The BBC’s Take on Education: Requires Improvement.

Melissa Benn's picture
Warning! The BBC, for reasons best known to itself, is, from tomorrow night, re-showing a controversial 2012 two part documentary on The Grammar School: A Secret History. Nothing very secret about this particular piece of film making, I'm afraid. This is a one-sided love letter ( but then love letters are one sided) to selective education, complete with romantic piano music and emotive personal interviews with, among others, Sir David Attenborough and Edwina Currie.

As the TES reported at the time, a group of leading academics and educationalists complained to the BBC in 2012 that the programme used "emotive and value-laden language’ and was "also largely uncritical, factually careless and reliant upon unrepresentative personal testimony."

The BBC not only rejected the lengthy and well argued complaint but have now chosen to re-show the offending documentary. Interesting timing - as this repeat will surely delight the pro grammar ( possibly BBC bashing?) Tory right. The programme might also play into behind- the- scenes discussions about whether to give the go-ahead to a new ‘satellite’ grammar school in Sevenoaks in Kent - one of 15 local authorities which still use the 11 plus to decide who goes to what school and so fail the vast majority of working class children before they reach puberty, exactly as our national system did in the post 1944 period.

Certainly, this awful documentary gives no real explanation of the significant popular and political support that existed for comprehensive education in the 60s and 70s and the substantive research that underpinned the movement for reform. This ( not so terribly) subtle bias applies to most current affairs programming ( and not just in the BBC but across the broadcasting world.)

For instance, we never get to learn or explore more complex truths, such as the fact that many in the modern Tory Party have embraced the comprehensive argument. Unlike the pro selection diehards, they recognise that academic selection favours those from more affluent homes, blights the chances of poorer children and exaggerates the attainment gap between better off and poorer children, often for life. As Christopher Cook argued in the FT in 2013, it's a myth that grammar schools promote the interests of working class children. Cook is now at BBC's Newsnight - so perhaps it's about time for a different take on grammars from the flagship BBC programme?

Of course, contradictions abound in the Tory position, which is why its all so complex and, frankly, so interesting. Only this morning Nicky Morgan, in her speech to the Sutton Trust, on the impact of the pupil premium, claimed to be leading the charge against ‘educational inequality’ and ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations’. But private schools apart, nothing reinforces educational inequality and low expectations (for those who fail to get into them) more than grammar schools. So how do Morgan, Gove and co really get round that blatant contradiction?

Time, then, for an intelligent and discriminating TV study of both the history of comprehensive reform and its many achievements and challenges in the modern context - with lots of follow up items on various flagship programmes. Comprehensive Future, of which I am currently Chair, will this autumn be hosting a major conference on the reality of the 11 plus across England, in 2015, and how selection continues to have an effect on the admissions policies of so many other schools and why we need to build on broad cross party support for non selective education.

I can also suggest all sorts of wonderful, and possibly unusual, interviewees on this subject, beginning with Sir Peter Housden, Permanent Secretary of the Scottish Government, whose slim but fascinating historical study of the educational story of one small town in Shropshire has landed on my desk. Housden tells the story of how just one comprehensive school was created ( so replacing a grammar) in the town Market Drayton in 1965, a move which, in Houseden's view ‘ triggered the most extraordinary leap in attainment…’( my emphasis..)

Just remember that key phrase - should you watch the BBC documentary tomorrow....
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Michele -Lowe's picture
Tue, 30/06/2015 - 22:12

It's interesting, nay fascinating, this attachment to the grammar school system in the minds of so many. The argument about grammar schools promoting social mobility is so oft repeated and so seldom examined that it's held to be a truth. In fact, it's the intellectual equivalent of sucking your thumb. I saw the BBC programme first time round and was left with the impression that it was a lovely, soothing comfort blanket and keyed into a British fondness for viewing the past through rose-tinted spectacles. I don't recall much analysis or hard statistical evidence for the many assertions about what grammars did for former pupils. Certainly people benefitted from their grammar school education, but then they would have benefitted from a comprehensive education and free higher education too, as I did.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 01/07/2015 - 07:18

I thought the same thing while listening to yesterday's Today programme. The subject was 'coasting' schools and Morgan's plans (culled from the DfE press release, no doubt). It finished by saying teaching unions claimed academy conversion wasn't a magic wand.

But it isn't just the unions, I shouted, it's the Education Select Committee, the National Audit Office, the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, the Academies Commission and earlier reports such as PwC. Even Ofsted found good and outstanding schools shared similar features - academy status wasn't one of them.

Yet all this seemed to have been missed by Today - it's only the unions who say academy conversion isn't the panacea it is claimed to be.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 01/07/2015 - 07:23

Michele - it was all so P'Tang Yang Kipperbang - boys in short trousers lusting after girls in ankle socks and Clark's sandals; endless warm days on well-mown playing fields; and cricket, especially cricket.

Gareth Mohen's picture
Wed, 01/07/2015 - 08:22

I do enjoy a good BBC period drama. I didn't see this in 2012. I shall be watching tonight.

Michele -Lowe's picture
Wed, 01/07/2015 - 10:12

Actually, Gareth, you've stuck your finger on it. As a documentary, the programme is in the wrong category entirely. It is indeed a period drama. You did make me laugh. Please email your comment in to the BBC.
And yes, Janet, the lack of critical thinking in newsrooms can take your breath away. Yes, they are pushed for time and beset by churnalism (the act of simply trotting out what's on the press release for the day). So then why don't they call in their educational correspondents and specialists? I must see if I can track it down and listen.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 04/07/2015 - 19:29

Michele - This is because there aren't any. The stories written by the chief education correspondents are often even more clueless than those by the young recruits. See Part 4 of Learning Matters.

If you want to find a bright, well informed education journalist then best look for a freelance. Warwick Mansell is a great example.

I think we both learned a lot from our 2005 collaboration when he worked for TES

Barry Wise's picture
Wed, 01/07/2015 - 11:20

Sometimes I think there's a danger that we have too limited a view of what social mobility is. Most of the research that's quoted (eg Sutton Trust reports) focus on how few FSM students there are at Grammar schools. There are, indeed, very few: only around 3%; but that doesn't mean the grammar schools are not serving the working class. Most working class students don't qualify for FSM.

The grammar school I know best has a very large proportion of students of Indian heritage. Their parents are typically shopkeepers or small business proprietors. Their aspirations are for their children to become doctors, barristers and so on. Quite frequently these dreams come true. The journey from tobacconist's shop or dry cleaners to NHS hospital or barristers' chambers is a form of social mobility, isn't it? It's certainly perceived as such by the families concerned.

And it is not just Asian families. As I said above, MOST working class families are not 'disadvantaged'. The average 2-earner family earns £40,000pa. The average household disposable income in Kent (after tax, NI, mortgage interest, pensions contributions and insurance premiums) is >£27k. Median earnings are c. £25k per individual. These are all way over the <£16k limit for FSM.

It has become too easy for commentators to slip into the assumption that because only 3% of children at grammar schools are from disadvantaged backgrounds, the rest are posh kids from families in the financial services sector, who are just saving on the fees they'd otherwise have to pay at independent school. They're not. Most will be the children of the 'working working class' - train drivers, firefighters, nurses, office workers, local government workers etc.who may not be poor, but wouldn't recognize being termed 'middle class'.

The question is then, do grammars do significantly better for the working class students who go to them than comprehensives? Which is not the question most commentary seems to address.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 01/07/2015 - 11:40

Barry - you're right that FSM is a crude definition of 'poor' and doesn't include all those who aren't 'poor' but might be considered working class. One of the reports I discussed in my latest thread made the point that non-FSM children will include children of cleaners to children of bankers. I can't remember which one, unfortunately. If I come across it again soon I'll add an addendum to this comments.

'Working class' is also vague. In one sense, anyone who works for a wage is 'working class'. In another sense, it's those who used to have 'black collar' jobs eg mining, manufacturing (shop floor). In yet a third sense, it's home ownership - owning property propels you into the middle class whether you're black collar or not. Similarly, going to the grammar meant leaving the working class behind (Listen to Tony Harrison's 'Them and Uz' and read his poem Book Ends which says how books came between him and his working class father).

Would 'nurses, office workers, local government workers' be defined (or define themselves) as working class? When I left school (admittedly over half a century ago when you could leave school on a Friday and walk into a job on a Monday), office work was regarded as a step up the ladder of mobility. Those working on a factory shop floor would be 'working class' but those in the offices would consider themselves 'white collar' and therefore a class above those involved in making the stuff.

It was also the case that a woman's class would be that of her father or husband. Is this still true?

A flippant answer to the grammar school question would be to count the number of BMWs, 4x4s etc picking up children and the number of cars which have seen better days. Not that owning a particular car (or van) is a sign of class, of course!

CORRECTION: The original comment said I left school half a decade ago. Wishful thinking, perhaps. I've now put it right.

CLARIFICATION I've amended the first sentence to read ''re right that FSM is a crude definition of 'poor' and doesn't include all those who aren't 'poor' but might be considered working class.' I forgot the 'might be considered working class'. Perhaps the high temperatures are getting to me.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 01/07/2015 - 11:54

Barry - there's also the assumption of those who talk about social mobility that the working class is something which right-minded people would want to leave. But this isn't necessarily the case particularly among many working class people. A recent report on working class boys (sorry, can't remember which one) said many didn't want to leave their background because it would mean leaving friends and a loving family. These ties were important to them and they recognised that 'climbing' out of their class could mean severing these ties. I'm old enough to remember the first episode of Coronation Street which tackled this question - a young university student, Ken Barlow (no sign of an accent), returns to his home street to see his Uncle Albert (strong Lancashire accent). He is followed by his middle-class girl friend. Cue misunderstandings, embarrassment and resentment.

Have you seen Grayson Perry's series of tapestries, The Vanity of Small Differences, which portrays the progress of one Tim Rakewell from his working class beginnings to his death as a wealthy entrepreneur and 'nouveau riche'? It's an acute commentary on social mobility which at the same time shows respect to all three classes he portrays.

Respect is sometimes missing when politicians and the media talk about the working class which is too often portrayed as 'chavs' or a feral underclass.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 04/07/2015 - 19:20

Too right Janet. Denis Skinner MP comes to mind. Long may he keep getting up the nose of the PM.

Melissa Benn's picture
Wed, 01/07/2015 - 13:11

A slightly different point i forgot to add in my original post. Since writing an e-book on key myths in education ( with Janet Downs, but essentially an LSN co-production, which will be published by Routledge in book form in the autumn) I have become acutely aware of the way certain ideas get circulated through journalistic language.

Yesterday, listening to a report by Branwen Jeffreys on the mixed picture re academy schools in Lowestoft, Suffolk ( where I happen to be going tomorrow, for a secondary heads conference) I couldn't help notice that she talked about schools choosing to leave 'local authority control.'

Not only is this a pretty outdated picture of what LA's do, but the irony is, that schools are being urged to be part of Multi Academy Trusts, so that MATs can exercise greater across school 'control.'

I've lost count of the number of times I've listened to, or read, media reports where basic errors or incorrect assumptions are happily broadcast ( two more examples: comparing grammars and comprehensives in the same area;praising non selective academies and free schools while knocking 'comprehensive' failure... ) with no correction offered at all..

Michele -Lowe's picture
Wed, 01/07/2015 - 16:11

Melissa, I think you're right and an unconscious bias does exist in reporting. In that sense the right currently have the argument because this manner of talking about education is the accepted norm. It doesn't make them right, but it's a long slow slog to reframe the narrative. Still, that's not to say one shouldn't try.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 01/07/2015 - 16:50

Getting the UK Statistics Authority involved when statistical data is dodgy is a help. The intervention by the watchdog killed off (almost) the 'plummeting' down league tables in a decade narrative when he pointed out the flaws in comparing PISA results for 2009 for the UK with those from 2000 which had been found to be faulty after initial publication. Unfortunately, it was two years too late and the fiction had become firmly entrenched but it's far less prevalent than it once was.

Another example was the watchdog ticking of Morgan (twice) for her primary school illiteracy and innumeracy figures. She argued against the censure but now adds the vague adverb 'properly' when she spouts the data. This implies children with Level 3 in KS2 SATS can't read or write 'properly' but the watchdog used DfE descriptors to show they could read and write. Hasn't shut her up, though.

Peter Housden's picture
Thu, 02/07/2015 - 05:55

The Passing of a Country Grammar School is is a story of hope and ambition in a small town in Shropshire. It tells of the sad and sometimes moving struggle of Market Drayton County Grammar School to establish itself in the face of changing social conditions and expectations. In 1962, Chief Education Officer Martin Wilson brought together an unlikely alliance of reformers determined to shape a new vision for education in the town, based on the abolition of the 11+ and the establishment of a common school for all. The ensuing battle to save the 400-year old Grammar School, led by Old Grammarian Ron Farrell, was taken to the highest levels of government. The case for change won the day and The Grove Comprehensive School opened on 1 September 1965. In the fifty intervening years, The Grove has provided all children in the area with the opportunity to develop their talents to the full at whatever age they began to show – the essence of the comprehensive ideal. Drawing on my own experience as a pupil at both schools, and a range of new documentary sources the book, available as a free download as below gives an accessible account of this key moment in the life of the community.

Melissa Benn's picture
Thu, 02/07/2015 - 08:53

Peter, one of the most interesting sentences in your book, which I am greatly enjoying, concerns the priorities of the 'old' grammar with its obsession with university entrance and a curriculum, including Latin, that mimicked that of the old public schools - and yet that approach provided a 'deadening', and largely unsuccessful, experience of education for most of the grammar school entrants, most of whom left school with few qualifications. A light bulb went off in my head - as I realised that, of course, this is what the current government is aiming to do with its current reforms. Think: Toby Young's phrase ' A comprehensive grammar.' Think the recent imposition of the ebacc and the diminishing of a broader curriculum.... so it made me realise how the fight for a richer and more interesting curriculum for all is a key part of the comprehensive movement today as well as the campaign against further selection, restriction of public accountability and so on.

Peter Housden's picture
Thu, 02/07/2015 - 09:51

Melissa - exactly right. Your thought put me in mind of the passage in Caroline Benn and Claud Chitty's Thirty Years On where they regret the lack of focus on the curricular aspects of the comprehensive school in the formative period - i.e. schools not marking out the distinctive territory and approach the comprehensive school could adopt. Mackay at the Grove had a real appreciation of this, seen nowhere more clearly than in the whole-school approach to Drama - giving every child a voice and the opportunity to develop it in different contexts and registers.

Michele -Lowe's picture
Thu, 02/07/2015 - 10:39

I watched the Grammar School: A Secret History last night - well the end of it anyway. I have seen it before. It sparked off a debate between me (a comprehensive school girl) and my husband (a grammar school boy). I also downloaded your book, Peter, and am on the initial chapters. I think it would make a good alternative to the fare served up last night. But one of the things to emerge from my husband and my conversation was just how powerful the 11+ is in the minds of children. Added to the general fuss and joy it generated amidst the parents and families of the successful applicant, it has the effect of sowing the seed in his mind that he was officially 'clever' and that initial success proved a firm bulwark against set backs. My take is that the powerful blessing of intelligence bestowed on him had an equal and opposite effect on those who failed. To be dubbed an official failure at 11 doesn't half undermine your resilience when set backs occur. At its worst it built in defeatism. My other half also thinks the anointing of the 11+ successes so publicly means that if you meet a successful ex-grammar school adult, it's not long before they'll tell you about it. Their success in life is directly connected in their minds with their intelligence, as proven by passing the 11+ and, of course, their own personal efforts. It's a very powerful piece of voodoo and it goes some way to explaining our attachment to it. Added to that, grammar-school-educated adults who reach the higher echelons of society have enough sense of entitlement to see themselves as champions of egalitarianism: the I earned my place on merit and not because of an old school tie. Sadly, what they miss is just how great the cost was for those who, one day in their 11-year-old lives sat a test the like of which they'd never seen before and were told some time later that they had 'failed'.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 02/07/2015 - 16:36

Michele - those of us who 'failed' remember it well. You were publicly labeled as 'clever' or 'not clever' at age 11.

Michele -Lowe's picture
Fri, 03/07/2015 - 07:25

Strangely, I think these high-profile seals of approval can have a detrimental effect on the successful. In some, it has the effect of stunting their thinking and inhibiting the thought: "I might be wrong here". I would exempt my other half in this instance whose job causes him to question himself all the time. But you can sometimes see that self-belief tipping over into an over-inflated estimation of one's abilities. I think Oxbridge can also have this effect. There's a beautiful line in an episode of 'Fraser' (American sit-com). Fraser has found himself in the wrong and is fretting about it. He's told to let it go. "Yes, but I went to Harvard and every time I'm wrong the world makes a little less sense".

Melissa Benn's picture
Sat, 04/07/2015 - 08:49

Michele, I think you have in one short paragraph summed up the work of Carol Dweck, who distinguishes between two kinds of mind sets: a fixed mindset, which is associated with believing one is clever or not, and a growth mindset, which sees intelligence as something that be increased by effort and curiosity. On these grounds, the 11+ harmed both those who failed AND those who succeeded. Great Frasier quote.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 04/07/2015 - 19:52

[Carol Dweck] distinguishes between two kinds of mind sets: a fixed mindset, which is associated with believing one is clever or not, and a growth mindset, which sees intelligence as something that be increased by effort and curiosity.

Absolutely right Melissa. But the right kind of developmental teaching is needed to generate that effort and curiosity.

There are many examples of such approaches in Part 5 of 'Learning Matters' including that of the work of the Rev Richard Dawes (Section 5.8) in the 19th Century.

I find it especially interesting that there is little in the astonishing breadth of his teaching that would be classified as outside the EBacc subjects. In my view it is not so much the case that EBacc narrows the curriculum because of the subjects themselves, but because of the way they are taught and the lack of freedom of teachers to innovate in terms of both content (as Dawes certainly did) and in devising investigational and creative ways teaching it.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 05/07/2015 - 07:26

Melissa and Roger - this is a comment made at Festival of Education 2015 about insisting teachers have qualified teacher status:

“The shortcomings with maintained schools having to have qualified teachers is that they are forcing trainee teachers to expose themselves to a lot of bad theory and they end up being susceptible to all kinds of snake oil and beholden to salesmen and women like Carol Dweck, Guy Claxton and others.”

Note the emotive words: 'forcing', 'bad theory', 'susceptible', 'snake oil', 'salesmen and women'. This is supposed to be persuasive argument. But it's really someone's opinion couched in inflammatory language.

See page 7 of Schools Week's Festival of Education Souvenir Supplement to find out who said the above (if you haven't guessed already).

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 05/07/2015 - 08:24

This really is deeply shocking. It is an insult to all serious experimental academics and educationalists and a complete repudiation of evidence-based pedagogy in favour of 'Common Sense'.

See my post

See also 1.6 - 1.9 & Part 5 of 'Learning Matters'

Michele -Lowe's picture
Sun, 05/07/2015 - 08:19

Janet - Toby Young is something of a professional controversialist. He also has a strong belief in his intellectual abilities. And after all, he did go to Oxford.
Roger - thought I don't have much experience of the English education system, save via family, I do know a teacher who lives in Abergavenny but teaches just over the border in England. If you ask him what are his views on the EBac, be prepared to stand and listen for quite a while. But the gist is: it's not the principle which is a fault, rather the way it's implemented.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 05/07/2015 - 08:34

I agree with that Michele. However there are enough periods in the timetable after EBacc and other compulsory subjects like PE and PSE for a couple of afternoons of free choice of subjects to be taken purely on the basis of interest/aptitude/talent. In one of my TVEI schools one period of dance/drama was compulsory in KS4 alongside all the current EBacc subjects and Art/Design/Technologyy/Food Studies on a rotation. It is all down to how highly the school rates providing a cognitively challenging broad and balanced education up to the age of 16.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 05/07/2015 - 08:51

Roger - the problem with EBacc is that the Gov't expects pupils to be examined in these subjects and schools will be judged on the performance of pupils in EBacc. This will inevitably lead to less focus on non-Ebacc subjects.

However, if the exam system was uncoupled from what is taught, pupils could study the so-called EBacc subjects together with other equally important subjects as part of a broad, balanced curriculum to 16.

It is not insisting on these subjects that is flawed - it's insisting pupils take exams in them.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 05/07/2015 - 11:56

That's right Janet. I would add that the even bigger problem is giving the message that studying EBacc subjects is only worthwhile if a C+ Grade is achieved, but this is necessary in order to use the exam results in a crude way to put schools in a league table.

I was misremembering the bit about Dance and Drama in the TVEI School. What actually happened was that Dance, Drama and Music were all part of the compulsory Foundation Design rotation core curriculum. Assessment at KS4 was by means of a single subject CSE Mode 3. This involved teacher assessment and a Y11 exhibition/performance in one of the rotation subject areas. The school was very proud of the quality of these. Any of these subjects could also be taken as a separate single subject Mode 3 CSE.

Later, after the end of CSE, for a short time, some Leicestershire schools used the GCSE Leicestershire Modular Framework to support this rotation-based curriculum structure.

See Section 5.7 in 'Learning Matters'.

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