Thursday, May 17, 2007

Willetts on school selection

David Willetts’s speech on education this week was characteristically intelligent and well-researched. It was entirely in keeping with the new Tory rebranding – in other words, it talked a lot about the disadvantaged but missed some key points and failed to grasp some tough nettles, and was less revolutionary in policy terms than it was spun as. He claims:

“We are all familiar with the lists of countries that have the boldest and most effective education reform - some American states, Holland and Sweden, for example. They all have more per capita funding and greater diversity of provision and without allowing providers to select who they teach. It is very important that we comply with this successful international model.”

This sounds like a commitment to abolish selection and increase spending. But no, he’s promising to keep the existing grammar schools. And one of his colleagues may have words to say about spending commitments.

Willetts cites research showing that poor children on free school meals do increasingly less well than other kids at every stage of education. But these figures show that three-quarters of the GCSE achievement gap is already in place before the start of secondary school, and two-thirds is set by the start of primary school. Yet he focuses his priorities on secondary school reform rather than pre-school nursery and childcare.

He discussed at length figures showing that grammars (as well as well-performing comprehensives) tend to have fewer pupils from poor families than in the general population in the areas they serve, showing that de facto social selection is going on. But he sees this as meaning that clever, pushy, middle-class parents are manouevring their way into the best schools.

What he entirely fails to consider – although he gets achingly close in saying that “in the rush to create more and more Academies before Gordon Brown becomes leader, there is a danger that they are becoming less distinctive” – is that ‘school quality’ isn’t something that exists prior to and independent of intake. One of the key determinants of a school’s exam results is the type of children (and, more importantly, parents) it can get. Nice middle-class parents like their children to go to nice chav-free middle-class schools, with which they can happily get involved. These schools then tend to do pretty well academically.

UCL’s Professor Richard Webber and colleagues published some important yet unsurprising research on this last year:

“The results show that the position of a school in published league tables… depends more on the social profile of its pupils than the quality of the teachers.”

Yes, you can do some good by concentrating resources and innovative ideas on schools in poorer areas. Labour already is, to a degree. But the elephant in the room is the one-sided drive to class segregation: some politicians ignore it because they don’t care; others try to avoid it for fear of being trampled.


Jane Henry said...

It's a tricky one this, Tom. I am a middle class mum with luckily a good school nearby to which my eldest daughter will be going. I am also the product of a grammar school in the good old days when poor kids COULD get in and change their lives.

I don't particularly want to return to the days of the secondary modern/grammar divide where children were made to feel a failure at eleven, BUT....

We did sit our daughter for a grammar school, simply because it is the best school in the area, and she is a bright kid. In my view I would have failed in my job as a parent if I hadn't tried to get her the best education I could. Sadly she didn't get in, but luckily for us she has a good alternative.

As a middle class mum should I put my child's future to one side for the sake of others? Maybe in an ideal world I should, but she only gets one shot at it, I want her to have the best shot.

The criminal situation is that too many of our children are falling behind from day one - you're right the rot has set in well before they get to secondary school.

Round here there is a new school in the middle of a council estate. In order to create a good social mix they take a percentage of kids from each ward in the borough. That seems to me the fairest way of doing it, and it allows middle class parents to feel confident they can send their kids there (the school has a growing reputation),and the poorer kids have the opportunity to study in an environment where learning is encouraged.

We don't live in an ideal world, so we muddle through, but every parent irrespective of money or class wants the best for their kids, and the tragedy is that the best isn't available for far too many.

(Had we lived somewhere else, our daughter's failure to get to a grammar school might have been disastrous.)

Anonymous said...

I wonder, Jane, what you really think is 'best' for your daughter? That she's living in a world where there aren't enough skilled people to provide the goods and services she needs? where there are growing numbers of people with wasted potential with all the frustration and dangers that would bring? How can you just opt out? Is it really in her best long term interests.
The bar for 'best for my child' just keeps getting higher and higher. If you encourage such values in your daughter, I guess she might grow up expecting ballet and horseriding classes for her own daughter before less fortunate kids get some decent teaching.
My children are through the education system now. They both went to 'good-enough' schools. Sometimes the teaching and behaviour and facilities were poor so we joined the governers, went to the meetings, raised the issues and pushed for change. Our children are adults now - not just well qualified and intelligent but living kindly in the world and confortable and co-operative with all kinds and backgrounds of people. How can you see it as 'putting your child's future to one side for the sake of others'? All of our children will benefit if we strive to ensure that all of our children's opportunities improve. I don't think it is being stupidly altruistic; in fact, from a totally selfish stance you have to get off your island.