Memo to the Daily Mail

Fiona Millar's picture

I see the Daily Mail  had a dig at two of this site’s founders yesterday morning. It was an article about our involvement with the campaigning group, Comprehensive Future, our opposition to selection and to the establishment of new grammar school “annexes” which we believe are really new selective schools. The reporter commented on my own education at a grammar school. He is correct that I went to a selective school, although worth noting that the same school is now a highly successful all ability school just like many other former grammar (now comprehensive) schools around the country. If he had bothered to ask me, I would have explained that my opposition to selection has deep roots and goes back to my own education. I remember only too well the impact selection had on my primary school class as some children got in to the grammars and others didn’t. Equally vivid is my recollection of the then secondary moderns being seen as second class institutions and the impact that had on the many less well off children who went to them. That is how I knew that I wanted something different for my own three children. We still live in the same part of the London where I grew up and they were lucky enough to go, along with most of their friends, to their local schools. All these schools are now comprehensive, successfully serve diverse communities and have far higher numbers of children eligible for free school meals than the national average. We love our local schools and know that the expansion of comprehensive education in the period between my secondary education and theirs has opened up opportunities for many young people that didn’t exist under the old bi-partite system. In the Daily Mail Mrs Shilling, one of the campaigners for the new grammar school that Secretary of State Nicky Morgan is planning in Kent, commented that she didn’t want a “bunch of North Londoners” de-railing their plans. Well we don’t want a bunch of parents in selective areas setting a precedent that could upset the well functioning ecology of our local schools. A brief look at the London map this morning revealed  at least five selective schools within a ten mile radius of where I live. Any one of these could in theory now apply to open an annex in our local area since that is the distance between the Weald of Kent grammar school in Tonbridge Kent, and the alleged satellite annex in Sevenoaks that the Secretary of State has approved. The expansion of other grammar schools into non-selective areas is already being explored in the wake of the Sevenoaks decision, making a nonsense of Nicky Morgan’s claim that her decision will not “open the floodgates” So that is why we will continue to oppose these plans. We know from personal experience that selection is wrong and benefits a few children at the expense of the rest. My own grammar school education taught me that.    

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Vivienne Neale's picture
Sun, 08/11/2015 - 20:01

I am a product of the selective school system in Kent. I attended a girls' grammar school during the 1970s and in some respects am still learning to recover!

On the one hand being all girls we were never pigeon holed - no one thought twice about girls seeking to study physics, maths, engineering, law, dentistry or medicine. We were encouraged to excel BUT anyone that was not studying Greek and Russian was considered a waster. When I suggested I may leave school at 16 the careers advice was: 'Oh, you could always try hairdressing.'

This lead to profound feelings of inadequacy. I left school feeling like I had nothing to offer. In class if you asked for further explanation the party line was: 'I've explained it, therefore you can't have been listening.'

There was no flexibility, no creativity. teaching was didactic, teacher centred. Anything left field was ignored or put down. Strangely I have spent years trying to prove myself academically - maybe that's a good thing but I would have liked to attend a wide ability school. Let's face it, within a year, the bright, bubbly, arty 11 year old had been transformed and it's taken ages trying to get her back. Selective schools -hmnn, I don't think so - each student should be encouraged to achieve all they are capable of, not written off so early by failure to be selected.

Mary McLaughlin's picture
Sun, 08/11/2015 - 20:51

I went to a Grammar school in Kent in the 1950s. I too remember losing friends who didn't pass the 11+ though at the time I wasn't aware how "privileged" I was supposed to feel. I had 3 brothers none of whom passed the exam so I was seen as the spoilt youngest child and even now, in our 70s my brother still shows signs of jealousy! I was very average and decided to leave when I was 16. My parents made no effort to persuade me to continue into the 6th form and try for university though they would have been fully supportive had I done so. The reason I am against selection is because my younger son could hardly read when he left primary school and wouldn't have passed the 11+ so would have been written off as a failure. From an early age he had a great interest in science and maths and, despite his lack of reading skills, went on to do physics gaining a BSc & a PhD from Cambridge and later a First in optometry - not bad for a child who couldn't read!

jenny's picture
Sun, 08/11/2015 - 22:09

I went to a secondary modern in London. Both my brothers passed the 11+ but I did not.Looking at comprehensives now, however, I can see that although my education was not great it was considerably better than that received by children currently in comprehensives. I went to an all girls school and we had a wide curriculum including sciences and modern languages as well as practical subjects such as domestic science (and I have always been grateful that I was taught to touch type - an incredibly useful skill) and music - we learnt an instrument, albeit the recorder, and to read music. I took 3 A levels at school and went to university at 18 to read history and philosophy. After graduating I became a civil servant and then a teacher. I failed the 11+ not because I was not intelligent but because I had an unsettled primary education and although being able to read well at 4 was diagnosed as remedial at one school because I had a speech impediment bad enough to make me mispronounce what I was reading. I was also a girl in an authority that had a higher pass mark for girls - since otherwise more passed than boys (it was Ealing). I am not sorry I went to a sec mod - my life would not have been what it is, both successful and happy. But I do believe in selection now, because I see bright children destroyed by peer group pressure and loutish behaviour in our schools - they need taking out of that morass - and also away from the rather anti-elitist views of many teachers.

Nigel Ford's picture
Tue, 10/11/2015 - 09:54

Which comprehensive schools did you have in mind where the education is sub standard?

Alan Gurbutt's picture
Sun, 08/11/2015 - 22:38

I am also a product of the selective school system. I attended a secondary modern school in Louth, Lincolnshire in the 1970s. It was an abridged education in comparison to what was on offer at the King's school in the better-off part of town. Not a single pupil went on to university from our peer group. Many came from very poor families and left school with no prospects.

We now live on the Lincolnshire coast which is ranked as the most deprived area in England, yet still retains selection. Rejection at 11+ essentially institutionalises every social disadvantage a child may face and hurts them when they are down.

My children have passed through this system of two extremes, which I have to say, despite there being some wonderful teachers, has been a huge disappointment.

Michele -Lowe's picture
Sun, 08/11/2015 - 23:47

Every time the issue of grammar schools crops up, I feel relieved never to have had to go through such a system. I am 52 and from South Wales. My children attend a comprehensive school and are both doing well. But leaving aside anecdotal evidence, the lack of statistical evidence proving grammar schools caused social mobility and boosted the life chances of children from poorer backgrounds is wanting.
A research paper in the British Journal of Sociology in 2011 entitled 'Do Comprehensive Schools Reduce Social Mobility?' attempted to get at the nub of the question. Its author, Dr Adam Swift, Fellow in Politics and Sociology at Oxford University set out their methodology. They needed enough children in the sample to match children going to comprehensive schools with those going to grammars and secondary moderns. They were able to use a large, longitudinal study of all children in a week in March in 1958. What they had was a snap shot of children with the same level of ability in different schools. That means they were not just looking at who got into grammar schools, but those who didn't and also children of similar abilities who went to comprehensives all at the same time. The children in the sample were all born in '58 and were all in secondary education at age 11 in '69. The study's findings confound the myth.
What were a child's chances of getting out of the bottom 25% of the income distribution if they went to grammar school?
Their research found there was no difference in progress between the grammar school children and those who went to comprehensive schools.
The grammars did, however, have a slight influence on mobility from the bottom half of the income distribution to the top half, but critically not to the top quarter. Yet, as Dr Swift emphasises, it was only a slight difference and not the progress they had expected to see in the light of the claims made for grammars. But grammars did seem to help middle-class children to at least maintain their advantage. Plus ça change...
As for the seemingly unchallenged notion that comprehensive school are educational sink holes, again I have not come across any rigorous research on the subject.
But in all the focus on old arguments about grammar schools which we appear doomed to repeat, groundhog day fashion, we don't seem to want to look out at other successful education systems such at the Finnish educational system. Under the Finnish system - which consistently comes out high in the PISA league tables - children are not selected. Instead the focus is on high quality teaching for all.

Alan Gurbutt's picture
Mon, 09/11/2015 - 08:08

Just to add, the opposition isn't just from North London. I am born and bred in Louth, Lincolnshire and I am a member of the Comprehensive Future steering group.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 09/11/2015 - 08:49

When the Daily Mail and the supporters of the new grammar 'satellite' mount ad-hominem attacks, it shows they can't produce evidence about the supposed advantages of selective education. No amount of personal attacks will dilute the fact that in selective systems, 75% of children are rejected at 11 and labelled as 'failures'. Those who pass are perceived as 'brighter' than those who failed despite the fact that many will have been heavily coached.
Evidence shows that education systems which perform best in PISA tests tend not to segregate children according to ability. European research shows that although selection might benefit those who are selected, it increases the effect of socio-economic background. And, as Michele says above, grammars were/are not the great levers of social mobility they are claimed to be.

Alan Gurbutt's picture
Mon, 09/11/2015 - 14:55

Well said Janet.

For restoration to fair school admissions for all children the pain the selective system causes should be brought into sharp focus.

But as the Norwegian sociologist and criminologist, Nils Christie noted this can only happen when the offenders, in this case, the grammar schools and policy-makers/influencers, can be encouraged to understand the harm they have caused to their victims, our children, teachers and parents.

The pro selectionist's hope is that by dehumanising the situation and attacking Fiona and others, who wish to restore social justice they can maintain apartheid in favour of selection.

As painful as it is we must all stand up for those children, their teachers and parents who are too afraid to speak out.

Linda starkey's picture
Mon, 09/11/2015 - 10:05

Well said, but don't give them anymore ideas about expansion.

jenny's picture
Mon, 09/11/2015 - 12:07

I get fed up with the Finnish system being put forward as a successful non-selective system. The results from pisa currently are on pupils who went through the former system which was much more traditional than the current one. Also, most Finnish children can read when they get to school, either by parents or by nursery schools. They use phonics - they have a transparent phonic system. We have eschewed phonics since the 60s in many schools on the grounds that English is not phonetic. This is a gross conflation of phonic and phonetic which are different terms. I learned the phonetic alphabet when I studied linguistics - it is no tool for teaching reading, but is used to show exact pronunciation of a text. Phonics are the way sound relates to spelling in an alphabetic script like that of English. Without phonics you cannot read independently or with pleasure - and it has to be taught to most children, very few (perhaps the 2% who teach themselves to read) actually pick it up by osmosis.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 09/11/2015 - 15:16

Jenny - the last Finnish municipality to change to a fully comprehensive system was in the south of Finland in 1977. As PISA tests are taken by 15 year-olds, those Finns who took the last round of PISA in 2012 would have started school in the late 1990s. The would, therefore, have been products of Finland's comprehensive system.

Please don't get started on phonics - it would be a pity if this thread on selection were to be highjacked by a discussion on phonics. That said, the teaching of phonics is embedded in schools in England although DfE commissioned research in 2014 found most primary teachers were supplementing the teaching of phonics by other methods.

Michael Pyke's picture
Tue, 10/11/2015 - 13:07

Well, if you don't like Finland, Jenny, you could always look at some of the world's other leading education systems and explain why they also shouldn't be used as examples of successful comprehensive schooling!

The fact is that not one of the world's leading education systems uses academic selection of the kind favoured by grammar school supporters. Andreas Schleicher, OECD Director of Education and Skills pointed out earlier this year that "None of the countries with a high degree of stratification, whether in the form of tracking, streaming, or grade repetition is among the top performing education systems or among the systems with the highest share of top performers."

Also three separate research projects carried out by OECD since 2010 have concluded that selective systems are inefficient and that comprehensive systems work better.

Barry Wise's picture
Mon, 09/11/2015 - 15:57


I think maybe Jenny was referring to the new pedagogy/curriculum reforms in Finland reported here

Barry Wise's picture
Tue, 10/11/2015 - 15:28


As Janet has so often shown us, one has to be careful with OECD reports as they often prove a double-edged sword or are open to radically divergent interpretation.

When OECD uses words like 'selective' or 'comprehensive' they don't always mean what those words mean in the English education context.

One of the practices that is common in other OECD countries is that of using prior academic performance records (e.g. grade averages) and/or head teacher recommendations from feeder school as part of the admissions process. In England, that would be considered academic selection.

If you look at the countries where this sort of selection is used a lot (where the majority of students in secondary setting are in schools using this sort of selection practice) then you will find many of the Pisa high performers are there.

I will see if I can find some figures and post them here later.

agov's picture
Tue, 10/11/2015 - 09:29

so her point was?

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 10/11/2015 - 09:47

Barry - but the reported reforms in Finland have only just been introduced. How could they possibly have affected recent PISA results?

Barry Wise's picture
Tue, 10/11/2015 - 16:03

Found it. According to OECD:

Across OECD countries, 43% of students are in academically selective schools whose principals reported that at least “students’ records of academic performance” or “recommendations of feeder schools” is always considered for admission. In the Netherlands, Croatia, Hong Kong-China, Japan, Thailand, Serbia, Viet Nam, Hungary, Singapore and Bulgaria, over 80% of students are in academically selective schools...

In a table in the same document OECD says that eight out of the top ten ranking countries in PISA 2012 have selective systems according to the OECD definition above. Of the remaining 2, one is borderline having 50% of students in selective schools, while for the other (S. Korea) no info is available from this OECD source.
In a nutshell, far from OECD proving selection to be a bad thing, almost every top performing nation in PISA 2012 has the majority of its students in academically selective schools.

Michael Pyke's picture
Wed, 11/11/2015 - 09:42

Barry, stretching the definition of "selection" to the point where the term becomes meaningless is just disingenuous. Here are some more OECD comments:

1. From "Viewing the United Kingdom School System through the Prism of PISA" [Programme for International Student Assessment] (2010) para. 55:

“…Selection tends to reinforce inequalities as students from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to be exposed to lower quality learning opportunities when compared to their peers from more advantaged socio-economic backgrounds (Figure IV.2.1 in the PISA 2009 report)”.

2. From "Equity and Quality in Education: Supporting Disadvantaged Students and Schools" (2012), page 10:

“Early student selection has a negative impact on students assigned to lower tracks and exacerbates inequities, without raising average performance. Early student selection should be deferred to upper secondary education while reinforcing comprehensive schooling.”

And page 58:

“Evidence: academic selection widens achievement gaps and inequities…. Data from PISA confirms that countries with more differentiated instruction have greater inequality of performance between students, while there are no significant effects on the overall performance".

3. From "A Family Affair: Intergenerational Social Mobility Across OECD Countries" (2010), page 193:

“OECD evidence suggests that moving from a practice that separates students into different schools at age ten to a practice that separates students at age sixteen would reduce by two-thirds the influence of the school socio-economic environment on students’ achievement."

All of the above supports Schleicher's comment (to repeat) that "None of the countries with a high degree of stratification, whether in the form of tracking, streaming, or grade repetition is among the top performing education systems or among the systems with the highest share of top performers."

Now either you are saying that OECD's Director of Education doesn't understand the word "none" and that OECD don't understand their own statistics or you are accusing them of making it up!

Barry Wise's picture
Wed, 11/11/2015 - 14:02

Michael Pyke

I am sorry you have chosen to abandon the customary civilities of this site and descend into rudeness and ad hominem arguments.

I can assure you that I certainly have not ‘stretched the definition of selection to the point where the term becomes meaningless’; nor am I being ‘disingenuous’.

In fact, the definition used in my previous post was the OECD’s own definition. To help you realise this, I went to the lengths of signalling that it was a quotation by putting the words into italic script and providing a link. Only someone blinded by their own prejudices or self importance could fail to see that.

It is also a shame you did not bother to read my 3.28pm post as it could have prevented you making the error you have made.

Now, to the substantive points

1. Definitions of Selection. When OECD talk about academic selection, they use the words ‘academic selection’. This means the same to them as it normally does to us: the use of prior academic performance as a criterion for selection for admission to secondary schools. OECD includes in this category selection by exam and also selection by previous grade average at primary school and selection by reference from a feeder school (where the content of that reference is to do with prior academic performance). These latter practices are banned under England’s Admissions Code, but are common abroad and including them in the OECD definition of ‘academic selection’ is certainly not ‘stretching the definition of selection to the point where it becomes meaningless’. It is good sense. If a school here were found using these practices on the sly, it would rightly be accused of ‘academic selection’.

When, however, the authors of OECD documents use the word ‘selection’ without the qualifier ‘academic’ they mean something much broader, something that could be equivalent to ‘sorting’. This includes dividing children into academic and vocational tracks, transferring poor academic performers out of their schools into special provision and /or having radically different curricula for different ability bands. Often it also includes grade repetition. Meanwhile, the term ‘comprehensive’ is also often used by OECD in a different sense from the way it is commonly used here where it is understood to refer to the full range of abilities being admitted to a school. In OECD speak ‘comprehensive’ is often used to mean something close to ‘inclusive’. For instance a school that had high performers doing academic GCSEs while others were on a vocational track doing BTECs would be ‘selective’ in OECD-speak, while a school making the Ebacc compulsory for almost all students would ‘comprehensive’.

2. What Andreas Schleicher said and didn’t say. You quote Andreas thus: “None of the countries with a high degree of stratification, whether in the form of tracking, streaming, or grade repetition is among the top performing education systems ….” In this statement he mentions ‘tracking’, he mentions ‘streaming’ and ‘grade repetition’ but he does NOT mention the use of academic performance criteria in admissions at all. And yet, you brandish the quotation at me a second time as if he had!

3. Your quotations and mine The passages you quote are mostly out of context, out of date, or both. For instance, you carefully begin the first one mid-sentence to disguise the fact that the words immediately preceding yours in the original are ‘That suggests that……’. So what we actually have here is a suggestion or weak inference; not something proven, as you imply. Besides, if you look at the quotation in context, you will see that it refers to ‘selection’ in the broader OECD sense (encompassing tracking and grade repetition etc.) explained above and relates to 2009 PISA data.

Your other quotations also relate chiefly to tracking rather than admissions and/or to considerations of equity rather than performance. Despite not having found one single OECD study directly to do with the relative performance of countries that allow/don’t allow academic selection, you then adopt a snarky tone saying with faux amazement “either you are saying that OECD’s Director of Education doesn’t understand the word “none” and that OECD don’t understand their own statistics….”

Well, actually, no. It is YOU I am saying doesn’t understand either Andreas Schleicher or the OECD stats. Let me …….no, let OECD spell it out for you unambiguously:

The OECD paper I linked above was What Makes schools successful? Resources, Policies and Practices – Volume IV and is an analysis based on the results of PISA 2012. It is their definition of ‘academic selection’ I am using and their data. Figure IV.2.4 gives a value for each country described as: Percentage of students in schools whose principals reported that “students’ records of academic performance”
or “recommendations of feeder schools” are considered for admission and provides a fine detail as to whether at least one of these two factors is ”always” considered.

In the Pisa rankings 2012, the top ten performers in order were as set out below. I have put nest to them the value from the OECD table specified above showing what percentage of students in those countries attend schools using what OECD calls ‘academic selection’:

1. Shanghai – China (53%)
2. Singapore (82%)
3. Hong-Kong – China (94%)
4. Taiwan (50%)
5. South Korea(67%)
6. Macau – China (78%)
7. Japan (94%)
8. Lichtenstein(79%)

9. Switzerland (73%)
10. Netherlands (97%)

What this shows is that every single one of the Pisa 2012 top ten used some form of academic ability criteria in admissions and that in 9 out of ten cases, the majority of pupils attended schools that used academic selection practices that are outlawed for most publicly funded schools here.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 11/11/2015 - 16:27

Barry - you're right that the countries you listed select students for particular pathways but only one, Hungary, does so at 11. The table on page 78 of the document you provided lists the 'first age of selection in the education system'. The figures for the countries you first listed are as follows:

Netherlands 12
Croatia 14
Hong Kong 15
Japan 15
Thailand 15
Serbia -
Vietnam 15
Hungary 11
Singapore 12
Bulgaria 13

The top ten PISA 2012 (sorted on Maths, the focus of 2012 PISA tests), the age of selection is:

Shanghai 15
Singapore 12
Hong Kong 15
Chinese Tapei 15
South Korea 14
Macao 15
Japan 15
Liechtenstein 15
Switzerland 12
Estonia 15

This confirms what the OECD has always maintained: school systems that perform well in PISA tend not to segregate pupils by academic ability until at least upper secondary (age 15/16).

According to the OECD. the UK selects at 16. This doesn't take into account the pupils in Northern Ireland and England who are selected at 11. One thing is clear, though, selection at 11 is rare among countries which took part in PISA. Such early selection takes places only in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Turkey and Uruguay.

Barry Wise's picture
Wed, 11/11/2015 - 18:41

Quite so, Janet.

And I wonder whether the fact that in the ten highest performing countries most of the students will have recent experience of getting through some kind of competitive selection process, while UK students taking the test in year 11 before GCSEs may not have taken a high stakes test since KS2, might give those Pisa 10 students a bit of a boost?

I agree, 11 is the wrong age..... for a whole host of reasons.Which is why the arguments against it should be the right ones, not lazy opportunist spin.

agov's picture
Thu, 12/11/2015 - 12:02

So it seems that for the OECD 'selection' doesn't actually include selection as they have shrunk the definition to the point of being delusive, not dissimilar to PISA tests as some might say. Except that up to 80% of students are selected so perhaps selection as well as other things are included in 'selection'. No doubt all very sophisticated.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 12/11/2015 - 12:08

Barry - we don't know whether the 15 year-olds taking PISA tests would have recently been through a selection process. But even if they had it would have had little influence on the education they received before taking the tests.

PISA tests are supposed to be taken by a representative sample of the pupil population. In a system where pupils had undertaken some kind of selection based on tests, this would include those who performed poorly as well as those who performed well. What we don't know is whether those who performed poorly were excluded from PISA tests (either because they weren't in school or were deliberately excluded to bump up a country's score). We know that 25% of the cohort was missing from Shanghai's recent PISA tests (2012) and it could be these were low-performing pupils. The truth is, we don't know.

You're right that 11 is too young for selection which is the topic of this thread. However, I don't agree that pointing out that the highest performing countries in PISA tend not to segregate pupils according to ability until at least upper secondary is 'lazy opportunist spin'.

Barry Wise's picture
Thu, 12/11/2015 - 13:58


I don’t agree that pointing out that the highest performing countries in PISA tend not to segregate pupils according to ability until at least upper secondary is ‘lazy opportunist spin’.

Neither do I.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 13/11/2015 - 09:49

Thanks, Barry, for clarifying that. Apologies for misunderstanding.

Nigel Ford's picture
Tue, 10/11/2015 - 10:01

This new satellite grammar in Sevenoaks will be an all girls school to go with the 2 girls grammars in Tonbridge and just 1 boys. So something of an imbalance, meaning a lower 11+ pass mark for girls than boys to satisfy places?

Barry Wise's picture
Tue, 10/11/2015 - 10:05

Well that's precisely what Jenny seemed to be saying: i.e. (I paraphrase)... that Finland's glowing Pisa results were achieved under a system of more trad pedagogy than all this groovy, leading edge stuff that's been in the papers recently.

At least, that's how I interpreted what she said. I'm sure she can speak for herself, if she pops in again.

Whatever, I think it was all a bit of a detour from the selection issue.

On which point, I'm a bit sceptical that this Kent decision will open any floodgates. It has the feel of an exception rather than a change of rule. I think it is much more likely that this or future governments might extend selection using the academy system, for instance by allowing any academy rated good or outstanding to select on ability for 10% or 20% of places ( sold as a 'grammar stream'), or something like that.
This would affect everyone - not just those in or adjacent to existing selective authorities.

Michele -Lowe's picture
Tue, 10/11/2015 - 10:23

Jenny, I think you're right about the distinction between phonics and phonetics and the fact that the two are so often confused. But I'm not sure about the evidence that many schools have eschewed phonics. Admittedly, I live and work in Wales, so perhaps Welsh schools have not abandoned phonics teaching. Certainly, all the children I read with in English have a decent phonic knowledge. Unfortunately, that will only get them so far in the English language.

I am a reading volunteer in two schools in my town: one is English medium and the other is Welsh medium. And here the difference between a language with a transparent phonic system (i.e. Welsh) and one with a confused spelling system (English) is really thrown into relief. At 7 in the Welsh medium sector, children begin to read and write in Welsh. Armed with their phonic knowledge it comes very easily for most. Those who struggle, we find, tend to struggle in both languages. The head at our Welsh school reports that when problems arise with reading, writing, listening and speaking, those with the problems do slightly better in Welsh. She ascribes this to the fact that the Welsh language has an easier-to-understand decoding system. However, in both languages, the lack of comprehension appears to be comparable. I haven't seen statistics on the subject, though.

The English medium school I help in equips their children with phonic knowledge as they teach them to read. In English this won't get them as far. They soon bump up against the anomalous spelling system and get discouraged. At this point it's enthusiasm for what they are reading which will get them over that hurdle and that appears to be the key in successful education systems. In Welsh medium education we don't hit the problematic spelling system, but the children do reach a point, quite quickly, where enthusiasm for decoding wanes, and wanes very fast. Again, this is where the strength of a robust education system kicks in. Regardless of the language, the same problems crop up and it's how we deal with them that is critical.

I think many look to Finland as an example of a well-functioning education system because teachers are given a lot of autonomy and their professionalism is respected. They work to promote understanding of their subjects at a deep level. They don't have high-stakes public tests, but rather teacher assessment. They specifically moved away from hierarchical elitist educational structures in the 70's in favour of a comprehensive model. They are an irritant to the advocates of selective education because they demonstrate success in a system which emphatically rejects it. Those of us who support the comprehensive principle (you'll have twigged by now that I am one of them) like to point to Finland as a shining example. But you will find other European models which follow non-selective principles and are interested in teaching children not just to learn, but to think. French education, for all its drawbacks has a Napoleonic commitment to education for all. I worked for a year in a lycee in the 80's and from what French friends tell me, the system is pretty much the same now as then. And after all, they are the country which first thought up the notion of the social contract.

My biggest concern about selection is that it turns out an entitled cohort who are too focussed on passing tests and polishing their status as 'bright kids'. This can stunt questioning, especially self-questioning. The majority who are officially deemed 'failures' at 11 are in grave danger of never seeing themselves as able or worthy. I like football manager stories, so I'll end with one. Many years back a broadsheet journalist was interviewing the late Bill Shankly, manager at Liverpool FC. The journalist asked him how a man with so little education had managed to rise so high. The reply came back: "Me having no education, I had to learn to use my brain". The sad fact is, though, not everyone has the resilience of Mr Shankly.

David Barry's picture
Tue, 10/11/2015 - 12:09

Clearly if you are going to compare the effectiveness of different methods of teaching reading you do have to take account of the form of the written language. At one end you have Chinese writing which is really not phonetic at all. At the other you have languages with rationally designed spelling systems, where the sound can be read off consistently from the letters. Welsh is a good example as Welsh orthography was not standardised until 1928 - by this man:

Finnish and Italian are other languages where the relationship between the written word is pretty direct. No doubt true of Turkish also. Also Irish (which had its own, rather beautiful alphabet, resembling in appearance JRR Tolkein's Elvish writing, but this was replaced in the 1920's with the Latin alphabet. - Pre electronic typsetting much easier to set for print.)

Its a simple point often over looked in discussions of how to teach people to read. A good teacher teaching children to read English will use a number of different methods anyway. Whatever works for the child.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 10/11/2015 - 13:57

Barry - we're discussing selection not pedagogy. Finland has been comprehensive since the the end of the 70s. Jenny mentioned 'non-selective system' and then said Finnish pupils who took the current PISA went through a 'former' system. I took this to mean a former selective system. If she was referring to pedagogy then that, as you say, is a detour from selection.

As far as the 'floodgates' are concerned, there have already been noises that other grammars or LAs are considering satellites. For example, Windsor and Maidenhead council is supporting a possible bid from Buckinghamshire to open a grammar satellite in Windsor and Maidenhead which has a fully-comprehensive system at present. If the satellite were allowed, this would undermine the comprehensive system.

You're right, however, that this Government or any future ones could extend selection by allowing good or outstanding academies to select for a grammar stream. The Schools Admission Code at present forbids any new selection tests but any Government could, of course, change the Code to allow this. There are already precedents in the form of bi-lateral schools. Ashlawn School, Rugby, for example, and King Edward VI Academy, Spilsby. And the last Labour Government allowed schools to select 10% on 'aptitude'.

Michele -Lowe's picture
Tue, 10/11/2015 - 22:36

David, I didn't know about John Morris-Jones. Thanks. LSN: not just a website, but a learning tool, too. I'm off to google the Irish alphabet pre-1920. Sounds intriguing.

David Barry's picture
Tue, 17/11/2015 - 17:04

Well, Michele, while I am at it, I might as well mention another factor influencing effectiveness of teaching - bilingualism. In practice all children learning to read Welsh, would, most likely, be bilingual. - in Welsh and English. Counter intuitively where children learn two languages in this way, instead of just one, there appear to be significant developmental benefits. See here:-

Michele -Lowe's picture
Tue, 17/11/2015 - 19:21

Ta David. I seem to spend more time than I'd like justifying my decision to have the kids educated in Welsh. Nice to read a bit of support. I've read research into the progress of Alzheimer's in bilingual people and how being bilingual appears to slow the progress of the disease as compared with the advance of the disease in monolingual people.

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