“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.