Trafford’s selective system is not the ‘social leveller’ its supporters claim

Janet Downs's picture
‘Trafford's selective education is a great social leveller - giving opportunities to children regardless of their background.’

Graham Brady MP, Manchester Evening News

This argument – that grammar schools give a leg up to pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and are, therefore, essential for social mobility – is blown apart by the evidence. Grammar schools nationally have a far lower proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals at any time in the last six years (FSM6) than other schools. And so it is in Trafford.

Trafford is an affluent, advantaged area of Greater Manchester. And, as you’d expect, the proportion of FSM6 pupils (20.4%) is lower than the national average for secondary schools (28.3%). But there are pockets of deprivation and 6,500 children in Trafford live in poverty. Are Trafford’s grammars educating these pupils? Not according to the data. Only one, Stretford Grammar, has a proportion of FSM6 pupils (24.3%) which is above the Trafford average. The proportion in the other six grammars ranges from 2.5% in Altrincham Grammar for Boys to 6% at Sale Grammar.

But exam results in Trafford are far higher than the average, supporters of Trafford’s system would say, and this, apparently, proves the system is better. But the high average results mask a wide range between schools. 100% of the 2013 GCSE cohort at Trafford’s highest-performing schools reached the benchmark*. But only 28% at the lowest-performing school did so. In the entire North West, only four state secondary school returned a lower score: two of these have since closed and one has amalgamated with another academy. This pattern is reflected in other selective counties: many of the worst-performing schools in terms of GCSE results in the whole of the South East are in selective Kent.

According to Trafford Conservatives, ‘Trafford is rightly proud of its schools. The system of High Schools and Grammar Schools is delivering superb results for pupils.’ But there is a wide difference between the highest performers and the lowest. There are high-performing ‘modern’ schools (yes, they’re still classified as ‘modern’ in School Performance Tables) but these have a far lower proportion of previously low-attaining pupils than would be expected in a secondary modern school. Blessed Thomas Holford Catholic College, where 85% reached the benchmark in 2013, had just 3% previously low-attaining pupils in the GCSE cohort, for example. In all, seven of Trafford’s eleven moderns had a lower proportion of previously-low attaining pupils than might be expected in a modern school.

But Trafford’s secondary schools are more likely to be Outstanding than in other local authorities, the system’s supporters say. And that’s true. 82.5% of Trafford's secondary schools were Good or better at their last inspection against a national average of 71%. But percentages are deceiving. There are only 18 state secondaries in Trafford – one more Inadequate judgement would mean 11% (far higher than the national average - 6% - for state secondary schools) were in the bottom Ofsted category.

But such a figure is misleading. 11% comprises just two schools. A sample of 18 is too small to come to conclusions based on percentages.

It's worth remembering many Trafford secondary schools have not been inspected for more than five years. They're exempt from further inspections because some time in the past they were judged Outstanding**. It appears the Department for Education has no mechanism, apart from falling results, to identify troubled schools. Unless anyone complains, high-performing, at-one-time-Outstanding schools, could continue offering poor quality education indefinitely.

And good results in high-performing schools can mask poor teaching. One of Trafford’s grammar schools, Stretford Grammar, was judged Inadequate in 2009 and placed in Special Measures***. Even Graham Brady MP said there were ‘significant problems’ in the leadership and management of Stretford Grammar. But this was only part of Ofsted’s criticisms: ‘lacklustre’ teaching; declining standards of behaviour; inadequate curriculum.

The evidence above shows Trafford’s system is not as advantageous as claimed. Few FSM6 pupils in the selective schools, ‘modern’ schools with a low proportion of previously low-attaining pupils, a wide range of attainment and the dubious distinction of having had one of only two grammar schools ever judged Inadequate.


Spouting percentages based on a small sample can’t hide that.


*5 GCSEs (or equivalent) A*-C including Maths and English.

**Ofsted reports for the predecessor schools of four Trafford grammar academies are missing from Ofsted's website. The results of the last inspection are given in School Performance Tables 2013 but the links go to a page which shows only the academy conversion letter. Reports for schools technically 'closed' (as academies are when they convert) should still be available under the heading 'All Providers' but the reports for these predecessor schools are not listed: Altrincham Grammar for Boys (Outstanding 2007), Altrincham Grammar for Girls (Outstanding 2008), Sale Grammar School (Outstanding 2006), Urmston Grammar School (Outstanding 2008).

***Stretford Grammar has since been upgraded to Good
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Andy V's picture
Tue, 09/12/2014 - 15:36

Bearing in mind the selection and catchment/FSM issue it would perhaps be insightful and potentially revealing to see and compare raise online data sets for Trafford schools. Many Grammar schools have found that to be something of a banana skin moment in that the high ability of students is not always or consistently translated into expected GCSE and/or GCE grades.

I notice that North Cestrian Grammar School's website is advertising that they are in the process of becoming a Free School. At first glance their performance table data appears to be on the low side.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 09/12/2014 - 15:55

Andy - apparently North Cestrian Grammar School wants to retain the word 'Grammar' in its name if it's allowed to become a free school even though, as a free school, it's got to be non-selective. That should cause some confusion. North Cestrian's results fell from 98% reaching the benchmark in 2010 to 45% in 2013.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 11/12/2014 - 17:02

It was quite common for comprehensive schools to retain their grammar school label going back many decades, even when they were LEA schools.Two that come to mind are, Ilkley Grammar School and Lutterworth Grammar School.

Barry Wise's picture
Fri, 12/12/2014 - 15:31

Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School in Blackburn also kept its 'grammar school' handle when it relaunched as a Free School.

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

Barry - so did Batley Grammar School when it became a free school. But it was one of the previously-independent schools which was found to Require Improvement when it joined the state system. However, the last monitoring inspection said it was having support from Kirklees local authority despite their being no formal requirement for Kirklees to do so.

Barry Wise's picture
Tue, 16/12/2014 - 12:29

Blessed Thomas Holford Catholic College, where 85% reached the benchmark in 2013, had just 3% previously low-attaining pupils in the GCSE cohort, for example. In all, seven of Trafford’s eleven moderns had a lower proportion of previously-low attaining pupils than might be expected in a modern school.

Not surprising really as Blessed Thomas Holford is in Altrincham - a leafy suburb bordering on countryside and quite middle class. The other Catholic faith secondary - St Anthony's - in a more urban setting hard by the motorway has 13% low prior attainment. That said, Trafford's primaries are generally high performers - around 8% above national average and with > 20 primaries getting 90% plus to level 4 at KS2, so what might be expected in a modern school in Trafford might not be what might be expected elsewhere.

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