Just under a quarter of a century ago, I failed the 11+.
I’ll admit, the experience was less than cataclysmic for my skinny pre-teen self. I remember being asked by my school teacher if I wanted to sit the exam, with my ‘yes vote’ being cast when my best friend was confirmed as sitting the exam too, with it being held in the morning, meaning we were offered an afternoon off school! I can remember sitting the tricky exam, then going home and watching WWF wrestling with my best friend.
I was oblivious to the pressures and potential ramifications of school selection and the 11+, as were my parents. There was no private tutoring or intensive preparation for me. On being politely informed by letter that I had failed, I was simply relieved that I’d be going to school with my best friend and my other school mates.
I am not bitter about missing out on grammar school (I have happily surpassed the seeming expectations of my pre-pubescent exam failure). Nor is my personal story the determining factor that shapes my view about whether we should bring back grammar schools. The evidence on grammar schools is pretty stark and it places my personal take into a more substantive context.
There are great anecdotes relating students who became huge successes after attending grammar schools. Indeed, our new prime minister, Theresa May, attended a grammar school, alongside a quarter of the current cabinet. Crucially though, this ‘survivor bias‘ (focusing on the few ‘survivors’ because of their visibility) inevitably ignores the hidden reality of the many thousands of would-be politicians who attended secondary modern schools, but were not offered the requisite academic opportunities to become a cabinet MP when they failed aged 11. We must therefore dig beneath the visible anecdotes of successful individuals to the more substantial evidence.
Grammar schools are not the engines of social mobility that they are purported to be by some. The evidence is long-standing. In 1954, the Gurney-Dixon Report showed only a fraction of children from working class communities went onto university. The Robbins Report (1963) showed a mere 0.3% of working class children who attended grammar schools went onto achieve two A levels or more. More recently, The Sutton Trust report on grammar schools showed only 3% of children on free school meals attended the existing 163 grammar schools.
The contemporary evidence-base is wide-ranging, with institutions like the BBC (‘Why not bring back grammar schools?‘), Policy Exchange (‘Five reasons why a return to grammar schools is a bad idea‘), LKMco (‘Grammar Schools and Social Mobility: The Uncle Steve Effect’), and many more, all highlighting the deep issues with this system of selective schooling aged 11.
International evidence raises further questions. A huge international study by Hanushek and Woessmann (2006), showed that early tracking – dividing students into different ability streams – increases educational inequality. Another international study, by Brunello and Checchi (2006), showed that this approach reinforced the impact of family background – squashing social mobility. The OECD show that most selection occurs later than 11 in school systems – the OECD average age for selection is 14 – with the insight that motivation levels amongst students is lower in systems where children are selected early. Unhappily, other countries that select at 11 – Austria and Germany – also prove the most socially segregated.
If we wanted to do some international cherry-picking of the very best school systems we could herald Singapore or Finland (both countries have a population and economy a tenth of the size of ours) as models of comprehensive success for every child. I’m sure policies like grammar schools solely for Free School Meals students will be mooted, perhaps the ‘Assisted Places‘ (funding state school students to attend independent schools) scheme will be promoted soon, but they are all mere window-dressing policies that betray a poverty of ambition for all of our children.
Having a world class school system for all should prove no pipe-dream. It does require a focus on the right things. As our new Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening, stated: “Fundamentally, we need to look at what’s happening in the classroom, having children there who are ready and able to learn, having fantastic teachers. That’s what’s going to be most important and that’s what I’ll focus on.”
We have 163 grammar schools that I am sure are excellent, but don’t forget, we also have thousands of brilliant comprehensive schools across the country too. The old binary choice of grammar schools and secondary moderns is dead. The notion that we cannot have high academic standards in every school for every child is being smashed daily in schools of all comprehensive badges and brands across the country.
When our Prime Minister, Theresa May, gave her first address outside of number 10, she stated: “We will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you”, giving a mandate to focus on developing great teachers in every school for the talents of every student of every background. Rather than tinkering with a marginal number of school types, we need to focus on world-class teaching in every school. This requires investment in teacher training. This requires working conditions and standards that encourage the recruitment and retention of the best teachers possible. This requires research evidence into to what actually does work in improving educational standards.
In the same speech, May stated, “when it comes to opportunity, we won’t entrench the advantages of the fortunate few“. The lingering allure of grammar schools apparently ignores the evidence from our past, our present and across the world, when it comes to entrenching advantage amongst the mere few. So, should we bring back grammar schools? No. We can do so much more, and so much better, to create a world class school system that is founded upon equity for all and that drives social mobility.
[Please note: if you wish to reply by focusing upon my personal status, under the mistaken notion that this validates or invalidates my argument, then I can be clear and say that I attended a comprehensive school, I teach in a comprehensive school and my children attend a comprehensive school.]
(Image Credit: ‘John Bright Grammar School’ – Llandudno, 1965. Image from Allan Harris via https://www.flickr.com/photos/allan_harris/5509233197)