Selective schools have long been associated with higher achievement in exams at 16. This achievement plays a major part in marketing for ‘top’ private schools. And it’s behind the Prime Minister’s support to increase selection.
But research by King’s College London found ‘exam score differences between selective and non-selective schools are primarily due to the genetically influenced characteristics involved in student admission’. These traits were behaviour, personality, home environment and health.
When these ‘student and family factors’ were accounted for, the researchers found the type of school attended explained ‘less than one percent of the individual differences in educational achievement’ as measured by GCSE mean grade at age 16.
Academic achievement at GCSE level, the researchers reminded us, is linked with prior achievement, ability and socioeconomic status. These are all factors involved in selection at age 11. And if pupils are deliberately selected for the first two and obliquely chosen for the third, then what exactly do selective schools add?
Yet parents are willing to invest money, either by paying huge amounts of money to selective fee-paying schools or buying 11+ tuition in order for their children to attend state grammar schools.
The researchers cited a recent report which said pupils who attended fee-paying schools earned about £200k more than their state-educated peers between age 26 and 42 (£12.5k pa). But this report didn’t differentiate between selective and non-selective state schools. More research was required ‘to see whether differences in university attendance, career choice and earnings are still predicted by school type once individual student factors have been accounted for’. And it would also be interesting to find whether there are differences between school types regarding non-cognitive traits such as confidence.
The researchers recognised there was huge variation within the schools studied. Some were exceptional and some were under-performing. This variation was most apparent in the non-selective schools because they comprised most schools.
There were two further limitations to the study. Firstly, fee-paying schools and state-funded grammars aren’t evenly distributed throughout the country. Secondly, researchers considered only English, science and maths in their GCSE analysis. They acknowledged school type may have a greater influence on take up of such subjects as languages, art and social sciences.
If selective schools don’t have as much advantage as their supporters claimed, then it appears parents are wasting their money. And that’s without considering the negative affect that selection has on pupils who aren’t selected.
It also shows how daft is the idea that there should be a ‘private tutoring tax’ taken from parents who use tutors to boost their child’s chance of passing the 11+. The money raised would be used to pay for tutors for disadvantaged pupils. Leave aside issues such as privacy, data protection, the enormous cost of administering the scheme and the potential to avoid the tax by paying cash-in-hand, it would appear the money would bring no real advantage. Far better to scrap selection altogether and have a fully comprehensive system.