Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Can I change your view on selective schooling?

The world of selective education has been on many people’s minds recently, following the revelation by Prime Minister Theresa May she would be actively looking to expand the system. It’s very much a polarising subject, with an equally long list of advocates and detractors.

And while a previous Labour Government attempted to do away with grammar schools, and the current Conservative Government favours an expansion of the system, it isn’t a purely party political issue. There are those Labour supporters who would favour their children going to a selective school, while there are Conservative voters who are utterly ambivalent about them.
Theresa May and education secretary Justine Greening Credit: Russell Watkins/Department for International Development
Whether or not the expansion of the grammar system is a sensible move or not is undoubtedly a tough nut to crack. As someone who received a secondary modern education, before going to University, you’d expect me to say that there’s fundamentally no need for selective education. But in some senses, you’d be wrong.

There is a strong case to be made for it, which – to one degree or another – hinges heavily on the results accrued by those with that grammar education. There’s no doubt that academic attainment is better in selective schools. With a whopping 94.8 per cent achieving five or more A* to C GCSEs, it’s clear there’s significant success. Contrast that with the secondary modern, which only manages a paltry 48.9 per cent of pupils achieving five or more A* to C GCSEs, and you’d think it was open and shut, and that expansion of this system should be pushed forward aggressively.

But then, to every Yin there tends to be a Yang. We are, after all, dealing with statistics – and as a mathematician at my core, I’m all too aware that you can present the same set of numbers in different ways. Obviously selective schools have the odds stacked in their favour for high academic achievement. After all, that’s how they choose their students to begin with; those who have the highest academic potential. But what happens when you look at the value added – performance after controlling for prior attainment – by the selective system?

Key stage 2 to Key Stage 4 students in selective schools managed to achieve a ‘value-added’ score of +24.8 according to a recent Government briefing paper. This means, that on average, these students achieved 0.5 grades higher in each of their eight GCSE subjects, than they otherwise would have.
To contrast that, for pupils at non-selective schools in partially-selective areas progress was slightly below average (- 1.6). That meant they achieved a quarter of a grade lower in one subject. But progress was lowest in non-selective schools in wholly-selective areas, such as the system we have in Kent. In these areas a score of -6.7 has meant pupils achieved on average one grade lower in one subject. This shows that there is indeed a limited amount of value added to those who make their way into a selective school, but, that it comes at a price.

And that price can be a steep one, particularly when you consider where the majority of students who attend comprehensive and secondary modern schools come from.

One of the primary reasons behind the Government’s promotion of the expansion of selective schools is social mobility. The theory is those from deprived backgrounds are able to rise up and achieve as a consequence of their raw natural talent due to the selective system. The problem with this argument is that fewer of those from deprived backgrounds ever actually manage to get to a grammar school.
Selective schools have markedly lower rates of deprived children, with a schools census by the Department for Education showing just 2.6 per cent receiving a free school meal. That contrasted directly with an average from all secondary schools which sat at 14.9 per cent. And it’s not just the free school meal statistics which show the typical grammar school’s pupil base. A report undertaken by the Sutton Trust in 2013 showed a large proportion of those at grammar schools had arrived there from independent preparatory schools. This serves to illustrate if a parent has some cash, they can essentially buy their child a place in a grammar school – not something which is an option for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. This all means that currently, those who are deprived remain at a disadvantage to those from more affluent backgrounds.

Another issue to consider when thinking about why selective schools manage to get much better academic achievements are the teachers. Selective schools have the most experienced staff by far, with 54 per cent of teachers at a grammar school boasting more than 10 years’ experience. Contrast that with secondary modern teachers, who have just 41 per cent of staff with that level of experience. It may go some way to explaining additional value which is added to those pupils who find themselves at a selective school.

As I said at the beginning of this piece, the selective debate is a matter of perspective, and one which transcends most boundaries. Many favour it, and many others abhor it, but one thing is certain; it is a deeply complex issue, which cannot look at achievement in isolation. There are a wide range of factors which feed into this debate, from deprivation, to teacher experience, and even armed with this knowledge it’s still not a simple decision. But though it isn’t easy, we will nonetheless need to make a decision to ensure the brightest and most positive future for all of our school children. Let’s all just hope the right one is made.


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