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Selection at 11 – a very English debate

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 5 December 2014

Chris Husbands
Originally posted on SecEd
It is a persistent undercurrent in English educational debate, but it is peculiarly English: should academic selection at the age of 11 be restored?
Boris Johnson, perhaps in response to perceived UKIP pressure, has declared himself in favour of more grammar schools, and Teresa May, more cautiously, has welcomed plans for a satellite grammar school in her constituency of Maidenhead. In Kent, the Weald of Kent grammar school is preparing a new proposal to establish what is either (depending on your view) a new grammar school in Sevenoaks or a satellite site in Sevenoaks.
The arguments for restoring grammar schools are couched in terms of opportunity and social mobility: Boris Johnson called them mobilisers of opportunity. But the evidence to support this is almost non-existent.
There remain 164 grammar schools in England, and their socio-economic make up does not support the proposition that they turbo-charge social mobility: in all areas where there are grammar schools, the proportion of pupils on free school meals (FSM) is significantly lower in the grammar schools than in the area as a whole.
There’s little evidence to suggest that grammar schools work in the way their proponents suggest: research by Professor Ruth Lupton found that grammar schools work well for those who attend them, but few FSM pupils succeed in doing so. Moreover, the OECD international evidence is clear that early selection is associated with lower performance, particularly from more deprived social groups.
More fundamentally, the argument for grammar school depends on four assumptions all being true. The first assumption is that a test for academic ability at age 11 can be reliable; that is, that a test at age 11 will reliably discriminate between those who are academically able and those who are not.
In fact, all tests have a high error rate, either because the tests do not measure accurately what they purport to assess, or because of random variations in performance on the day of the test, or because of marker error. Some evidence suggests that up to a third of pupils may be given the wrong national curriculum level.
The second assumption is that it is possible to test for academic ability at age 11 in a way which is valid – that is, that a test performance at age 11 will be strongly predictive of performance at ages 12, 13, 14, 15 and beyond. But the evidence is that children develop at different speeds and in different ways: those who perform well on a test at age 11 may not perform well at 12; those who perform relatively badly at 11 may perform better at 12.
The heyday of the 11-plus, and of grammar school education, was a time when psychologists believed academic ability to be fixed, stable and predictable, the research evidence now is clear that it is none of these.
The third assumption is that it is possible to design tests which have high specificity – that is, that they test academic ability and nothing else, such as socio-economic status. But the evidence is to the contrary: poorer children have always been under-represented in grammar schools, and even in the 1950s the differential performance of girls and boys at age 11 caused test assessors to scratch their heads about how many places to provide for each gender.
The poor were under-represented in the grammar schools of the 1960s when Brian Jackson and Denis Marsden published their classic study Education and the Working Class, and they are under-represented now: in 2012, FSM rates were 1.9 per cent at grammar schools and 16 per cent across all schools.
The fourth assumption is that it is possible to identify a defined group of pupils who will benefit from a grammar school education by comparison with the rest of the population: this was a principle of the 1944 Education Act with its vision of grammar, technical and modern schools. When grammar schools were widespread, the selected proportion varied hugely from area to area and it still does: approximately six per cent in the Birmingham grammar schools and, just 20 miles away, about 30 per cent in Rugby. Both cannot be correct.
For the argument in favour of grammar schools to be sustainable, all four of these assumptions need to hold: it needs to be possible to define valid, reliable, specific tests which accurately identify a group who will benefit from grammar schooling. In practice, none of the assumptions hold; there is no academically credible argument in favour of selection for grammar schools at age 11.
Of course, some existing grammar schools do a good job for those who attend them, but that in itself is not an argument for sustaining or extending them: few of those in favour of “more grammar schools” are willing to say what they really mean, which is “even more secondary modern schools” or “even more failure at 11”.
However, and it’s an argument which barely needs making in most countries, the evidence is strong: all children thrive on a high-demand, high-expectation curriculum in a school setting which allows for differential rates of learning and development. It is a mystery why the argument revolves in England in the way that it does when the intellectual arguments are so clear.

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9 Responses to “Selection at 11 – a very English debate”

  • 1
    Gus wrote on 5 December 2014:

    This is a rare item about Grammar schools for even mentioning secondary modern schools.
    Often over-looked in debates on school selection and ‘choice’ is the waste of human effort and environmental impact of transporting children to the next town. It means cars on the roads, huddles of children waiting for buses or on train stations. Siblings sometimes go to different towns due to the gendered nature of many ‘selective’ schools. There is a much wider impact on the whole community.
    It’s a different type of mobility not mentioned by vested-interests.

  • 2
    Ian Lynch wrote on 5 December 2014:

    Seems to me like many political arguments about education it seems the main bit of evidence is the personal experience of the individual as a pupil. We don’t seem to get much of a call for bring back secondary moderns which is where the majority would go if we reverted back to the old system.

  • 3
    John Mountford wrote on 5 December 2014:

    There is, and never was, a soundly reasoned argument in favour of grammar schools. Chris Husbands has very ably reminded us of the thoroughly practical, deeply immoral and diverse educational reasons why they fail.
    The comments by Gus and Ian remind us of the inconvenient truths that have to be ignored by those seeking to promote this very English aberration in the first quarter of the twenty-first century. The system only worked (after a fashion ‘back then’) for a minority of individuals at a time when a degree of social mobility might have been afforded some who went to grammar schools because the employment structure at the time could make that possible.
    How much longer will our society be dogged by this issue? Every piece of international research into the impact of school structure on educational outcomes for learners tells us the same thing – it is at best irrelevant and at worst distracts from the real drivers of excellence. In the face of the biggest shake-up to the structural landscape of education in England, the wheat has remained lumped with the chaff. Our biggest problem is that no one is engaging the parent population and the wider community in a searching review into the aims of education informed by the latest and best research that contributes to that debate. Meanwhile, another new Secretary of State for Education ‘fiddles’ with structural matters while English education burns.

  • 4
    Miss Honey wrote on 5 December 2014:

    The English tripartite education system is no more a mystery than its equally indefensible tripartite class system. From the early nineteenth century onwards, our public education has been built to reflect our obsession with social class. So much so, that moves towards a comprehensive system have often only resulted in tripartite “setting” in the secondary sector, or “grouping” in the primary sector. Defended as methods of organising appropriate differentiation, much research has shown that they act as little more than a form of triage that ensures better treatment for some than others. And, indeed, it seems a form of triage that continues on into the higher education sector, where it is,unfortunately, only too easy to continue to distinguish the triple inequity.

  • 5
    kevincooper777 wrote on 7 December 2014:

    1. I’d be upset if I were a Head or pupil or parent at a “secondary modern” reading this piece and some of the replies – many do an excellent job – certainly some are Ofsted ‘outstanding’ – and logic dictates that they can be better at getting the best out of middle/lower ability students without having to differentiate so widely – not least because the teacher qualities and characters needed to stretch bright kids are different compared to those needed to motivate and provide clear instruction to those who find the concepts much more challenging (especially where students’ social background etc means they are not automatically inclined to ‘want to learn’). I am a highly successful teacher in my context – but I know I couldn’t teach in the local comps and secondary moderns (I tried it in Middlesbrough and was largely a failure, and deeply stressed with it – whereas many of the most effective teachers with lower ability / demotivated kids just wouldn’t have the subject knowledge to stretch the brightest kids). The more challenging GCSEs on the horizon will (fortunately) require more stretch for the brightest students, so the ‘differentiation challenge’ is only going to increase. [NB it is obviously POSSIBLE to stretch the brightest in a comprehensive school – places like Mossbourne have proved that – but it is clearly much more difficult, and those schools are the exception – the more schools like Mossbourne arise, the less the ‘grammar school debate’ will rear its head.]
    2. It’s very annoying when articles quote figures like “in 2012, FSM rates were 1.9 per cent at grammar schools and 16 per cent across all schools” – there undoubtedly is a disparity – where I live in Lincolnshire there is a clear class divide between the grammar schools and the other schools – but the figure quoted is obviously skewed by the fact that grammar schools tend to have prevailed in more prosperous areas – why not just compare ‘like with like’ and only compare grammar schools and ‘secondary moderns’??
    3. Leading on from that, without a doubt most grammar schools are failing to ‘recruit’ bright kids from poorer households – at the moment it just isn’t in their interest – a middle ability child from a supportive middle class family will on average get better GCSE results, and behave better in school, than a relatively bright child from a more ‘deprived’ family – so they are happy with the 11+ test whereby middle class parents can ensure that their middle ability child is coached through the tests… This is a critical area in the ‘social mobility’ argument. Personal anecdotes shouldn’t dicate policy, but I think my experience is relevant here – I grew up on a large council estate in a grammar school area (North Birmingham) – I went to the grammar school, and from there to Oxford. I would NOT have gone to Oxford – or maybe even done A-levels – had I gone to the local secondary school. I was (I believe) the only child on the estate who even took the 11+ exam!! That can’t be right. I’m not saying there’s easy solutions – e.g. there’s all sorts of pitfalls with positive discrimination like lower pass score for those on FSM – but definitely more should be done.
    4. Has anyone surveyed the parents of children at secondary modern schools (or even primary schools in grammar school areas) and asked them if they think grammar schools should be scrapped? I’d be interested in the results.
    I’ll leave it at that for now 😀

  • 6
    Selection at 11 – a very English debate | Think Beyond PISA wrote on 13 December 2014:

    […] Originally posted on SecEd and reproduced on IOE London Blog. […]

  • 7
    Another school hall in another town | Distant Ramblings on the Horizon wrote on 15 October 2015:

    […] plus do better than those who succeed and go to Grammar School. You can look here, here, here, here and […]

  • 8
    Selection is unfair and damages children and communities | Comprehensive Future wrote on 4 January 2016:

    […] xiv Husbands. C (2014) Selection at 11 – a very English debate. IOE London Blog Selection at 11 – a very English debate […]

  • 9
    Mr George F Woodhouse wrote on 24 July 2016:

    You ask why, in England, there continues to be a demand for Grammar Schools in the light of evidence that they are ineffective and contrary to the intellectual arguments. It is very simple, because the alternative doesn’t work either despite intellectual argument being in support of Comprehensives education. In practise our public education outcomes are inferior to what they were 50 years ago when Grammar Schools and Secondary Modern Schools were the main system for providing secondary education.
    This is not to say it is the best system, although I benefited from it personally coming from a poor background but going through a Grammar School. But what went wrong was the system to replace it using Comprehensives was not thought through and planned properly, with a great deal of government interference introducing their own pet answers to solve problems that should have been left to educationalists.