Shine a light on what selection really means for children

Fiona Millar's picture
There is a lot around at the moment about grammar schools. The United Kingdom Independence Park, UKIP, wants a return to selection across the country; a rogue group of Tory MPs have started their own campaign to reverse Labour legislation banning new grammars.

And there are now two satellite grammar school bids being proposed; one in Maidenhead, Berkshire, and a revival of an earlier failed bid in Sevenoaks, Kent. A satellite grammar school must be an extension of an existing grammar, in the same area and sharing the same characteristics as the parent school. These proposals have been made possible by the coalition’s changes to rules permitting school expansion.

Should we be worried? As a die-hard anti selection campaigner, my initial reaction was to feel anger and frustration that we should still be having these arguments about selection over fifty years after the argument about keeping a national system of bi-partite schooling was decisively lost.

Those arguments that would have been easier to avoid if the last Labour government had bitten the bullet and abolished selection in the 25% of local authorities where it still exists.

But on reflection I realise that this new flurry of pro-grammar activity presents us with an opportunity. Firstly to remind people that a return to grammars also means a return to secondary modern schools – and we don’t see many parents campaigning for them.

Then to build alliances across political lines on this issue. Researching a piece for the Guardian about the current pro-grammar campaign I discovered almost as much anger about this subject amongst the right of centre supporters of Michael Gove, like his former adviser Sam Freedman and the current head of education at the Policy Exchange think tank, Jonathan Simons, as there is amongst many of us on the left.

Finally and most importantly I think this gives us the opportunity to show people what selection means in practice. How do grammar schools affect local children? Who gets in and who doesn’t? Does selection really promote social mobility? If we are to shine a spotlight on these issues we need to be gathering evidence on an almost industrial scale, in much the same way as the new Local, Equal Excellent campaign has been doing in Buckinghamshire.

These campaigners have been using Freedom of Information requests, to the grammar schools and the local authority, to build up a picture of grammar school admissions in the county. The sort of information they have requested includes; school name; school type; coding for child’s residence; coding for school’s location; standardised scores for separate exam element; overall standardised score; outcomes of review/appeals (where these are completed); child’s gender, child’s ethnicity, whether the child speaks English as a second language; whether the child receives free school meals; any other information on children’s background characteristics.

 In spite of the much promoted “tutor proof test” that the Bucks grammar schools have introduced, it turns out that fewer children from local primary schools and eligible for FSM get in to the local grammars than before. More out of county children are sitting the Bucks tests and the grammars are actually admitting more pupils from local fee-paying prep schools than they did before the introduction of the so-called tutor-proof test. You can read more about this in another Guardian article of mine here.

One of the Bucks campaigners Katy Simmons says that local parents are amazed when they are shown the information:“ Parents are shocked when we show them the evidence. They realise that it matters where you live and how well off you are. They see that it's a lottery - with the chances of winning firmly stacked against most of them and they don't think that is fair,” she explained.

Even Aylesbury MP, David Lidington, has publicly expressed concern at the very low pass rate in less affluent parts of his constituency. So if we can gather this sort of information in each of the local authorities where the 11 plus test is still used –15 of which are fully selective – we might stand a chance of turning public opinion and beating this historical abomination once and for all.
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Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 22/12/2014 - 09:56

We keep being told grammar schools are incredibly popular and oversubscribed. That’s why there needs to be more of them.

But oversubscription numbers can be deceiving. All mentions are counted even if a school is last on a parent’s list of preferences. This gives a false sense of demand (see here). It’s more reliable, therefore, to judge a school’s popularity on the number of first choice preferences not the last.

Take Lincolnshire, for example. Figures from Lincolnshire LA (download Going to Secondary School in Lincs here) show first choice for Lincolnshire grammars which seem to contradict the massive demand argument. For example:

Boston Grammar: 108 first place preferences for 112 places.

Queen Elizabeth Grammar, Alford: 95 first choice for 85 places.

Queen Elizabeth High, Gainsborough: 195 first choice for 180 places.

Skegness Grammar: 77 first choice preferences for 132 places.

Parents can't name a grammar as a preference if the child hasn't passed the 11+. Perhaps the much-touted demand for grammars includes the number of children who took the test but failed since the demand for places in Lincolnshire grammars for children who were successful doesn't appear overwhelming.

Nigel Ford's picture
Mon, 22/12/2014 - 17:42

Never mind the downsides of sec mods with their restricted curriculum and the stigma of failing the 11+ exam, but if you believe pupils can maximise their potential within a comprehensive school and can go on to the best universities, and there is living proof of this, why develop an apartheid within the state system by bringing back grammar schools? All that will happen is that the bright comprehensive pupils will be populating the grammar schools while the average and below average kids attend sec mods.

Andy V's picture
Mon, 22/12/2014 - 19:39

When this type of comment is made, "Firstly to remind people that a return to grammars also means a return to secondary modern schools – and we don’t see many parents campaigning for them", it lowers LSN to the level of politicians and their false vacuous rhetoric. That argument is as empty and tired as the return to grammars. It is also hugely insulting to those who attended a sec mod, left with GCE O Levels and went on to university and got a good degree. I'd campaign for that.

The fundamentals of the sec mod argument also militate against Studio Schools, which as far as I am concerned are a welcome addition to education.

There again it might also be a reinforcement of the perception that there is an elitist niche group on LSN.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 23/12/2014 - 08:33

It is not ‘vacuous rhetoric’ to point out that a return to selection would mean a return to two-tier schooling: grammars for the brights, secondary modern-type schools for the not-so-bright, And remember that sorting children into these categories at age 10/11 gives children judgemental labels which tend to stick. It’s rather like that John Cleese sketch:

‘I am bright, I look down on them because they’re not-so-bright.’

‘We are not-so-bright. We are considered dimmer than Bright.’

It may well be that the second-tier schools would result in some pupils doing well enough in exams to go to uni as happened with a tiny number of secondary modern pupils when secondary moderns started offering an extra year to those pupils capable of doing O levels. But that doesn’t stop people being judged on the school they attending (a peculiar English disease rinks ranks schools and those that attended them in a dubious hierarchy).

It is not ‘insulting’ to point out that those sec mod pupils who did do go to university thanks to the education they received show that a two-tier system is one worth resurrecting. It could be argued that those ex sec-mod pupils did so in spite of the system not because of it. Those pupils could have done just as well in a comprehensive school without having the secondary-modern stigma.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 23/12/2014 - 08:34

'There again it might also be a reinforcement of the perception that there is an elitist niche group on LSN.' Is this an example of 'false vacuous rhetoric'? Discuss.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 23/12/2014 - 09:15

International evidence shows early selection exaggerates the effect of socio-economic backround. It also shows that the most-successful countries in PISA tests tend not to segregate children according to ability or on account of where they live.

There are exceptions, of course. Singapore's selective system is cited as a successful selective one. But in 2008, streaming was replaced with subject-based banding (ie 'setting' which is common in English secondary schools for some subjects). In Singapore, pupils take a Primary School Leaving Exam at the end of Primary 6 (age 12). Based on the results, the majority (60%) go to an express course, 25% follow 'normal academic' and 15% proceed to 'normal technical'.

What happens in Singapore is not the same as the English grammar system whereby the minority proceed to an express-type, solely academic course and the majority follow something like 'normal technical' comprising academic with vocational.

Supporters of Singapore's system say it offers a tailored, 'ability-led' approach. But those who oppose say it exposes children 'to high-stake examinations that can very early on in their life-course determine their life chances and life choices.' This same argument is given against sorting children at age 11 based on a couple of tests.

Andy V's picture
Tue, 23/12/2014 - 09:42

Many English state schools defer from teaching mixed ability groups (the alleged true heartbeat of a Comprehensive education system) preferring banding, setting, streaming. How different are the latter from selection? Discuss.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 23/12/2014 - 11:04

Andy - streaming = selecting pupils for particular schools or 'streams' based on tests. This is fixed.

Setting- putting pupils in sets according to ability in a few subjects (eg maths) - not fixed but fluid. Sets changed yearly. And not in all subjects are set which means pupils can mix with other pupils of different ability etc at different times.

Andy V's picture
Tue, 23/12/2014 - 11:17

Janet - Nice pithy exposition but it is still selection. Indeed with setting arguably it is easier to move down than up and the fluidity decreases rapidly in KS3 and is near non-existent in KS4.

The psychological impact of children caused by being placed in lower sets or streams carries the potential to be equally as damaging as not gaining entry to the grammar process.

There is no dodging the reality that in true Comprehensive education there is only mixed ability. Anything else is a fudge that attempts to replicate an internal equivalent of the grammar system.

Andy V's picture
Tue, 23/12/2014 - 09:53

My child is in the top set / band, I look down on those in lower groups because they're not so bright.

My child is in the lower sets / bands, I'm considered to be not as bright as those at the top.

"But that doesn’t stop people being judged on the school they attending (a peculiar English disease rinks ranks schools and those that attended them in a dubious hierarchy)." The only place I've ever encountered this is LSN where it is frequently trotted out. I never met it in any workplace or interview environment. The latter includes a considerable period in the RN (including as a commissioned officer), state schools (teacher and senior leader), and independent schools (teaching, bursar and senior leader). That said, it is by no means all contributors just a handful.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 23/12/2014 - 14:12

Andy - it's not just LSN who's 'trotted out' the hierarchy of schools in England. See Sir Peter Newsam* writing in 2003. He described just such a hierarchy of state secondary schools ranging from 'super-selective' to 'sub-secondary modern'.

Sir Peter was just listing state secondary schools. What's missing, of course, is a supposed 'top layer' of independent schools. These, too, can be ranked. Public schools at the top (sub-divided into tiers: Eton and Harrow, top public schools, minor public schools) followed by private schools (selective, non-selective).

There's a story about the Bullingdon Club when Cameron, Johnson and Osborne were members. It's said that Osborne was called 'oik' because he'd only been to St Paul's and not Eton or Harrow.

*p5 Forum 45 No 1 2003 downloadable here.

Andy V's picture
Tue, 23/12/2014 - 15:45

Janet - The context of my comment was that "I" have never encountered labelling for being educated in a Sec Mod setting.

I have not suggested that such stigmatising/discrimination has not and does not exist. As a consequence of several incidents on LSN where contributors - how shall I put this - are less than careful / thoughtful / diplomatic in how they articulate their antipathy toward Sec Mods.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 23/12/2014 - 16:01

Andy - but your personal anecdote appeared to be presented as evidence that discrimination against sec mod pupils didn't exist and your experience showed that opinions 'trotted out' by LSN contributors were only found on this forum.

And I'm not sure there have been all that many contributors who have been thoughtless of undiplomatic in their attitude to sec mods. Perhaps you've been confusing criticism of the grammar/sec mod system with criticism of those pupils who attended sec mods.

Andy V's picture
Tue, 23/12/2014 - 16:19

Janet - And now we resort to sophistry to twist and distort what I actually said, how very sad and disappointing. I credited you with being a more balanced contributor but you have evidenced that I misjudged that.

Perhaps I should become a shrinking violet and just agree with you and all others just because it would keep everyone happy and maintain the status-quo.

I think its time to say adiós and disengage from this thread.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 24/12/2014 - 08:47

Sorry, Andy, but I was taking your comment at face value. I thought your anecdote was being presented as evidence as it appeared that way.

Shame about your ad-hominem attack.

However, because it's the season of goodwill, I will take the comment as being the result of too much rich food.

Take some Gaviscon (it's good for bile) and have a Happy Christmas.

Andy V's picture
Wed, 24/12/2014 - 09:00

How wonderfully rich and full of barbed personalised pique.

You acknowledge your errant misconstrual and then have the gall to advise on a cure for bile. This is even worse than the pot calling the kettle. Finished off with a helping of ill-considered festive greeting that is so out of place in your menu of pointed comments.

agov's picture
Tue, 23/12/2014 - 10:53

"I never met it in any workplace or interview environment."

I have.

I'd say it became apparent fairly frequently at interviews with job agencies etc in the 60s i.e. when there were plenty of grammar schools around. How their faces would fall when I told them that no, I had not attended grammar school.

[1st attempt at posting.]

Andy V's picture
Tue, 23/12/2014 - 11:05

Perhaps the decade or so difference between us - I left school in '72 - brought with it a moderated attitude (e.g. post the introduction of GCE O Levels in Sec Mods).

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 23/12/2014 - 14:49

agov - that attitude is still alive in areas which retain selection. There's a sense that non-selective schools are not as 'good' as grammars.

I comment as 'ex-secondary modern teacher' on Telegraph threads. This name reveals the prejudice held by some other posters. Many of the remarks imply that as a former secondary modern teacher I wasn't bright enough to get a job in a grammar. This shows that among these posters (and they might not be representative) there's an assumption that secondary moderns were filled with second-rate teachers. In other words: second-tier schools for second-tier children.

If selection were allowed throughout England, I've no doubt this attitude would become prevalent. And it would, as it did in the late 60s and early 70s, be very, very unpopular with the majority of parents whose children did not gain a place in the first-tier schools.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 23/12/2014 - 14:39

Andy - it's important to remember the supposed Golden Age of grammars peaked in 1965. That's before 1972 when, as you correctly say, secondary moderns had introduced O levels. 1972 was also the year the school leaving age was raised to 16 which naturally increased the number of pupils aged over 15 in education. And these older pupils would be able to take exams at 16.

The number of grammars fell from 1,285 in 1965 to 566 in 1975. So did the number of secondary moderns (3,727 to 1,216) At the same time, the number of comps grew from just 262 in 1965 to 2,596 in 1975. There was a small number of direct-grant grammar schools (independent schools where 25% of the intake was state-funded). These had the option of becoming fully independent or state-funded comprehensives in the mid 1970s.

The selective system was dying in 1972. The fact that sec mod pupils were leaving with O levels showed that selection at 11 was unnecessary.

However, the strident call for a reintroduction of grammars would mean a return to the segregation which was shown to be obsolete (and deeply unpopular with parents) in the early 70s.

Reference: Education: Historical statistics
Standard Note: SN/SG/4252
Last updated: 27 November 2012
House of Commons Library

Andy V's picture
Tue, 23/12/2014 - 11:06

Perhaps the decade or so difference between us - I left school in '72 - brought with it a moderated attitude (e.g. post the introduction of GCE O Levels in Sec Mods).

PS Delighted to note the first time success with posting :-)

Ingenue Governor's picture
Fri, 26/12/2014 - 18:49

I'm still waiting for the research that assesses how happy the very able children are in comprehensive schools ?

I support comprehensive schools but it took us 2 years of hard work to increase the resilience of our very able son against the spitefulness and derision of a small but insidiously influential group of peers at his comprehensive . In the end we had to admit defeat about empathy etc and promote fairly unpleasant and arrogant " f U " thought processes about how his future and those of his tormentors differed. We hated doing it but it worked ; he's happy now at the same school .

Parents want to believe their able child will be protected from derision but in many schools , comprehensive, grammer and independent it's simply not the case.

Ingenue Governor's picture
Fri, 26/12/2014 - 22:05

there are also more covert ways of selection

Single sex comprehensives are an effective way of social selection
e.g Parliament Hill has 55% disadvantaged girls in the 2014 performance tables YET only 9 % are classified as low attainers and the average point score at entry is 28.4 some 0.7 points above the national average. Add the " siblings rule" ..which will guarantee male entry into the partner male school and inner city social segration is assured!

David Barry's picture
Mon, 29/12/2014 - 17:03

Parliament Hill does not have a "partner male school". Also I do not understand how Parliament Hill School's single sex status causes social selection. I would also point out that Parliament Hill School, which has a rather large radius of admission has a large number of highly rated primary schools from which its pupils come.

Ingenue Governor's picture
Fri, 26/12/2014 - 22:18

so what we should be campaigning for is " a flurry" of single sex comprehensives ?

Ingenue Governor's picture
Sat, 27/12/2014 - 06:41

Ingenue Governor's picture
Wed, 31/12/2014 - 19:17

Parliament Hill is in partnership with the male William Ellis school for sixth form and a sibling , male or female in sixth form will prioritise a younger child for a place at either school

QUOTE from William Ellis Admissions policy

2. Applicants with a brother in the school at the time when the applicant is to join. This can include siblings* in the
sixth form as long as they are on roll at the same school and will still be on roll when the sibling joins.

David Barry's picture
Wed, 31/12/2014 - 22:50

I am afraid you are in error.

Having a child at William Ellis does not give you sibling preference for entry at year 7 in Parliament Hill and vice versa, any more than it would give you sibling preference for la Sante Union, which as a Catholic School has a religious criterion, or Acland Burleigh which is a co educational comprehensive.

They are all separate schools.

However at sixth form these four schools come together as a consortium called La Swap, which is co ed, and depending on A level choice a La Swap pupil will have classes, sometimes in one school only but often in more than one. So Parliament Hill is in partnership with William Ellis but at Sixth form only, and is equally in partnership with Acland Burleigh and la Sante Union.

Your quote from the William Ellis Admissions policy applies to William Ellis only. Which is why it uses the gender specific term "brother"

Ingenue Governor's picture
Sat, 03/01/2015 - 21:37

The "siblings* in the sixth form " is qualified in the admissions policy as brother or sister whihc implies that if you have a sibling of either gender etc etc ....

however back to my main point ............which I will repeat
" shouldn't we be campaigning for a " flurry" of single sex comprehensives.......

Why defend comprehensives and deride single sex grammar schools without acknowledging the impact of success, not to mention the popularity with parents , on the very high proportion of single sex comprehensives in this particular London area ?

David Barry's picture
Sat, 03/01/2015 - 22:34

This is getting tedious.

Ok if you have a sibling at William Ellis you get preference for entrance at year seven to William Ellis. This includes a sibling in the William Ellis Sixth Form. (Providing they will still be there when their younger sibling starts.) You DO NOT get sibling preference if you have a sibling at Parliament Hill School, (or La Sainte Union or Acland Burleigh) as they are all DIFFERENT schools.

Ingenue Governor's picture
Sat, 03/01/2015 - 21:39

not to mention

"I’m still waiting for the research that assesses how happy the very able children are in comprehensive schools "

Ingenue Governor's picture
Sat, 03/01/2015 - 21:41

If I annotate a quote from Fiona's article ........

"Finally and most importantly I think this gives us the opportunity to show people what SINGLE SEX EDUCATION means in practice. How do SINGLE SEX COMPREHENSIVES schools affect local children? Who gets in and who doesn’t?

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