Think Tank wrong to think re-introducing grammar schools is ‘potentially a transformative idea.’

Janet Downs's picture

Setting up selective schools in disadvantaged areas would improve area performance and help social mobility, the think tank ResPublica writes.  But all evidence shows that although selection may benefit a few, it has a negative effect on the majority.

ResPublica ignores this. 

Although ResPublica’s report focuses on just one local authority (LA), Knowsley, it claims its findings have implications in areas where disadvantaged white pupils perform poorly.

What, then, did ResPublica say about Knowsley?  It was right to highlight the failure of earlier initiatives to improve the area’s secondary schools.   Money was invested in building poorly designed schools – money was then spent putting mistakes right.  And it’s correct to say none of Knowsley’s secondary schools are good or better.  But Knowsley has just six secondary schools.  Two have not been inspected since becoming academies.  The four remaining* are showing signs of improvement.

ResPublica was right to highlight London’s success in improving secondary school performance and reducing the gap between disadvantaged and advantaged pupils.   But London’s improvement wasn’t based on selection.

The report also cited research from EEF and the NFER which identified qualities found in schools successful in closing the gap (p20  full report).  Neither EEF nor NFER recommended selection.

Why, then, is ResPublica including introducing selective schools as a solution to the poor performance of poor white pupils in disadvantaged areas?  The answer: there is little or no gap between disadvantaged pupils and advantaged pupils at grammar schools.  This is hardly surprising.   Disadvantaged pupils in grammar schools would have passed the 11+.  Such pupils would have the same ability level as advantaged pupils who also passed.  Grammar schools have no gap because there was no gap to start with.

ResPublica urges the government to ensure any new grammars are in disadvantaged areas out-of-reach of middle-class parents.  But disadvantaged areas are often in easy travelling distance of advantaged areas.  As Toby Young, newly-appointed director of the New Schools Network wrote, ‘Sharp-elbowed middle-class ­parents will always find a way to game the system’.

Would opening a selective school in Knowsley increase the area’s performance?  On paper, the answer would likely be yes.  That’s because many of Knowsley’s high-achieving primary pupils attend secondary schools outside Knowsley.  A selective school in Knowsley may stop this exodus: area results would rise accordingly.  But such a school would have a negative effect on other secondary schools: their green shoots of improvement would likely be blighted by losing more high-achieving pupils than they already do.

Other recommendations include:

1         Additional resources for a ‘Knowsley Challenge’.  This would be a welcome corrective to the Knock Knowsley narrative of recent months.  

2         A Knowsley sixth form (the remaining one has closed).  But it’s suggested this should be a highly selective one.  16 year-olds wanting vocational education must look elsewhere.

3         A ‘Team GB’ approach.  Cutting through the soundbite, this means identifying good practice, monitoring its implementation and tracking results.

4         Liverpool City Region should investigate a ‘Northern Premium’ to attract quality teachers into the area.   (A similar scheme introduced by Labour to give young teachers with high qualifications a ‘golden handshake’ to work in disadvantaged areas was abolished early in the Coalition years.  Perhaps if such schemes weren’t scrapped, they wouldn’t have to be reinvented.)

5         Re-introducing grammar schools: ‘potentially a transformative idea.’

That last claim is wrong. 


*APPENDIX:  Up-to-date Ofsted judgements of secondary schools in Knowsley

All Saints Catholic High School (June 2016):  Requires Improvement overall (up from Inadequate). 

Halewood Academy (April 2015):  Inadequate.  Fourth monitoring inspection June 2016: school ‘has turned the corner and the removal of special measures is now within its grasp’.  Halewood was ‘a very different school’ to the one visited in 2015.  Teaching had improved substantially but some requires ‘further improvement’ – ‘huge turnover’ of teachers, dependence on temporary staff and poor attendance by a minority of permanent staff contributed to pupils’ disaffection.  Nevertheless, attitudes to learning was ‘improving’ because teaching quality was ‘generally so much better’. 

Kirkby High School (June 2015): Requires Improvement overall.  First and only monitoring inspection November 2015:  ‘taking effective action to tackle the areas requiring improvement’.  ‘The school receives extensive and highly valued support from the Rowan Learning Trust’.

Lord Derby Academy:  No Ofsted inspection since becoming an academy with The Dean Trust in January 2014.  Predecessor school, Huyton Arts & Sports Centre for Learning judged Inadequate in November 2012. 

St Edmund Arrowsmith Catholic Centre for Learning (January 2015): Requires Improvement.  First and only monitoring inspection May 2015: school ‘taking effective action to tackle the areas requiring improvement’.

The Prescot School.  No Ofsted inspection since becoming an academy in August 2016 with The Heath Family Trust.  Predecessor school also called The Prescot School was judged Requires Improvement in December 2014.  No monitoring inspections took place before academy conversion.

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trevor fisher's picture
Tue, 01/11/2016 - 21:47

its really sad that anyone thinks education policy is about evidence, when from the Callaghan speech in 1976 it is about political expediency. And ignoring the actual developments that are taking place. Currently there is a conference planned on 'No ReturnTo Selection' It never went away, but the survival of grammar schools and secondary moderns and the eleven plus, in hard core tory areas was not expedient to acknowledge.

If May had not become PM there would be not grammar school revival. Stop talking as though this was a rational decision. It is all about politics, and the left lost the inititive with the Callaghan speech.

The issues around the speech will be explored in a Lords seminar on 17th November. And subsequently. Forty years is too long to ignore the paradigm that Callaghan initiated and the political manipulation that then ensued

Trevor Fisher

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 01/11/2016 - 22:00

There is a lot of nonsense here that Janet hints at. School students in large cohorts perform in accordance with their cognitive ability (general intelligence).

If their schools do little to develop their cognitive ability (enhance general intelligence) then their school exam performance will reflect the mean cognitive ability of the post codes that form their catchment. We know what this pattern is like from CATs tests. The schools and the LAs that have these data going back decades for thousands of children  (eg Hackney) and Academy chains that use use CATs for banded admissions, all know the postcode CATs patterns. Academies use their admissions powers to gerrymander their intake CATs scores upwards by having all manner of IQ proxies in their admissions policies.

The postcode pattern relevant to this article concerns white working class areas with ethnicly stable demographies over decades or even centuries. These produce low mean CATs scores. Comprehensive schools in such areas SHOULD get comparatively poor average exam results, but those comprehensive schools will be failing if the small proportion of high CATs scores pupils fail to excel.

Academic selection in these areas may do better for the most able pupils but only because the comprehensives are not comprehensive enough and academic selection will make comprehensives that are not comprehensive enough even less comprehensive.

The easiest route out of this dilemma is admissions policies that result in genuinely comprehensive all ability intakes. This works in Hackney (for example). In white working class towns the best solution is to ensure that the comphensives DO cater for the minority of able pupils in their intake.

This is what my headship school in Barrow-in-Furness did. The meanintake CATs score was 85 (-1SD, 16th percentile). What we did was maximise the SEN funding of the school to create a large 'pupil premium' and spend some of it ensuring that a full broad and balanced curriculum was provided to all pupils including academic GCSEs. We only had a handful of 115+ (+1SD) pupils and only one or two 130+ (+2SD) pupils in each year, but we went to great lengths to ensure these pupils could take French AND German and History and Geography as well as Integrated Humanities and Physics and/or Chemistry as well as Double Award Science, often in very small groups in what we called 'Study Club Time' extended curriculum. We were very successful, producing loads of A/A* grades and many graduates of Russell Group universities who entered professions including top London Law firms.

You can't do this if the school is forced to put all its resources into cramming for C grades at all costs.

We would not have this rubbish about selective schools if comprehensive schools in poor areas were not forced to degrade their curriculum and teaching methods to meet floor targets.

In areas where all the comprehensives can be organised so as to have balanced intakes that is a far more effective way of raising real educational standards than grammar school selection.

In northern white working class areas the solution is to fund the schools well enough to ensure they are able to provide the full broad and balanced curriculum for all their pupils including small classes for minority options. It means upping the pupil premium and ensuring that some of it is spent on providing curriculum entitlement for their small number of CAT 115+ pupils.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 02/11/2016 - 08:25

Roger - the full report acknowledges that changes in curriculum towards more vocational and BTec courses which coincided with (indeed encouraged by) the poor open plan design of the new Knowsley secondary schools built under Building Future Schools reduced performance in English and Maths and diluted strategies aimed at improving academic performance.  This confirms your argument that the lack of a broad, balanced curriculum for all pupils downgrades education quality.

If that weren't bad enough, Knowsley  loses many of its high-achieving pupils at the end of primary school.  The remaining schools are therefore likely to have intakes skewed to the bottom end.  This has a knock-on effect (obviously) on results.  

Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 02/11/2016 - 14:19

This is from the ResPublica Report

"The links between poor educational attainment and economic disadvantage are well established and are a major contributing factor to patterns of social mobility in the UK. The research evidence shows that educational deficits emerge early in children’s lives, even before entry into school."

Not only are such links not well established, they do not actually exist at all. They are an illusion arising from the fact that low cognitive ability and economic disadvantage are linked. It is the former not the latter that drives school attainment.

This is clearly demonstrated in the Hackney system where nearly all the secondary schools share the same CATs based banded admissions system managed by the Hackney LA (the Hackney Learning Trust). Part 4 of my book, 'Learning Matters' is a case study of Mossbourne Academy. This makes use of real CATs data (anonymised) in considering the excellent exam results of the school. To put it simply, at Mossborne there is no 'economic disadvantage gap'. Students with the same CATs scores from the deprived Pembury Estate do just as well as students from affluent parts of Hackney and other Boroughs taking up the spare places in the top quartile admission band.

The accepted fallacy of an economic disadavage  attainment gap manifests in the Pembury Estate taking up only a minority of the top quartile admission band, while the bottom quartile band is massively oversubscribed from the Pembury estate. The implications of all this together with the role of Academy status in the success of the school (there isn't one beyond the admission system) are set out and explained in my book, which clearly few people running our education system and in educational Think Tanks have read.

The reason why the educational problems in Knowsley are so intractable is because of the large geographical area of social disadvantage/low cognitive ability encompassing the entire catchments of many schools. Where this applies the usual pattern is first to blame the LA maintained schools for failing to meet the floor targets. This results in Academisation. This fails because the Academy leaders believe their own false faith in the 'invigorating power of the market' to raise standards, which fails to produce the necessary improvements despite £millions wasted in Academisation. The Mossbourne solution  is not open to Knowsley schools because there are just not enough CATs 110+ pupils (top quartile) in the catchment to create a top band and all the schools would be fighting for them.

This is the rationale for a grammar school, which would fill up with high CATs score pupils from much further away so damaging comprehensive education not only in Knowsley but in a very wide area beyond, all of which suffers from 'economic disadvantage/low cognitive ability'.

So what is to be done? The unaddressed root of the problem is low cognitive ability. But this can be raised with the right kind of developmental pedagogy in all Key stages. Why is this not happening? It is because floor targets are such a high stakes threat to primary and secondary schools, that schools opt for the quick fix behaviourist approaches of rote learning, the knowledge based curriculum, cramming, abusive discipline and short term SATs and GCSE C grade objectives.

So floor targets have to go, along with the entire approach to teaching and learning that comes with the Academisation ideology. All the details are in my book along with examples of good practice and solid evidence that the developmental approaches work.

You can find some of this  here

Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 03/11/2016 - 10:12

While the pegagogy of plastic intelligence is well established, but largely ignored, there are other more sociological ways of raising cognitive ability. One highly successful example is described here.

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