New School Network’s ‘comprehensive grammars’ – a contradiction, surely?

Janet Downs's picture

A comprehensive school accepts pupils irrespective of prior attainment.

A grammar school accepts only pupils who pass a selection test.

According to the New Schools Network (NSN), the two characteristics can be combined.  But a school can’t be non-selective and selective at the same time. 

But comprehensive grammars exist, says NSN.  They are ‘schools that combine grammar school standards when it comes to curriculum and behaviour, ie extremely high expectations in both areas’.

Note the word ‘extremely’.  It’s not enough, apparently, to have high expectations.  They must be ‘extremely’ so.   But ‘extremely’ can mean overbearing.  Forbes equates ‘extremely high standards’ with ‘overly demanding’.

There’s nothing exclusively ‘grammar’ about high expectations.  It’s unlikely Ofsted would judge a school good or better if it had low expectations and tolerated slapdash work or bad conduct.

NSN said eight secondary free schools achieved ‘positive Progress 8 scores’ in 2016.  ‘Positive’, as defined by NSN, includes average P8 scores.  Positive, then, is the range shared by 70% of English secondary schools.

32 secondary free schools entered pupils for GCSEs in 2016.  If just eight achieved positive P8 scores as defined by NSN then 24 must have achieved scores below average or well below.  Noting to shout about if true.  (But see caution below.)

NSN described six of the eight as ‘Comprehensive Grammars’.   Three, including West London Free School, had average P8 scores.  One, IES Breckland, had an above-average P8 score but Ofsted said it required improved in November 2015.  Inspectors could upgrade the school in the future, of course.  But until that time it can hardly be described as an ‘exemplar’ school.

‘Comprehensive Grammar’ coupled with the ‘No Excuses model’, also known as ‘neo-traditionalist’, is the ‘educational approach [which] works best when it comes to raising the attainment of the most disadvantaged students’, claims NSN.  The Sutton Trust had published research, Chain Effects, listing multi academy trusts (MATs) which were most successful in improving the progress and attainment of disadvantaged pupils.  NSN says these top MATs share the neo-traditionalist approach.

But Chain Effects didn’t use the terms ‘comprehensive grammar’, ‘No Excuses’ or ‘neo-traditional’.  It didn’t advocate any particular methodology.  Instead, it referred teachers to the EEF toolkit and recommended research be carried out to discover how successful trusts raised attainment of disadvantage pupils.  

Chain Effects found the successful chains had different management styles, centralised policies and working practices.  The only characteristics they shared were ‘a pattern of steady expansion’ and ‘a focus on a specific geographical area’.   These characteristics can't really be defined as 'neo-traditional'.

NSN’s based its enthusiasm for No Excuses on literature from the United States supporting this approach.    Princeton University research, for example, found No Excuses schools in Texas did indeed increase test scores and four-year college enrolment.  But No Excuses had no effect on earnings.  And pupils had to survive the rigorous regime and not drop out in order to improve their test scores. 

Princeton raised the ‘troubling possibility’ that methods which raised the achievement of poor pupils ‘may deprive students of other important skills needed to succeed in the labor market.’

This is something that doesn’t seem to have occurred to NSN.


CAUTION.  Data re free school performance should be used with care.  The sample size is too small to come to definitive conclusions about the group performance of free schools.

NOTES: Citing P8 scores does not mean I consider them reliable measures of a school’s educational quality.   Former head Tom Sherrington argues P8 should be scrapped.    In the meantime, the DfE plans to make changes to P8 in 2018 just two years after the measure was first introduced.  





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