Thursday, January 04, 2007

Selection and comprehensives

The Centre for Policy studies has published a paper [PDF] by Norman Blackwell (onetime policy adviser to John Major), entitled ‘Three Cheers for Selection: How grammar schools help the poor’. A pity he didn’t have the guts to call it ‘Three Cheers for Rejection: How secondary moderns help the poor’, but you can’t have everything.

Blackwell pushes the standard pro-grammar ideological buttons, and there’s the usual downplaying of the consequences of secondary moderns. Also, as you’d expect, there’s disregard for the fact that a ‘comprehensive’ in the vicinity of a grammar is reduced to de facto secondary modern status by default. The paper marshals some dodgily selective (how apt) statistics and is notable for the funniest attempt to spin an inconvenient opinion poll that I’ve seen in ages (nicely trashed by Luke Akehurst).

Courageously, Blackwell addresses head-on the argument that grammars favour the better-off: “in selective LEAs, the proportion of able children attending grammar schools from families eligible for free school meals is still only half that of able children from better off families.” His answer is as compelling as it is thorough: “more still needs to be done”.

What the research says

Most interestingly, though, he cites research by York University’s Professor David Jesson, purportedly showing that grammars get better results for high-fliers than comps. But peer into the footnotes, and you discover that Blackwell is actually citing a year-old Sunday Times editorial that mentions Jesson’s work. It says that he tracked a group of bright 11-year-olds: “some went to independent or grammar schools, some to high achieving comprehensives and the remainder to comprehensives with a record of low achievement”.

The results were that many “were let down by poor schooling, failing to get five or more A or A* GCSEs, in contrast to those who went to grammars or high achieving comprehensives”. The paper is unsuprised and thunders about the need for more grammars.

Well, are you surprised? Are you shocked and amazed that schools (including some comps) classed as ‘high-achieving’ produce higher achievements than other schools (including some comps) classed as ‘low-achieving’? Or are you just amused that the Sunday Times’s argument for grammars tacitly acknowledges that comps can be as good?

But rather than rely on paraphrases and third-hand interpretations, I think it’d be nice to hear what Professor Jesson actually says [PDF]. He observes that there is:

“lower performance in those areas which still organise their schools on selective lines. A government committed to raising standards for all must not exclude from its agenda those currently educated in ‘secondary modern’ schools – these pupils are currently seriously disadvantaged in GCSE performance by the way that their schooling system operates. Maintaining that disadvantage should not be an option.”

Yes, that’s right. The overall effect of the selection/rejection system is to produce worse results.

(Mike Ion has more detail on Jesson’s research.)

How to be really picky

A few years ago, I disconcerted myself briefly by realising that I supported selective education – and always had done. But I support it in a way that reinforces my belief in comprehensive schools: very simply, schools with a mixed-ability intake can be more efficiently selective in their teaching than can a grammar/secondary modern system.

You see, I went to a comp that streamed us, each year, into different ability groups for different subjects. I didn’t find out until long after I’d left that not all comps did this. Streaming seems so obvious.

Of course you’re likely to be more successful with classes of similar ability. Of course children don’t develop their abilities at the same rate as each other. And of course children have different areas of strength and weakness.

But how does one-off all-or-nothing selection at 11 help the late developers? Or the kids who do well early on but later fall behind? Or the kids who are good at maths but bad at English – which school is designed for their needs?

Efficient, ability-sensitive selective education requires that children be able to move between teaching groups as appropriate. This requires streaming: changing school as performance improves or worsens would be administrative and emotional chaos, as well as being too crude to deal with subject-specific issues. And as selection can be done better within a school, what’s the sense in having a two-tier system to complicate things?

A streamed comprehensive-intake system also has the advantages of not creating a lot of low-status, low-aspiration swamps for the majority of kids to sink into.

The wrong kind of choice

The Blackwell paper also praises choice – and there are decent arguments for giving parents a real choice of state schools where feasible (as long as the power to choose doesn’t depend on wealth). It’s often said that schools competing for students can drive up standards across the board. Maybe so.

But that’s not an argument the grammarians (and their quieter alter egos, the secondary modernists) can use. The argument they have to make is that it’s a good thing for parents to be forced to make their 10- and 11-year-olds compete, so that these children can avoid the scapheap and win the privilege of being chosen by one of the few good schools to prop up its place in the league tables.

Which kids are going to win that competition: the bright yet disadvantaged ones with untapped potential? Or the ones whose parents can buy them private coaching?


Cassilis said...

Great post Tom - but I don't completely agree!

As far as I'm aware (and I've yet to read the CPS paper, sorry) those calling for a return to selective education aren't, in the main, advocating a straightforward return to the 11+. They are in fact talking about streaming / setting etc. to which there remains an absurd ideological objection from some on the left.

Cassilis said...
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Tom Freeman said...

Thanks - and it'd be awful if everyone completely agreed with me! I mean, I'd lap it up for a week or two, but then it'd just get boring...

On streaming/setting (it seems I hadn't appreciated the difference - for the record I support subject-specific setting), the CPS paper does argue for selective school admissions, and extremely briefly dismisses streaming/setting as inadequate.

The opinion poll it commissioned also found that ability-based teaching in mixed-ability schools was the most popular option - for both more and less academically able kids. A sizeable minority favoured mixed-ability classes.

Dave Hill said...

I found this post very helpful, Tom, in concentrating my mind on an extremely slippery subject. It was also a nice riposte to certain 'muscular' liberals who think it rather clever to support the return of grammar schools but have failed to think the issue through as carefully as you have. My feeling about secondary education - speaking as someone with two kids presently enduring it, one who surivived it, and three more who've yet to embark on it - is that something very fundamental is completely wrong with it. It think it's something that actually goes deeper than the selection/streaming/setting debate and concerns what we believe an education ought to be, what adolescent kids in modern society need to know and so on. Unfortunately, I'm not at all sure how to define exactly what the 'something' is, let alone what to do about it! More research required!

Tom Freeman said...

I have no kids, nor any in the pipeline, so all this is academic for me. Didn't mean that as a pun, BTW.

The thought of having to engage with the education system as a parent horrifies me. Must be enormously stressful.

Maybe, maybe... this is a very vague thought, but maybe part of the difficulty you're gesturing at is to do with the tensions among (a) different political views of what sort of citizens there should be and how to develop these through education; and (b) different personal views of what parents want for their own children.

Also there's (c) the trade-offs between whatever comes out of (a) and (b), with the state ideally satisfying every parent but in practice having to favour some views over others.

But this is all deeply hand-wavy and, as I say, I'm not talking from personal experience of navigating the system.