Forget the ‘top’ 25%, new grammars will be for the ‘top’ 10% only

Janet Downs's picture

‘New selective schools will probably have a narrower ability range, perhaps more like top 10%’

Just one of the points emerging from meetings between representatives of the Grammar Schools Heads Association (GSHA), the ‘new selective education DfE team’, the Education Secretary Justine Greening and schools minister Nick Gibb.  These numerous meeting were to discuss ‘the next steps on “Lifting the ban on Grammar Schools”’.

This, and other key points from the meeting, are in the GHSA Spring 2017 newsletterOne surprising comment says those who are ‘philosophically opposed to selection’ argue it damages other children’s education but offer little or no supporting evidence.

This is an astonishing statement.  Evidence showing how selection impacts negatively on other children is extensive*.    Even PISA, whose test results are highly regarded by schools ministers, said back in 2010:

‘…the earlier in the student’s career the selection occurs, the greater the impact of socio-economic background on learning outcomes.’

The DfE appears to be following Nelson’s example by turning a blind eye.  This is unacceptable, especially by a Government which claims to have evidence-based policies.

The newsletter shows the DfE was already discussing plans to increase selection while the consultation was still ongoing.  This suggests the DfE had already decided to press on with plans whatever the outcome.   

In any case, the consultation results will be unreliable.  It was biased, attracted objections by the UK Statistics Watchdog and a belated correction had to be published.   If that weren’t bad enough, respondents could submit multiple, fictitious responses.

 ‘There is a move away from focusing on social mobility to social reform,’ says the GHSA.   This is part of plans by the Prime Minister supposedly to help those who are ‘just about managing’.  She’s set up a Social Reform Cabinet Committee ‘to make Britain better for everyone, not just the privileged few’.

It’s unclear how increasing selection in English schools will help the rest of the UK.  But setting up a cabinet committee and a DfE selective education team will do so, apparently. 

Neither is it clear how sending one-in-ten children to super-selective schools will help all children.  It won’t.  The proposed national selection test will reject 90% of children.

That figure is worth repeating: nine-out-of-ten eleven year olds near super-selective grammars would be rubber-stamped as failing.  This will hardly ‘make life easier for the majority of people in this country who just about manage’.   That’s because the majority of parents, JAMs or not, in these areas would face their eleven-year-olds being labelled as ‘not so bright’.

The answer to helping all children is not siphoning off a tiny proportion to attend ‘elite’ schools.  It’s to follow the advice** of PISA after the publication of the 2015 results:

Countries should ‘strive to have excellent schools in every neighbourhood and make them accessible to all students’.

That means ALL pupils, not just one-in-ten.

* For a flavour of these see Full Fact, the Education Policy Institute and Henry Stewart’s article re eleven grammar school myths.

** p233, Volume II, PISA 2015 Results, ‘What PISA 2015 results imply for policy’, downloadable here.




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Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 09/02/2017 - 15:32

There is a serious logistics problem. The top 10 percent of the national ability range (90th percentile) ia a threshold CATs score of 120. The idea is to provide an exclusive, high power, academic education for children in poor areas where the local comprehensives are alleged to be failing.

However these areas do not produce enough CATs 120+ pupils to make such a school viable. The problem in such areas is low mean cognitive ability and not necessarily poor secondary schools, although there will be many of those schools that do indeed neglect the needs of their brightest pupils in order to clear the latest government floor target threshold. In Barrow in the 1990s in my headship school we had less than five CATs 120+ pupils in our Y7 intake in the whole 14 years of my headship. In those days there was universal CATs testing in Y7 of all Cumbria schools and I served on the LEA working group that managed the process. I estimate that in the whole of Barrow there would have been less than 30 CATs 120+ pupils in Y7 of the entire town's secondary schools. The position in Knowsley and the other northern post-industrial towns that are constantly accused of under-performing would be similar.

This would produce, at best, a super-selective grammar school with an annual intake of 30 pupils and therefore an 11-16 school population of 150. Thirty pupils in Y11 is no basis for providing a super-academic 6th form even limited to STEM subjects plus English, history and Geography, unless class sizes in low single figure could be afforded.

The government, the Sutton Trust, Social Mobility Foundation and all the ill-informed lefties that think that limited attainment in such areas is down to poverty and ethnic discrimination, may point to SATs results that are claimed to produce far more 'bright' children from poor backgrounds. The super-discipliarian Free Schools and Academies with their 'knowledged -based', high tech, computer assisted learning methods, may indeed produce high SATs scores, but these are not founded on deep learning and enhanced cognitive ability, so not much evidence of it remains six months later in Y7, let alone five and a half years later when these pupils are quite unable and usually disinclined to progress to maths, science and computing A Levels.

Nevertheless, in order to fill these super-academic grammar schools, instead of CATs, the top ten percent of SATs results pupils may be creamed off. However in the affluent, leafy south where there will be far more of such such pupils, because CATs and SATs scores are much higher, it will be much harder to get into the super-academic grammar schools. This will result in the super-grammar schools of the south getting much better 16+ and A Level results than those in the north, so nothing will have been achieved at all in terms of the illusiary education gap between the impoverished north and the affluent south.

There will be those that find my analysis so unpalatable for ideological reasons that they will reject it. To these, I say seek the evidence in the only LA in Britain that has universal CATs testing in all of its primary schools. This is the London Borough of Hackney, whose system is described in detail in my book, 'Learning Matters'.  All the CATs and SATs data that are needed are held here going back more than a decade.

A modelling exercise is needed. Even in this densley populated part of London where the mean CATs score of about 97 is far higher than Barrow and Knowsley, I doubt that enough CATs 120+ pupils could be found to produce a viable super-grammar school. In fact I know from my study of Mossbourne Academy in my book that the Band A CATs score pupils that produce the 50 upper quartile pupils admitted per year are based on a threshold CATs score of 110+ ( top 25 percent, 75th percentile) not the 120+ (90th percentile) needed for the super-grammar school. This will apply equally to the other 'banded intake' academies that have sprung up to challenge Mossbourne. All these schools have to admit pupils from well outside the poorest parts of Hackney, and from neighbouring Boroughs to fill their top sets.

I haven't even started to address the damage that would be caused to existing schools including the high performing Hackney Academies by siphoning off the top ten percent of pupils. Sir Michael Willshaw and the current Hackney Academy heads will be fuming.

Once again, defeating the object. See

Emma Bishton's picture
Thu, 09/02/2017 - 21:06

Even if increasing selection were a good idea (I'm implacably opposed), this is very clearly another policy constructed in an urban bubble. Local authorities are struggling to provide transport for children to attend catchment  schools now. 

Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 09/02/2017 - 21:17

You make an important point that is often overlooked Emma - the unnecessary travel costs of children not attending their local schools. All varieties of selection on academic and religious grounds increase these costs and the more exclusive the sewlection the greater the costs, whether they are born by the LA or by the parents.

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