Five answers needed to put ‘selection genie’ back in bottle, says HEPI director

Janet Downs's picture

‘Whenever we at the Higher Education Policy Institute delve into the topic [of selection], it leads to furious and unseemly spats.’ writes Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute in Schools Week.

Leave aside whether discussing selection is ‘unseemly’, what are the five questions Hillman poses:

First: Why has ‘academic consensus’ against selection ‘failed to move the public?

It’s not quite true that the public have ‘failed to move’.  A Survation poll (2017) found the majority of young people didn’t support expanding grammars.   Older people tend to support selection; younger ones don't.

Second: ‘At what point between ages 11 and 18 does selection turn from bad to good?’

Why is selection OK at 16 when it’s not OK at age 11?    The reasons are twofold.  The curriculum in secondary schools is geared towards GCSEs or equivalent.  There’s no need to select when the destination is largely the same.  Second, 16-year-olds have five more years of achievement behind them and this, together with their own aspirations, means they are in a better position to choose 16+ options.  

11-year-olds don’t choose – grammar schools do on the basis of two flawed tests.

Third: ‘Why assume any problems arising from grammar schools are inevitable’?

Because numerous research finds that, while selection may confirm an advantage on those who are selected, it has a detrimental effect on the rest.

Hillman suggests poor performance in secondary moderns may have stemmed from ‘decades of underfunding’.  But most secondary moderns became comprehensives decades ago - many before the school leaving age was raised in 1972.  The 'poor performance' of secondary moderns then is because the majority left at age 15 having taken no exams. 

Where secondary moderns still exist, their performance is obviously lower than in grammars.  Non-selective schools in selective areas take children of all abilities not just those deemed capable of passing exams at high level.

Fourth: ‘What is the right balance between society and individuals?

Hillman says research finds pupils perform better in grammars than they would if they were in a comprehensive school.  But this slight advantage is offset by the negative impact on those who aren’t selected.

Grammars only accept children whose achievement is in the top 25%.  It was when parents realised that their child only had a one-in-four chance of getting into a grammar that they campaigned for comprehensive schools in the sixties and seventies.  Comprehensive schooling was perceived as being fairer for all children.

Finally: ‘Why do we assume that numbers tell us everything?

Hillman asks if it’s ‘right to structure an entire school system’ around the ability to produce ‘better exam results’.  Hillman is correct: the English education system is excessively focussed on performance in tests and exams, particularly at 16.  This has negative effects.

But the reason grammars exist is to steer their pupils to achieve high marks in academic exams.  Remove the focus  by, say, moving to graduation at 18 via multiple routes, would improve the education system for all children.

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