to conclude a particular school system will always reduce the effects of background: comprehensive Denmark scored 16.5% while selective Northern Ireland scored 16.7%. Neither country had done as well as OECD average countries in reducing the effect of background on performance.

Nine European countries had lower strength of relationship scores than England but four of these scored lower than England in the maths tests. That left five countries which did better than England in maths AND which did better at reducing the effect of socio-economic background.

Do these five countries practise selection at an early age (ie at 10/11):

Iceland: No
Liechtenstein: Yes (but Liechtenstein is “almost a single-class” country)
Finland: No
Estonia: Not until 15 when primary education ends.
Netherlands: Selection at age 12 for entry into lower secondary at age 13.

This is too small a sample to conclude whether selection “works” or “doesn’t work” in reducing the socio-economic divide while at the same time scoring highly in PISA tests. But what the figures show is the difficulty of using test data to “prove” the superiority of one type of school system over another by just considering one factor.

NOTE: OECD data showing PISA index of economic, social and cultural status and performance in mathematics is shown in chart on p 167 NFER (December 2013 Revised April 2014)
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Patrick Hadley's picture
Mon, 14/04/2014 - 11:20

Does the study mention the presence in this country of a substantial number of fee paying schools as a factor in maintaining the social divide in educational outcomes in UK? There are far more pupils at fee-paying schools than at grammar schools.

If we had a totally egalitarian school system in this country where every child was given equal access to good education then in the long run the school system would have no effect at all on the social divide. This can be explained in this simplified way: if G stands for the inherited potential of the child, H stands for the environmental effects of home, neighbourhood, and other factors, and S stands for the influence of the school, each child's educational outcome will produced by combining G,H and S. If S were the same for all children then differences in outcomes would be caused entirely by G and H.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 14/04/2014 - 12:04

Patrick - the study cited by the Mail did comment on private schools. It found early selection/tracking and the presence of private schools "amplify socioeconomic inequalities in performances between students essentially by magnifying the effect of schools’ social composition on students’ competences.”

I used the most up-to-date OECD data.

The OECD implied that school systems could and should take steps to reduce the effect of socio-economic background (H in your example). In other words, OECD recognise that socio-economic background has an effect on pupil performance - that's something this Government tends to brush aside by saying background can't be used as an excuse.

But explaining that performance is affected by disadvantage is NOT the same as excusing it. Some disadvantaged children are "resilient" (ie they perform better than might be expected given their background) but these are in the minority in most countries. Even Shanghai, where 70% of children are said to be resilient, 25% were missing from the PISA 2012 data. OECD number-crunchers found Shanghai was NOT as effective as England in reducing the effect of background despite being the top performers in PISA tests (that missing 25%, perhaps). It gave Shanghai a strength of relationship score of 15.1%

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 14/04/2014 - 16:31

Patrick - While there is no doubt that genetic inheritance always makes a contribution to academic attainment, this is not the same as accepting the concept of a fixed 'inherited potential'. I suspect that the interaction between genes and learning experience is so complex that it is in principle mathematically indeterminate. The idea that what look like relatively simple physical and mathematical systems can have indeterminate outcomes is counter intuitive. If not explained, this is brilliantly described in James Gleick's now famous 1998 book 'Chaos'.

Of your other variables, I am sure that schooling is much richer in potential for positively affecting outcomes than socio-economic factors, once crude poverty and child abuse are overcome.

This too is counter intuitive - most people and unfortunately governments think it is the other way round and this leads to expensive and ineffective policies for addressing what is perceived to be educational under-performance.

The late Philip Adey wrote that, once the idea of fixed genetic potential at birth is abandoned, the concept of a general intelligence that can be enhanced through the right kind of teaching and learning becomes enormously exciting and optimistic.

However, what the right kind of teaching and learning looks like is also profoundly counter-intuitive. It is far more like what Henry saw in Finland than like many of the products of the English marketised school system that get labelled as 'Outstanding'.

Patrick Hadley's picture
Mon, 14/04/2014 - 16:54

Roger if we ignore hot potato of genetic inheritance (G) and only consider the fact that environmental factors such as home background and neighbourhood (H) are very influential in outcomes then if all children have exactly the same excellent schooling the differences between their results should correlate strongly to H.

In fact if anything I would expect differences in outcome to increase since those children who grow up in helpful environments will be able to take more advantage of their good schooling, because of factors such as: support from home, help with homework, a wide range of educational experiences and so on, than equally able children who come from unhelpful environments. School cannot remove the huge differences in the support given to learners in differently advantaged homes.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 14/04/2014 - 17:25

Patrick - Yes you would think so, but it is not true. Mossbourne Academy proves that home background has little effect in a good, genuinely comprehensive, all-ability school. In general children perform in accordance with their Cognitive Ability Test (CAT) scores. This applies as much to the highest CAT score pupils from the poorest backgrounds as to low CAT score pupils from affluent backgrounds. In Hackney all pupils take CAT tests in Y6.

I realise that the factors you mention, support from home, help with homework etc would be expected to make a big difference, but they don't. It's cognitive ability that counts. Fortunately, cognitive ability can be raised through the right kind of teaching and learning. Less happily it is not raised (or possibly it is even depressed) by the wrong sort. Unfortunately our marketised education system incentivises the latter rather than the former. I have written a book about it, that I hope will be published later this year. I realise that lots of people will disagree with me possibly until they read my book.

GL Assessment (who provide the CAT tests) have masses of statistical data that prove that what I say is true.

Patrick Hadley's picture
Mon, 14/04/2014 - 22:28

Excuse me if I am a bit sceptical of Mossbourne Academy. This is one mother's opinion: "
Michael Wilshaw did not turn Mossbourne Academy from a failing school into an outstanding one. The predecessor school had been closed at least seven years previously, and been razed to the ground. Mossbourne was built from the ground up, with a hugely ambitious architectural project, massive fanfare of publicity and huge injection of funds. And parents from all the posh bits of Hackney queueing up to get their kids in. That is not 'turning around a failing school', nor is it massively surprising that it has been so successful.

And yes, they take kids off the local rough estates, though they have a fiendishly complicated banding and catchment area system which ensures the local estate kids are balanced out by kids from much more affluent and ambitious families. And they get kids into Oxbridge. But the kids who get into Oxbridge are not the kids off the local estates - they have a whole new 6th form intake from all over London and Essex. If you did a Venn diagram of Mossbourne's intake with 'kids off the Pembury estate' in one circle and 'kids who get into Oxbridge' in another, there would be no overlap.

As for the argument that cognitive ability can be raised with the right sort of teaching, I know that you strongly believe this, but let me just say that extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence.

John Mountford's picture
Tue, 15/04/2014 - 08:41

Patrick - the point about cognitive enhancement is that it's all down to the teaching/instruction mode. Without the proper training, teaching to raise cognitive ability is too hit-and-miss. The results of Feuerstein's targeted interventions with immigrant children in Israel offers ample evidence that cognitive ability is raised through specific teaching strategies. His programme is in use all over the world and producing measurable results BUT only when the basic premise of his approach, mediated learning, is adhered to. Some more effective teachers demonstrate elements of the important relationship between individual testing, targeted teaching and follow-up testing. This is not how testing is viewed in our system and this is not how the training of teachers is conceived.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 15/04/2014 - 09:41

Patrick - Mossbourne operates a LA banded admissions system based on the Y7 CATs tests that all Hackney pupils take. The Mossbourne system does advantage the school because it ensures an intake in four bands that exactly matches the national distribution. This gives the Mossbourne intake an ability profile like a school serving an affluent country town. However Mossbourne's socio-economic profile is severely deprived and utterly different from said country town. Mossbourne's top band is selected from its immediate catchment. Any child with a test score of 110+ from the local community can get into Mossbourne because such pupils are thin on the ground. It is only in the lower bands that local pupils can't get in because there are far too many for the places available

You are making the false assumption that because poor areas produce pupils with low mean CATs scores (but some pupils with high scores), this somehow limits the attainment of the pupils with high CATs scores from disadvantaged homes.

It is a statistical fact that it doesn't. School attainment correlates with CATs scores to an astonishingly high degree, regardless of socio-economic index. If you control for CATs scores the correlation with socio-economic index is very weak. Not all schools can achieve Mossboune's success with pupils from poor homes. The school has to be a genuinely all-ability comprehensive and it has to be a good school that cognitively challenges all of its pupils and addresses any actual disadvantages arising from home background in simple practical ways, which contrary to your false assumption, is not very difficult to do in a genuinely comprehensive school.

As for you request for evidence. It is to be found in the success of the Cognitive Acceleration movement of Michael Shayer and Philip Adey. Cognitive enhancement through CASE is well documented in a number of peer reviewed academic studies, not to mention the testimonies of hundreds (thousands?) of teachers that use such methods, including some that post on this site.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 15/04/2014 - 16:16


"extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence"

Why should it be extraordinary to expect that good schooling results in pupils becoming cleverer and wiser? What are schools for if not this? Just filling children's heads with 'knowledge' presumably. I accept that this would not result in gains in cognitive ability and I fear that such approaches are becoming 'standard' under the influence of Michael Gove and various pressure groups.

John Mountford's picture
Mon, 14/04/2014 - 21:55

Roger, the work of Israeli education psychologist Reuven Feuerstein on mediated learning is an interesting example of cognitive enhancement. Feuerstein developed his programme of instrumental enrichment and in so doing helped shatter the notion of fixed hereditary intelligence.

In the current debate about standards and attainment it is foolish to persist with the claim, as many do, especially in politics and the media, that selecting pupils with the intention of improving education outcomes has any mileage. It does not but, it does achieve two things. First, where it operates, it ignores the evidence against selection and writes off so many young people, and secondly it does nothing to address the core problem, the type and quality of teaching.

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