Regional challenges not grammar schools are the answer

By | August 7, 2016
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So new Prime Minister, new knee-jerk reactions to education policy. In a move that will delight the right of the Tory party and the Mail, Express and Telegraph readers, the idea of lifting the ban on selective grammar schools, set into law by Tony Blair’s government in 1998, is being floated.

Indicative of Mrs May’s speech as she entered Downing Street last month, this is all under the guise of social mobility for those from more deprived backgrounds. Obviously this is a laudable aim and coming from an ex-grammar school girl adds extra credence to the argument.

There are the usual arguments about labelling children at 10 or 11 years old and, listening to the ultra-comprehensive types, discarding children at such a young age. This of course depends on the quality of schooling those that do not pass the 11+ (or whatever they decide to call the entrance exam) would receive. I don’t for one minute think that the secondary modern sink schools that pupils that failed the 11+ usually had to go to would be tolerated in the current educational and political climate. However I’d like to float a couple of other suggestions, based not on knee-jerk reactions or ingrained contempt for an idea, but on hard facts and research, as to why grammar schools may not be the answer to improving social mobility.

The pro-grammar school group say that grammar schools are the answer to elitism. In other words it gives those from a more deprived background a better opportunity than the current comprehensive system. However research by the Sutton Trust refutes this fact. Comparing the areas where grammar schools are still in existence with other state schools it has found that only 3% of entrants to grammar schools are entitled to free school meals – the indicator used to determine the pupil premium – as opposed to 18% for your average comprehensive school. Also four times as many entrants to grammar schools came from independent schools. In other words those from more deprived homes struggle to even get accepted to grammar schools and often grammar schools are used by those who would normally use independent schools as a cheaper alternative. Factor in those from more affluent backgrounds also have the means to ‘coach’ their children to pass the entrance exams (for example paying for private tuition) and the social mobility argument looks pretty weak.

The other big argument used is that outcomes for pupils are better for those who attend grammar schools than those who are comprehensively educated. Again, this has a very weak if not existence basis in fact and is more anecdotal in nature. To dispel this myth consider Kent and Medway, one area which has grammar schools. The graph below paints an interesting picture and shows GCSE performance against deprivation index. It shows the GCSE performance of pupils in selective Kent and Medway, those in London and those in other schools excluding Kent, Medway and London. The further left you go, the more deprived an area the pupil comes from.


The key points from this graph are:
1.  Those from deprived areas fare worse in selective Kent and Medway than in other schools in England and in fact those in London do best of all.
2.  Apart from the least deprived areas, selective Kent and Medway pupils fair worse than schools in England in general.
3.  In EVERY area – from most deprived to least deprived – educational outcomes are best in London than anywhere else in the country – including selective Kent and Medway.

This graph blows out of the water the argument that selective education works for those from deprived backgrounds, but for me as a practising teacher and supporter of the Yorkshire Party the biggest conclusion to draw from this comes from the London trend. In an area which, fifteen years ago was the educational basket case of English schools, London now has the best educational outcomes for ALL pupils IRRESPECTIVE OF BACKGROUND. Why is this? It has to be the effects of the London challenge, which I’ve written about before. This approach to educational improvement is of course a central policy for the Yorkshire Party – one that appeared in our manifesto last year and has been taken up (though of course they don’t ascribe this to us in the Yorkshire Party) by the Yorkshire Post.

To me, the answer to improving educational outcomes for pupils from ALL backgrounds isn’t resorting to an educational approach from the 1950s which works for a few but not the many, but by adopting regional challenges akin to the one which has transformed London schools. Of course this is just a theory backed up by hard evidence and years of examination performance data and not a knee-jerk reaction which will gain approving nods from the Daily Mail. So based on past experience I’m not convinced Mrs May et al will take it on because our politicians much prefer exciting and controversial knee-jerk reactions rather than the more mundane ones that actually have a basis in evidence and research. If I was to be sceptical of the governments motives, which of course I would never dream of, I’d be thinking this big policy change was nothing really to do with improving the social mobility of those from the most deprived backgrounds and more to do with providing cheap (free) private-style education for the squeezed middle class the Tories are trying to entice. I can say that but of course Mrs May and Ms Greening couldn’t possibly comment!

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