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The grammar school debate

When I am not thinking about language teaching stuff, I do keep an eye on the educational agenda in general. A recent report in The Sunday Telegraph suggests that Thetesa May is looking at allowing the creation of more grammar schools. Allow me to reflect on this one and see if you agree!

This is the issue that refuses to go away, isn't it? I know a bit about grammar schools, having taught in two over a period of nearly 30 years. But anecdotal evidence, which is what we mostly get to hear in the comment pages, is not really enough.

The case for grammar schools has recently centred on the issue of social mobility. Some would have us believe that the grammar school was the route up the social ladder for bright, working class children. They believe that ambitious, able, working class kids are held back by less motivated children in mediocre comprehensive schools. The same people would no doubt argue that comprehensive education has led to a decline in excellence, a boost for private schools and selection by postcode as parents seek more selective schooling or the "best" local comprehensive.

What is the empirical evidence for grammar schools being a promoter of social mobility?

Sir Michael Wilshaw argued powerfully against grammar schools, stating that the proportion of children in them on free school meals was very low when compared to schools in general. Wilshaw stated that grammar schools were "stuffed" with middle class children. He is no doubt right in general. According to the Sutton Trust fewer than 3% of grammar schools entrants are entitled to free school meals, compared to 18% on average.

I am not surprised by this. First and foremost, if one accepts that there is a correlation between social class and IQ (see a list of academic of papers on this here), then we would expect to see a skew towards the middle classes in grammar schools. Secondly, the predominance of children from higher socio-economic groups in grammar schools is probably exacerbated by coaching and by wealthier or more aspirational parents moving to grammar school catchment areas.

All this is regrettable, I would argue, since it increases social segregation, reinforce academic differences and potentially reduce the aspirations of non-selected students. Remember that around 7% of children are already effectively removed from the mainstream through private schooling.
Was there more social mobility in the grammar school era?

This metastudy from 2010 found no increase in social mobility for grammar schools. Anecdotal evidence will always produce cases of working class people who believe a grammar school education gave them an invaluable start in life, but there is no evidence to support the claim that selection at 11 increases social mobility for working class children.

What about the claim that grammar schools raise attainment?

The former education journalist Chris Cook studied figures from the national Pupil Database to investigate differences in attainment between areas with selection and those without. Assuming all the areas that still had grammar schools were put together into one example 'region', The research compared how the pupils performed at GCSE level, compared to how they should perform given the area they're schooled in. His analysis revealed that children from deprived backgrounds performed worse than their counterparts in areas without selection.

Does the OECD and the PISA analysis have anything to offer on this? Well, it is the case that the highest performing systems do not operate selective systems, and certainly not Finland which does not even have private schools.

When I think about this, and given that data in this area is hard to pin down, it seems plausible that children in grammar schools might do better than expected since they are in a hothouse environment with pupils of similar ability. One might also surmise that secondary modern schooled children (the other 75+%) might do a little worse without the presence of the most able children to spur them on and raise the expectations of both teachers and pupils.

The remaining 164 grammar schools are great in many ways for the children who attend them - the two I taught in were good examples - but they are not a good solution for the country as a whole and it would be wrong to further mess around with school structures when we know that what really counts is good teaching.


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