The Bald truth is: it's selection - stupid!

Melissa Benn's picture
Below, an important piece, written by Margaret Tulloch, which appears on the Comprehensive Future website this morning and provides a detailed rebuttal of some of the misunderstandings in the current 'let's expand/return to grammars' debate, a debate given fresh and dubious political life by UKIP's ill considered policy in this area.

Conservative Home has now joined the fray - following on from the launch of the campaign in support of more grammars by Conservative Voice a few days ago - with contributors making a number of misleading statements about everything from parental choice to the percentage of state school students at Oxbridge.

But as Margaret Tulloch argues, it is one Mr John Bald that 'must claim the prize for the most unsubstantiated claims in his post'. She deals with these claims very effectively. See below.

LSN supporters might, incidentally, be amused by Mr Bald's claim that the Local Schools Network is one of the most 'fervent opponents' of the Tories on this issue although, apparently, LSN has a social not an educational interest in schools policy! ( Ah that old saw about comprehensives and 'social engineering' ..)

Sadly, Mr Bald is pointing fingers in the wrong direction. For all the grand pronouncements from various politicians over the years about putting the interests of poor children to the forefront of schools policy, our system continues to protect, and advance, the interests of children from affluent families. Apart from private schools, of course, grammars are perhaps the purest example of social engineering currently at work in English education - which is why we don't need more of them.

It is vital, in this period of fresh assault on the idea of comprehensive education, that we continually rebut 'grammar school' myths. So LSN supporters - get posting. Fervently, of course!


It’s selection – stupid!

A few days ago Conservative Voice launched their campaign for more grammar schools. Now Conservative Home has joined the debate. While one contributor Paul Goodman sets out why more selection is not a good idea, two other contributors Damien Green MP and John Bald support the campaign for more grammars.

Damien Green argues for ‘a variety of schools’ so ‘parents can choose what they want for their children’. He seems to ignore the fact that when schools select parental choice is reduced, except for the minority whose children pass the test or perhaps more accurately whose parents have paid for the tutoring to enable them to pass the test.

He claims that ‘when we had grammar schools’ Oxbridge was much less of the domain of the privately educated than it later became. But a Standard Note from the House of Commons Library in June reported that ‘A survey carried out in 1961 as part of the work for the Robbins Report found that 34% of all students at Oxford and 27% at Cambridge had attended a state secondary school’. The Standard Note included the latest (2013) percentages for Oxbridge state school entries which are 55% for Cambridge and 57.8% for Oxford.

But John Bald must claim the prize for the most unsubstantiated claims in his post.

He reports that education in England and Wales has been ‘dominated’ for the past 50 years by a single Ministerial circular in 1965 calling for a national policy for comprehensive education. Lord Baker might claim otherwise. His introduction of Local Management of Schools, the National Curriculum and SATs in 1988 was pretty dominant, not to mention Labour’s introduction of academies in 2000.

Quoting as usual specific examples of ex grammar school pupils who have done well he claims that grammar schools have continued the tradition of getting the more disadvantaged into higher education and ‘updated it to include a modern understanding of personal responsibility’. He says ‘most comprehensives do not operate to this standard’. He does not quote the evidence for this sweeping generalisation. He seems to muddle up mixed ability teaching, Ken Livingstone and ILEA, the teaching of reading and the advent of academies, none of which relate to any evidence for the need for more grammar schools.

To be fair he does make one concession to the reality of secondary education in selective areas – ‘You can’t take a town like Southend with four grammar schools and just eight other secondaries and pretend that the others are genuine comprehensives’.

But neither Damien Green nor John Bald make a case for selection – any evidence that selecting pupils at 11 raises standards for all or is a fair and reliable test of ability or that, even if it was, that there then is a need to put pupils in different establishments when they leave their comprehensive primary schools. You can’t have grammar schools without the 11 plus but nowhere does either supporter answer the evidence against selection put so clearly by Professor Chris Husbands.

There are excellent schools which do not select the pupils first – so – with apologies to Bill Clinton – it’s selection – stupid!

by Margaret Tulloch
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Barry Wise's picture
Wed, 17/12/2014 - 13:16

He claims that ‘when we had grammar schools’ Oxbridge was much less of the domain of the privately educated than it later became. But a Standard Note from the House of Commons Library in June reported that ‘A survey carried out in 1961 as part of the work for the Robbins Report found that 34% of all students at Oxford and 27% at Cambridge had attended a state secondary school’.

Does anyone know how the Robbins survey would have classified the 170+ Direct Grant grammars? These had 25% of places funded directly by central government and 75% by fees (though in some cases the local authority would pay the fees for certain students). This hybridity might well mean that they were not classed as 'state schools' for Robbins purposes alongside the 1200 maintained grammars. And yet, these were involved in providing social mobility. I wouldn't be surprised if they didn't have a high Oxford and Cambridge hit rate as they included many of the iconic grammar schools: Manchester Grammar, Bradford Grammar etc.

It would be absurd to leave them out of the equation.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 17/12/2014 - 14:50

Barry - direct grant grammar schools continued 'outside the maintained sector after the 1944 Act.' *

I interpret that as meaning that state-funded pupils in direct grant grammar schools would be classed as being from 'independent' schools.

There were 1,665 independent primary/secondary schools in England and Wales in 1960** including 179 direct-grant grammar schools.

Independent schools in 1960 educated 404,000 pupils**. These included primary schools as well as secondary so it's difficult to work out how many pupils would be in independent secondary schools let alone direct grant grammars. However, direct grant grammars formed slightly less than 10% of independent schools and only a quarter of pupils in this 10% would have been state-funded.

I think, therefore, the number of state-funded pupils who entered uni from direct grant grammars in 1960 would have been quite small especially as only 11% of all pupils who were 13 in 1956 were still in school in 1960 when they were 17***.

It would appear, then, the proportion of state-funded pupils (whether from state grammars or independent direct grant grammars) entering uni in the early 1960s would have been lower than the proportion of state-educated pupils entering uni today.

It is, therefore, untrue to say unis were less of the domain of the privately-educated when there were grammars as Damien Green claims.

* See page 2 'Grammar school statistics Standard Note: SN/SG/1398 Last updated: 17 December 2013'

**Table 4 'Education: Historical statistics Standard Note: SN/SG/4252 Last updated: 27 November 2012'

***Table 5, as above.

(I can't provide links - you'll have to google).

Barry Wise's picture
Thu, 18/12/2014 - 11:16

Thanks Janet,

But there is still an anomaly. In 2011 grammar schools accounted for one third of all state school places at Oxford and Cambridge. Assuming the proportion for England is the same as for the UK as a whole, that means that 3,000 or so comprehensives between them won only twice as many places as 164 - a tiny number - of grammar schools. Yet you are arguing that back when there were more than 1,200 grammars, the position wasn't so good (and your figures seem to support this). You can, I hope, see why I'm scratching my head here.Surely 1,200 grammars would have done at least three times better than 164?

It could be that the increase in the state share of Oxbridge places has more to do with a broader current of social and attitudinal change and we should attribute most of any increase to factors beyond the school system.

What's more - that stubborn reality that 164 grammars account for a third of places is bound to be significant in the current debate because advocates of selection will say that the figures show that by adding another 100 grammars you'd make a huge difference.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 18/12/2014 - 12:00

Barry - you're not alone in scratching your head. But the number of pupils going to university has increased since 1960 doubling in seven years*. In 1960, about 25,000 students obtained first degrees (ie Bachelor's degrees, not first-class ones) but this increased to 50,000 before the end of the decade.

At the same time, participation rates grew:

'Overall participation in higher education increased from 3.4% in 1950, to 8.4% in 1970, 19.3% in 1990 and 33% in 2000.'

The picture is further confused because polytechnics became universities in 1994. This boosted the number of first degrees awarded significantly from about 75,000 in 1993 to 225,000 following amalgamation.

As you say, there are about 3000 non-grammar secondaries. But non-grammar secondaries in selective areas are not necessarily comprehensive. Their intake can be skewed to the bottom end. In addition many schools don't have sixth forms so can't be included in any data about the proportion of pupils who eventually go to Oxbridge.

And as I've said before, comprehensives educate the entire ability range. Any comp with a fully-comprehensive intake would have about 25% previously-high attaining pupils (as measured by Sat results). This compares with a far higher proportion at grammars. Even the middle-attainers attending grammars would likely be at the top of the middle range because they'd already passed an 11+ test.

Given the differences in intake and possibly age range, it's difficult to compare comps with grammars.

That said, why is Oxbridge entry considered a way of measuring schools especially when it appears that some selective sixth forms (eg London Academy of Excellence) have been accused of culling pupils who aren't 'Russell Group' ready?

*'Education: Historical statistics Standard Note...' cited above.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 17/12/2014 - 16:04

As well as ILEA, mixed ability, Ken Livingstone, Circular 10/65, there were other ingredients in John Bald's cauldron (and precious little evidence):

1 Any head who's appeared in the 'Educating...' series especially Jonny Mitchell
2 Progressives
3 The 'Left'.

All of these are stirred together in a froth of generalisations. One boy was told he was no good at rugby, apparently, by one of the 'nasties' despite being scouted to play with local professionals. This anecdote (and Bald's writings contain many of these which supposedly pass for evidence) 'proves' the education system is dominated by left-wing 'nasties' who promote dumbing-down in the name of 'equality'.

Paul Reeve's picture
Wed, 17/12/2014 - 17:26

Another view here.....

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 18/12/2014 - 08:44

Articles calling for the return of more grammars are often accompanied by comments from those (usually men) who say they benefited from going to a grammar. But there are several things wrong with applying this argument to today:

1 The commentators fail to realise that although they benefited their peers did not. The 'losers' (the majority) went off the secondary moderns and most likely left school at 15 with no qualifications.
2 In the supposed Golden Age of grammars the only way to access exams was to go to a grammar. As said above, sec mods didn't offer exams because pupils left at 15. It was exams, not a specifically grammar school education, which opened doors.
3 Eventually, sec mods and the new comps started offering O levels to capable pupils. The grammar school monopoly was broken.
4 The school leaving age was raised to 16 in the early 70s by which time many grammars and sec mods had been replaced by comps.

Just because some people benefited from an unfair system is no argument for it to be reinstated.

David Barry's picture
Thu, 18/12/2014 - 17:59

A key issue in any discussion of the old Grammer school system is the selection procedure used. In fact the 11 plus exam, which went through a number of tweaks, so for example after I did it they dropped the three hour examinations with three essay questions in favour of more reliance on verbal reasoning tests, was always understood to be dogged by unreliability. Given that the test was being used in effect to select who would get a chance to go to University it is easy to see that experience showed that it produced large numbers of "false positives" It was more difficult to pick up the false negatives, tho' a few exceptional individuals did transfer from a secondary modern to a Grammer School Sixth form.

When the OU started a lot of its first students were eleven plus failures.

And yes, the term "failure" was always used. It was very damaging.

Alan's picture
Fri, 19/12/2014 - 07:48

Thatcher realised it was the economy - stupid! With so few pupils benefiting from a selective education she had no choice other than to close grammar schools.

It's the economy too in areas such as rural/coastal Lincs. Grammar schools skew the intake of nearby non selective schools depriving them of bright children from better-off backgrounds, those who are most likely influence floor targets.

In terms of parental choice, there isn't any. Those from the poorest backgrounds are seldom heard. They are labelled either as the dependency class, not interested in academic study, or if they object to selection they lack the resilience to accept their children's 11+ outcomes.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 19/12/2014 - 08:32

Alan - Skegness, described as one of the most deprived seaside towns in England, illustrates your case. Skegness has two secondaries: Skegness Grammar (selective) and Skegness Academy (non-selective). In 2013, Skegness Grammar had 10.9% of its pupils who'd been eligible for free schools meals (FSM6) in the last 6 years. The Lincolnshire average is 19.5%. Skegness Academy had 46.6% FSM6 pupils.

In the 2013 GCSE cohort, just 7% of Skegness Grammar were FSM; the proportion at Skegness Academy was 45%.

The intake of the former was (obviously) skewed to the top of the ability range. The intake of the latter was skewed towards the bottom end.

(Data from School Performance Tables 2013)

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 19/12/2014 - 10:47

NFER researched PISA results for Northern Ireland in 2009 to discover factors which helped disadvantaged pupils overcome their background and perform among the highest achievers internationally (as measured by PISA).

The research found disadvantaged children at grammar schools were over ‘7 times as likely to be defined as resilient as similar [disadvantaged] pupils at comprehensive schools’.

This seems, on the face of it, to support the argument that grammar schools provide a leg up to disadvantaged children.

However, the researchers said the raised achievement by disadvantaged children in grammars was ‘likely to be largely caused by the fact that to some extent grammar schools will be identifying the most resilient students as part of the selection process. As such, we cannot be certain about the effectiveness or otherwise of grammar schools in providing the best education for disadvantaged children’.

The above warning is repeated elsewhere in the report.

In other words, grammar schools’ higher achievement is based on their selected intake. It’s selection, stupid!

Brian's picture
Fri, 19/12/2014 - 10:59

Very interesting Janet. Of course I don't suppose a being officially told you're a failure at age 11 does much for your future 'resilience.'

Alan's picture
Fri, 19/12/2014 - 16:01

You are right Janet, conditions on the Lincolnshire coast have been identified as pernicious in Waiting for a Sea Change (TES 2013). From living in this area I have come to think of resilience as a cognitive process for overcoming people's attitudes about the effects of selection and poverty that they don't want raising. Pro selectionists either claim pressure that is allegedly placed on children during the 11+ rejection process is entirely attributable to the unrealistic expectations and desires of parents, whilst others refer to parents from deprived areas as a dependency class not interested in academic education and hard to reach. They can't have it both ways. They need to accept that selection at 11 years old is making fools of them all - it is stupid!

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