BBC documentary on grammar schools was one-sided, say Oxbridge academics

Janet Downs's picture
TES reports that the BBC has received a formal complaint about its documentary, “The Grammar School: A Secret History”.

The objectors, comprising Oxbridge academics, historians and educationalists said the BBC had a “statutory obligation” to present both points-of-view about selection particularly now that selective education is “back on the political agenda.”

The documentary, according to the academics, painted a rosy picture of grammar schools. It used “emotive and value-laden language… accompanied by romantic piano music” to elicit a positive response. It was “largely uncritical, factually careless and reliant upon unrepresentative personal testimony” which presented grammar schools as, according to the programme’s script, a “dream – the dream of giving the very best education to Britain’s brightest children.” This dream, according to the programme makers, was “swept away” in the 60s and 70s.

One of the objectors to the programme, Professor Richard Pring, Lead Director of the Nuffield Review of 14-19 education and director of education at Oxford from 1989-2003, told TES that the programme ignored research showing that selection at age 11 couldn’t be justified. This view is supported by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) which found that high-performing schools systems tend to be those that don’t segregate pupils according to ability or geographically.

Michael Pyke, of the Campaign for State Education (CASE), told TES that he would like to see the BBC giving a “more balanced view of education”.

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Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 27/10/2012 - 15:28

When evaluating the quality of a study like this one of the first things you do is you look at the other circumstances which are likely to have effected results at the time and how well the authors have analysed and accounted for them.

I asked teachers in NI about funding at this time and according to their memory it was increasing rapidly at the time. So I looked in the paper to see how this was handled and it was simply ignored if I remember rightly.

Funding levels are hugely influential on attainment.

This was another one of the reasons I refer to it as being a very weak paper and think people who try to use it are being a bit desperate.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 27/10/2012 - 15:37

It depends what you mean by 'leaving the people of Kent to decide' Ricky.

Michael Gove has changed the nature of what it means for people to decide. Previously there had to be democratic consultation and proper analysis. Now if a few people want something then 'the people have decided'. I don't accept this second method of 'letting the people decide' because it's a recipe for disaster not democracy.

It's been historically shown that it's very difficult to have balanced and open consultations on grammar schools. If Michael Gove had come in and said 'I think rather than having a freeze we should set up high quality consultation systems which local areas can use if they want to expand grammar school places so that they can expand where expansion is wanted and the consequences of that expansion are understood and will not be severe or will be properly managed' then I'd say fair enough. But that's not what happened. Instead of that we've got an idiot who hasn't got a clue what the implications of his actions are, what proper consultations is or why they are important.

George Macreadey's picture
Sat, 27/10/2012 - 17:56

'Funding levels are hugely influential on attainment.'

Clearly not:

'Despite significant increases in spending on child care and education during the last decade, PISA scores suggest that educational performance remains static, uneven and strongly related to parents’ income and background.'

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 27/10/2012 - 19:25

:-) In my first job as a business analyst I had to create this kind of report. You just had to churn out lots of impressive charts whether or not they had any validity. I absolutely hated it because I knew those charts were going to be 'out there' and would be used for all sorts of purposes for which they had no validity at all.

John Medeiros's picture
Fri, 26/10/2012 - 21:56

'.... the programme ignored research showing that selection at age 11 couldn’t be justified. This view is supported by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) which found that high-performing schools systems tend to be those that don’t segregate pupils according to ability or geographically.'

'Facebook and its co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, the world’s youngest self-made billionaire, are products of Harvard University...... the rise of Facebook make a clear connection between the success of the company and the university where it started: both Facebook and Harvard targeted the exclusive and the elite.

In almost all countries students are tracked by ability into different institutions at some stage of their education...... variation in practice over time and place reflects the different views on the merits of tracking. .....

It is very difficult to shed light on these issues.

A further problem is that when educational reforms are introduced by governments they typically have a number of components...... really difficult to identify the overall effects of policies that lead to changes in ability tracking.

Indeed, there is still little convincing evidence about how variation in the relative size of the elite and non-elite tracks affects average educational outcomes.

To address these issues, we focused our work on a unique natural experiment

contrary to fears expressed at the time of this reform, expanding the elite track did not dilute the quality of education in the elite institutions for high ability students.

As with all such reforms, findings cannot be assumed to hold outside the study context.

Nonetheless this example provides clear evidence that at least in some contexts widening access to the more academic track can generate effects which are strong and positive and does not systematically dilute the quality of education.'

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 27/10/2012 - 08:31

re Northern Ireland - see TES for details of efforts in NI to desegregate education. The context is described in the article:

"It has been said that if you can think of a way to divide pupils, it exists somewhere in the province, from religious segregation and single-sex schools to academic selection and the more insidious, class-based division that critics claim follows.
But now, driven by economic and cultural concerns as much as educational ones, the Northern Ireland government is leading an effort to overturn the status quo."

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 27/10/2012 - 08:37

John - Harvard is a university. Like all universities it targets academic high fliers. This thread is discussing a BBC documentary which has been accused of favouring selection at age 11. This is turn led to a discussion of selection at age 11. It does not follow that selection at the age of university entrance (18+) justifies selection at age 11.

You are, however, correct in saying that selection by ability "at some stage of their education". But in most high-performing countries this is later (usually around age 16) rather than sooner - it occurs as pupils enter the upper secondary stage of education.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 27/10/2012 - 08:56

John - I commented on the Northern Ireland "natural experiment" on an earlier thread (link below, 25/5/12 at 1.13pm). I reproduce it here:

"The Northern Ireland policy to extend entry to grammar schools increased the proportion of entrants from 31% of the cohort to 35%. The grammar schools took in more pupils skimmed from the top of the middle-ability range. And, surprise, surprise, these extra pupils passed more exams – they took more academic subjects and were stimulated by the peer-group effect."

"You say that the NI reforms had no negative effects elsewhere. This is incorrect. The researchers wrote, “…we find that the reform had a negative effect on average performance in non-elite schools, but not in elite schools, in spite of a decline in the average ability of their students.” So, when the grammar schools allowed in a few “marginal” students, the average ability in the grammar schools declined (but not by much – not enough to lower results) while the average performance in non-grammar schools went down."

"The language of the researchers is revealing. They describe grammars as “elite” while other schools are “non-elite”. These descriptions affect the pupils who attend these schools – “elite” v “non-elite”, “first-class” v “second-class”, “first-rate” v “second-rate”. In areas where grammar schools persists, this is how children are labelled at age 11, with the majority being in the second category."

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 27/10/2012 - 08:47

Just found a discussion about the BBC documentary on this earlier thread from January 2012 when the programme was first broadcast (see comments from Nigel Ford's post 7/01/12 at 8.17pm downwards):

Adrian Elliott's picture
Mon, 29/10/2012 - 15:24

The discussion seems to have drifted away rather from the original post which was about the accuracy of the BBC documentary.

I and others felt the programme gave insufficient weight to the under-achievement of many grammar school pupils in the 50s and 60s.
In relation to this, I have just come across for the first time a fascinating extract from the head's annual report from an old school magazine of mine from 1957.

He refers to " the lack of success of our form VC" and continues

"Let us face the fact-boys in the stream are less gifted than their companions in the A or B streams. However, they are boys who have gained success in Local Education Authority selection tests and....these tests do select children who have the intelligence to profit by a course in a grammar school. Why then do they lack academic success."

So whilst there was a lot of complacency about, some in authority did realise at the time that all was not as happy as the BBC suggested. He goes on to suggest ,by the way, that the C streamers weren't working hard enough: so no blame attached to the school or teachers!

Certainly, the results bore out his comments. Boys in the C stream at my old school that year averaged fewer than 2 O level passes each. (This wasn't the result of early leaving-those were the figures for those who stayed and took O level, presumably the brightest and most motivated)

Its worth mentioning in the light of modern performance tables, that not a single boy passed English or a modern foreign language .

It didn't get any better. I have the results up to 1962 and the performance of the C streamers ( a third of the intake and still,as the head implies, in the top 20/25% of the national ability range) actually declined .

Patrick Hadley's picture
Mon, 29/10/2012 - 18:30

Adrian, I think that the quotes and data you have found demonstrate that when people talk about how wonderful the old grammar school system was, and how standards have declined since then, they really do not what they are talking about. I went to a grammar school in the 1960s in which there were two forms, with the lower stream pupils regarded by the teachers (and I am ashamed to say by those of us in the top stream) as "thick", with few if any of them passing more than a couple of O-levels.

Back in 1950s and 1960s the right-wingers believed that you could use an intelligence and aptitude test to identify which pupils had the potential for academic study at eleven, and the majority should go to Secondary Moderns or Technical Schools. When many pupils who had passed the eleven plus failed their O-levels, the blame was given to the pupils who despite having the intelligence and the opportunity provided by the grammar school, had wilfully neglected to study hard enough. No right-wingers worried if most pupils passed no public exams at all. They opposed the establishment of comprehensive schools because they thought that those schools would give less able pupils false ideas and hopes, and wanted to keep the average and below pupils in non-academic environments.

Nowadays the right-wingers believe that if 30% or 40% of pupils leave a comprehensive school without five or more good GCSEs including Maths and English, then they are all being failed by the school, the headteacher should be sacked, the school put on special measures, and eventually turned into an academy. Right-wingers now seem to have rejected entirely the idea that intelligence, aptitude and individual effort play any part in passing public exams, and say that it is all the responsibility of the schools.

I would like to see a TV programme examining the causes of this incredible change in right-wing educational theory.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 29/10/2012 - 18:44

I find these both very interesting points.

They fit with my perception that a lot of people simply weren't bothered about their kids going to grammar school at the time - because it wasn't leading anywhere. Many thought they would be better off getting a vocational education because they could see that leading to work.

There would have been concerns about these 'kids' in the middle who were ending up without either academic or vocational qualifications. It's clear to see why they would have been likely to have been better off in comps. In a small grammar school you're very likely to end up in the same set for all subjects because of the way timetables work - an a two stream school as described above that's pretty much inevitable. In a large comp it's much easier to set flexibly so a child can go up to the top set in a subject they are good at and stay in a lower set in a subject they are struggling with.

Adrian Elliott's picture
Tue, 30/10/2012 - 09:33


''They fit with my perception that a lot of people simply weren’t bothered about their kids going to grammar school at the time – because it wasn’t leading anywhere.''

This is probably true but it can be overstated. There was a poll in one of those of big fifties surveys into secondary education - I think it was Early Leaving but I'm not certain - which asked whether parents wanted their children to go to grammar school. They split the results by social class and every class, including unskilled working, showed a majority in favour. The majorities simply got bigger the higher up the social ladder you went.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 30/10/2012 - 09:38

Thank you Adrian.

That was at a time when the funding gap between a grammar school education and a secondary modern education was massive, wasn't it. Does anybody have any figures on what it was?

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Mon, 29/10/2012 - 18:55

The documentary Waiting for Superman doesn't examine the phenomenon you identify, but it goes a long way towards explaining it.

It's also interesting how leftwingers, having been solidly on the 'blank slate' side of the nature-nurture debate throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s have now drifted back to the eugenics and genetic determinism of the early Fabians.

So now we have the situation where Michael Gove and the right are arguing that ALL have a right to study the full EBacc monty; while the left appear to be saying that if you are poor or from an ethnic minority you'll struggle with anything more challenging than ASDAN.

Patrick Hadley's picture
Mon, 29/10/2012 - 21:07

I think that Ricky Tarr is right that the nature-nurture debate is at the heart of this issue. I am not sure that most left-wingers have moved fully away from the "blank slate" side of this argument - there was a debate on education on Radio Four a few weeks ago where, if I remember correctly, John Humphries said something to the effect of "Nobody still believes that intelligence is inherited" and there was no disagreement.

However it does seem that the right-wingers have set up camp on the "blank state" side of the argument. Gove is not just saying that all pupils have a right to study the EBacc, but that it will be the fault of the school if many pupils do not do well in O-level style exams in Maths, French and Science. Toby Young has insisted on compulsory Latin for all in the WLFS: no test on entry to see if they have the aptitude for Ablative Absolutes and Imperfect Subjunctives, but he seems to think that if you have good enough teachers all pupils can succeed in Latin, and the pupils are all going to take Latin for at least three years as a result.

I have always thought that answer to the nature-nurture debate was obvious. It is not nature OR nature, but BOTH nature AND nurture. A recent Horizon programme on BBC2 said that current research indicated that 50% to 60% of academic aptitude was down to genetic inheritance, and 40% to 50% the result of the environment in which we develop. That makes perfect sense to me. But whatever proportion you give to nature and nurture by the time a child is eleven most of its academic potential is pretty much determined, and there is not all that much that any school can do to change it, despite the wishful thinking of right wingers such as Gove and Young.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Tue, 30/10/2012 - 11:02


it does seem that the right-wingers have set up camp on the “blank state” side of the argument

I think the real drivers have little to do with the nature-nurture debate (in which nowadays almost all sensible people would concur with your “both” line). There are many good small-c conservative reasons for wanting a more inclusive, unfragmented curriculum: social & community cohesion, promoting a cohesive national culture, rejection of multiculturalism and its social equivalents, rejection of anti-canonical cultural relativism and so on. There are also economic imperatives - globalization, competitiveness etc.

by the time a child is eleven most of its academic potential is pretty much determined, and there is not all that much that any school can do to change it

Goodness, that sounds almost like an argument in favour of selection at 11, but I’m sure you don’t mean it that way. Past experience shows you are right. But Gove & Co (…and that includes me) are optimists who refuse to settle for a future determined by past failings. I remember seeing a lecture (I think it was one of Dylan Winter’s command performances) which showed the extraordinary differences in progress between classes taught by the best teachers and those taught by the worst (controlled for student aptitude). The message was that though *schools * might not currently be doing much to promote step-changes in learning, individual teachers can and do. The obvious policy implication is that if you were to put one of those top teachers into EVERY classroom, you would change the landscape. And schools would then have positive effects after age-11.

Most of what Gove is doing and saying has something to do with this…… including his willingness to offend. Bad teachers tend to be FFT determinists. Good ones tend to be have high hopes. Hence the “no-excuses” rhetoric.

On Adrian’s point on grammar school kids who flunked O-level in the 60s, this fact may be worth noting:

In Grammar Schools in the 21st Century, (National Grammar Schools Association, 2001), Fred Naylor reveals that today's secondary modern schools have nearly twice the success rate in 16-plus examinations as did the WHOLE of the maintained sector in 1967.

What could explain this? Perhaps a complete change in society’s understanding of the link between attainment at school and getting a decent job?

Back in the days of full employment, when Uncle Tom would always get you a job/apprenticeship at the steelworks/car factory/whatever, irrespective of the number or grade of qualifications, the relevance of exams was much smaller than today. That lack of compelling motivation could explain the performance of the grammar school C stream back in the day too. There’s a much more vivid awareness that attainment matters today – among parents, teachers and students.

Patrick Hadley's picture
Thu, 01/11/2012 - 12:46

Ricky, I am sure that nobody would ever go into teaching unless they believed that good schools and good teaching made a difference - and that bad schools and bad teaching let down pupils and can have very harmful long term effects. I am not sure why a belief that most of a pupil's academic potential has been determined by the age of eleven should be thought of as an argument in favour of selection at that age. Why do we need to separate pupils into different schools at that age? How will it help average pupils to reach their potential if we put them into a completely different institution, away from those who have passed an entrance exam? Before comprehensive schools very few average pupils reached their potential at school.

I do believe that there has been a big improvement in the standards of achievement of the average pupil over the last thirty years, and that comprehensive education is the main factor. Once we had comprehensive schools there was no need to tell the majority of the pupils that they could not succeed academically. Of course the right-wing case put by Gove and Toby Young is that standards are now lower than they were in the heyday of grammar schools. Where do you stand on this? Do you accept the NGSA research that tells us that the average young person leaves school much better educated than they did forty years ago?

Leonard James's picture
Thu, 01/11/2012 - 08:20

"Most of what Gove is doing and saying has something to do with this…… including his willingness to offend. Bad teachers tend to be FFT determinists. Good ones tend to be have high hopes. Hence the “no-excuses” rhetoric."

Smile or die.


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