Thursday, 9 March 2017

Bo' Selective! A School System that Works for the Select Few.

Yesterday the Tory Government pledged a generous £320m for the building of 110 new Free Schools including the expansion of selective schools. The Tories claim that building more selective schools will ensure an educational system 'which works for everyone'. Not only is this absolute bollocks but comes at a time when  schools are facing unprecedented budget cuts which are likely to have a devastating impact on children's learning; especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds (NUT and ATL, 2016). One of the biggest concerns is that this policy is largely based on selective evidence from crudely selective anecdotal memories. This post will give a brief overview of the history of selective education and consider evidence as to why expanding academic selection will not improve social mobility but is likely further increase and entrench segregation for many years to come.  

The History

In 1944 the Education Act was passed giving access to free secondary education for all children for the first time in the country's history. The vision was built upon the idea that 'at the age of 11, secondary education of diversified types but on equal standing, will be provided for all children' (McCulloch, 1998). The relativity simplistic (and misguided) idea was to create a system that would break down social barriers and allow more able children from disadvantaged backgrounds to receive an academic education and help them to climb the social ladder. Consequently, the act created a tripartite system based on a (now disproved) theory that children were born with innate intelligence and ability and as such should receive a specific type of education...

Grammar schools to focus on academic studies.
Secondary modern schools to prepare children for trades.
Technical schools to teach mechanical, scientific and engineering skills.  

Entrance to the grammars was dependent upon children passing an 11-plus selective examination. Effectively, an IQ test. This would then allow the top 25% of pupils to attend the grammar schools while the rest were left to attend the Secondary Moderns and Technical. However, as few of the latter were built it ultimately created a bipartite system. The ideological reasoning behind Secondary Moderns was that they would provide an education for the less academic pupils who would be able to turn their hands to a growing labour market. However, as the government ploughed money into the creation of these grammar schools, many of the Secondary Moderns (serving working class communities) were allowed to fall into a state of disrepair 'without proper lighting, with inadequate heating, with primitive sanitation, with no inside water, with a single washbasin and a towel with scores of children' McCulloch, 1998, p. 68). Sound familiar? 

Another criticism of grammar schools was that they often led to cultural assimilation where 'working-class children are turned into middle-class citizens' (Jackson and Marsden, 1962, p. 15). Indeed, many of these children felt disconnected from their communities and friends as they were expected to engage in more middle class arts, sports and culture (Todd, 2014).  As a consequence many children were left feeling disconnected from their working class communities and yet unable to infiltrate the middle class cultural circles they had been tossed in to. 

Sadly, the idea of social mobility base on meritocracy was never quite achieved. In her brilliant book,  'The People; The rise and fall of the working class', Selina Todd explains how this system of selection didn't create equality of opportunity but was extremely elitist and reserved the best places for very few children. Indeed, only 10% of children from working-class families were awarded places at grammar schools (Todd, 2014). Furthermore, it created wider divisions as it implied that only the select few really deserved to get on in life. Grammar schools grew throughout the 1950s and 60s although they remained resolutely and predominately middle-class and elitist. Another problem with this bipartite system was that it not only created a two-tier system of education but a two-tier mentality amongst children; on the one hand their was the elitist 25% and on the other hand those that were deemed just not-good-enough at a very young age. 

In a 2011 documentary Melvin Bragg interviewed a number of people who sat and the 11-plus exam during the 1950s/ 60s. One of the most striking things about the documentary is how much those who didn't pass the exam felt like failures from a young age. For some, a sledgehammer to their self-confidence and a sense of guilt and shame they would carry for the rest of their lives. There were also many who spoke of the pressure they felt in having to pass the exam. To introduce yet another high-stakes exam at a time when we are seeing rising numbers of pupils' with mental ill-health is not only cruel but makes a mockery of the Tory government's claim that they want to address this worrying trend. .

During the late 1960s/ early 1970s grammar schools started to decline and by the latter part of of the decade many Local Authorities had abandoned the 11-Plus and moved to a comprehensive system of education. Throughout this period many grammar schools and secondary moderns were amalgamated to create large comprehensive schools. By the 1980s only 5% of schools in England were grammars and  in 1998 the opening of new grammar schools was completely prohibited. Fast-forward twenty years...

Schools that work for everyone

In September 2016 the Conservative government launched their consultation paper 'schools that work for everyone' in an attempt to obtain views on 'proposals to create more schools places' (DfE, 2016). The government responded to the consultation by proposing that both grammar and selective schools should be allowed to expand. The following evidence was used to support this commitment:

1. Existing wholly-selective schools produce good exam results for pupils.
2. Selective schools can be particularly beneficial for pupils on lower incomes.
3. Pupils in non-selective schools in selective areas perform worse. 

All of this selective evidence was based on three pieces of research conducted by or on behalf of the Sutton Trust. However, two studies are from 2008 and one is from 2004 which hardly makes it the cutting-edge of educational research. Based on this very selective and limited evidence the government have proposed that:

a) Existing grammar schools should be able to expand.
b) The opening of new selective schools should be permitted.
c) Non-selective schools permitted to become selective.

There are, of course, some people who think that this is not an attempt to increase social mobility but rather a crude vote-winning vanity project...

Evidence against grammar schools

A report from the Euducation Policy Institute (2016) on grammar schools and social mobility highlighted that: 

1. No overall attainment impact of grammar schools, either positive or negative.
2. Disadvantaged children are underrepresented in grammar schools. Just 2.5% are eligible for Free School Meals compared to the national average which is 15.1% (DfE, 2015).
3. No Significant impact on social mobility. 
4. Expansion of grammar schools could lead to greater loses for poorer children.
5. High achieving pupils achieve just as well in high-quality non-selective schools.
6. The academies programme has had a more positive impact on the attainment of disadvantaged pupils compared with the present grammar school system.

Then there was this report from the House of Commons Education Committee (2016) which was quite scathing of the government's plans for increased selection and were left unconvinced that the government had produced enough evidence to make a convincing argument for the expansion of selective schools in England. This can be summed up by this exchange between Nick Gibb and Neil Carmichael during the committee's review of the evidence:

Throughout the 1950s some social researchers were arguing that selection was being used as an 'insidious means of keeping most children at the bottom of the pile' (Todd, 2014). The introduction of grammar schools was intended to improve social mobility and provide equality of opportunity, however, in reality it led to greater social segregation and inequality. Let's not make the same mistake again...


Department for Education (2016), Schools that work for everyone. 

Department for Education (2015), Schools, pupils and their characteristics. 

Education Policy Institute (2016), Grammar Schools and Social Mobility.

House of Commons Education Committee (2016), Evidence Check: Grammar Schools. 

Jackson, B. and Marsden, D. (1962), Education and the Working Class. Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd. 

McCulloch, G. (1998), Failing the Ordinary Child? The theory and practice of working-class secondary education. Buckingham: Open University Press. 

Sutton Trust (2008), Evidence on the effects of selective educational systems.

Todd, S. (2014), 

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