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Grammar Schools? Select no

Jonathan Simons of Public First, says HEPI doesn’t make a convincing case for selection at 11, but that selective universities and sixth forms are perfectly fine.
This article is more than 5 years old

Jonathan is a partner and head of education at Public First

Kudos to the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and Iain Mansfield.

Given that Wonkhe has been explicitly seeking some kite flying in HE, and in a UK education sector which can be overly keen on shibboleths (of which scepticism about grammar schools is one), it’s brave but also necessary to occasionally probe the consensus and advance the debate. This paper certainly does that.

But I’m not sure this one does as much as it claims. In general, the methodological analysis has been pretty heavily criticised, including the source of the “45% of kids in grammars come from below median income” figure, which is used extensively to demonstrate these schools have a more balanced intake than thought.

That said, the report does well to point out that the free school meals (FSM) measure – which really only accounts for the very poorest – isn’t always the best metric to use when discussing access to HE and deprivation. Many university access and participation plans have moved away from this figure for exactly that reason – in favour of, for example, some combination of Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index (IDACI) deciles or other more sophisticated measurements.

Engine failure

The headline statistic that HEPI has pushed since publication is that 163 grammar schools sent 30% more Black and minority ethnic (BME) pupils to the University of Cambridge than every other state school put together. This is a powerful statement, and worthy of pause. But it should be noted that this figure doesn’t control for prior attainment. So yes, 163 schools that between them attract a proportion of highly academically able BME students will send a high number of them to top universities.

It’s also the case though that there’s a huge variation within this category between traditionally very highly performing ethnic groups (Chinese and Indian pupils) who may be more likely to enter grammars, and lower performing ones (Black Caribbean, or Gypsy Roma and Traveller), many of which are clustered in areas where grammar schools aren’t an option and will mostly attend comprehensives. In and of itself, this doesn’t quite demonstrate the “grammars as engines of social mobility” argument that it is supposed to.

Pragmatic politics?

Nick Hillman raises two good questions in his accompanying blog discussing this paper. One is why the remaining grammars – if they’re so unpopular – have resisted all efforts to close them down from governments of all complexions over the last forty years. This is a very good example of what British politics (used to) do so well, which is pragmatism over purity.

Grammar schools are, unsurprisingly, popular among people in the constituencies in which they are based, and are defended fervently by their MPs. It’s perfectly rational in those circumstances for a government to conclude that you also don’t want to be in the business of shutting down schools which are full, popular, and delivering good results. A moment’s thought to some of the successful local campaigns which have been launched against closing undeniably failing schools and the fervour which that generates, shows that this is a sensible approach.

Selective selection?

Hillman’s second question is to ask if it is consistent to be an academic in a highly selective university, within a highly selective HE system, and oppose selection at the age of eleven. In his words, when does selection become acceptable and when is it not? I think it’s perfectly consistent, and here’s why: because there’s a clear distinction in the English state education system between compulsory one-track education pre-16 and optional multi-track education post-16.

From five to sixteen, every child is required to be in school and successive governments have pledged to both raise overall attainment and to narrow equity gaps. Given the evidence on selection at eleven is that it has limited overall attainment-raising potential at a system level, and negative equity potential, it’s reasonable to oppose such a policy instrument.

However, at sixteen everything changes. Young people are required to be in education or training until eighteen but not in school, and a myriad of options open up – school sixth form, sixth form college, FE college, apprenticeships, or some other form of work with training. This distinction is crucial. Because the compulsory single-track stage has ended and young people now have options, it is perfectly logical to support some of these being more academically selective – including to specialist maths schools which the HEPI report supports – and some being more technically specialist.

This argument is even more valid at eighteen, when young people are entirely free to choose to progress on to tertiary study. Any provider operating in this voluntary space ought to be able to design their own programmes, including entry criteria. The Open University, as Hillman points out, chooses to take all comers. He is right that other countries have a more egalitarian system of entry for tertiary education, but they also have a different relationship with the state than English universities do, so it’s not really comparable.

In other words, it’s perfectly logical and consistent to think that the University of Cambridge can select at eighteen and over, that Kings Maths School can at sixteen, but that Grammar School X can’t at eleven (or at least, that New Grammar School Y shouldn’t be set up). It’s also consistent to reject the proposal that all universities should be non-selective, as HEPI has previously published a think piece on – because again, that is mandating a system of entry (this time not-selection) during an optional phase of education.

The Post-18 review is likely to lead to a whole new set of debates about how best universities can support widening participation. I’m just not sure that more selection at eleven is it.

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