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?