Iain Mansfield’s controversial new research on grammar schools does not pull its punches.
It directs explicit criticism at the academic community which he accuses of having an “unconscious bias driving the [selective education] research agenda”. Yet it appears to be Mansfield’s own bias – presumably not unconscious – that leaves this research open to easy and extensive criticism.
The report – The Impact of Selective Secondary Education on Progression to Higher Education – is selective in its citation of previous research on grammar schools, and stretches back over ten years to The Sutton Trust’s 2008 report to find supporting evidence for its hypothesis. More recent research that it conveniently disregards includes reports by Education Datalab (2018), Professor Stephen Gorard (2018) and Professor Simon Burgess (2017).
The report is also selective in the quotations it chooses. Despite highlighting polling data that “more than twice as many people support proposals to bring back grammar schools than opposed them”, the report ignores findings from the same poll that nearly two-thirds (of the same respondents) opposed the idea of selection and a warning that “views differed markedly between people according to their social and demographic characteristics”.
In addition, support for selective education was “significantly associated with being older, being male, voting Conservative, being more highly educated and living in certain regions.” Overall, it seems that Mansfield has fallen into exactly the trap that he accuses others of – “a failure to engage properly with evidence”.
This is also true of the methods that are used in the report’s primary data analysis. Previous research is criticised for having a narrow view of disadvantage by using free school meals (FSM) as a proxy. Whilst FSM is not a perfect analysis category, it ought to be acknowledged that this is the proxy used by all government departments, including DfE and Ofsted. There was an attempt, and even a consultation, to move beyond this to a new definition labelled ‘just about managing’ – but no reliable measure was found. Mansfield’s attempt at creating a new measure in order to make the data fit an argument is naive.
What about SEND?
The report also seeks to broaden the category of disadvantage by including specific disadvantaged groups, but again this is selective in its focus. While the analysis includes students with English as an additional language (EAL) and black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds, it does not include students with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). Nearly a third of disadvantaged students have SEND, and this group are significantly under represented in grammar schools.
The percentage of SEND learners with statements or education, heath and care (EHC) plans is less than 0.04 per cent in grammar schools, compared to 1.7 per cent across all schools. A similar pattern exists for those SEND learners without a statement or an EHC plan, such as children with dyslexia, who are over 200 times less likely to attend a grammar school. This data, if included, could have significantly altered Mansfield’s conclusion that grammar schools provide a ladder of opportunity for disadvantaged pupils.
While academic debate is to be encouraged, and think tanks such as HEPI have an important role to play in this, sadly the only thing that we can say about selective education based on this publication is that it is selective in the evidence it offers.