Having previously been the Head of KEGS, a super-selective grammar school in Chelmsford, for six years, I’ve been asked by lots of people to comment on the latest proposals to extend selection. Here are my thoughts:
Very simply, it’s a bad idea. By definition, grammar schools do not work for everyone. The Green Paper title is one of the most stupid educational claims ever made. The whole point of grammar schools is that they provide for the few students who can get in; there is nothing about the grammar school system in any area that seeks to address the needs of ‘everyone’; it’s not their brief. Selection is about creating an elite learning environment for the privileged few and you are either happy with that idea or you’re not; but that’s what it is. There is no evidence that supports the claim that selection improves outcomes across the system as a whole. It doesn’t. Extending selection won’t either . It can’t.
I need to be clear about one thing. I loved KEGS. It’s an extraordinary place to work and to learn – like an Oxbridge college for kids. That’s how I saw it. Any parent would be thrilled for their child to go there (albeit it’s only for boys in Y7-11) and you wouldn’t blame anyone for trying to get them in. I learned a great deal at KEGS about what learning looks like when everything clicks into place: strong traditions, supportive parents, motivated students, experienced stable staff, everyone fully focused on learning and achievement. It’s a rarified learning environment where magical things happen. When I left I wrote a blog about ideas from KEGS that I hoped to take with me: https://headguruteacher.com/2014/07/06/lessons-from-kegs-ideas-im-taking-with-me/ My KEGS experience has certainly helped to influence my vision for Highbury Grove: ‘Ambition for All’.
So, KEGS is also a lovely place to work – it’s a haven. People are committed and work hard but it’s a bubble of bliss isolated from the challenges that most comprehensives deal with. I can say that now with total confidence having moved back into the permanent white water. Although the process of teaching and running a school is more or less the same – and even though the highest achievers at Highbury Grove will surpass the achievements of many KEGS students – they are worlds apart. Levels of deprivation at KEGS were virtually negligible whereas 70% of HGS students receive pupil premium funding. This matters a great deal.
Of course, most selective and non-selective schools sit somewhere between the deprivation extremes of KEGS and HGS but the pattern is the same in general. Selective schools are elite institutions, not egalitarian ones. There is a case that could be made (as I’ve done in the past) for high-attaining students having the opportunity to gain from the experience of learning together. A selective school provides the conditions for this all day long; it’s a powerful effect. I used to argue that, given the continuing bias towards the independent sector in so many professions, there ought to be at least a few schools like KEGS in the state sector where these conditions exist. The peer dynamics, peer-led aspirations were incredible to observe at KEGS. Students gained a great deal from being together and this went hand in hand with deep learning and extensive opportunities for leadership. (There also used to be an argument about the niche curriculum offer available in grammar schools but as brutal funding cuts kick in, grammar schools can’t afford to do anything very different to their comprehensive neighbours.)
Of course, as I now observe in my school and from across the comprehensive, selective and independent schools my friends’ children attend, there is an equally strong case to made that comprehensive schools match the others in terms of providing paths to academic success whilst, at the same time, educating children about the communities they live in. Grammar schools get strong results because everything is in their favour (they’ve got no excuse not to) but they don’t provide an inherently better education – as many of my friends and their children can testify.
We used to show this graph to soften the impact of students knowing their 11+ ranking: it could lead to over-confidence and under-confidence in equal measure:
It shows that, at the far end of the bell-curve, it’s all a bit topsy-turvy. Any selection cut-off has a huge dose of good fortune associated with it. The testing process was under continual discussion amongst the Essex/South End consortium and across the grammar school network. Heads were continually looking for an ‘un-coachable’ test to reduce the impact of coaching and tutoring. To me this was a false search and claims for any given test were always over-blown. Every test is coachable – and regardless of whether people actually pay for additional tutoring, it’s clear that children from more privileged backgrounds with home learning environments geared towards supporting academic learning from birth, are more likely to succeed in any kind of test. There is dangerous rhetoric of students having ‘inate talents’ that surrounds all selective processes – Theresa May is using it in the current debate – but, in truth, selective schools are geared toward providing a special place to learn for students who already have the greatest advantages in life.
The low level of students on FSM in selective schools isn’t a conspiracy; it’s hard-wired inevitability. The idea that it would be possible and desirable to extend access to the privileged environment of a selective school is fraught with difficulty – as is any engineered gerrymandering. Essentially, it would require setting up highly tiered schools. We estimated that for KEGS to reach even say 10% of students on FSM, we would need to look for students several hundreds of places down the 11+ rank order for the school. It represents a big distortion. As it is the appeals process around borderline cases requires very clear criteria and cut-off points. FSM is a very crude indicator of deprivation; it’s hard to say that a child whose family is just above or below the threshold for FSM qualification is really more or less deserving of place at a school compared to a child who scores a few marks more or less on the entrance exams. These are highly subjective and technical issues – and it’s always the borderline cases that throw up the hardest questions.
If a higher FSM % is to be achieved by extending selection in an area of high deprivation – confining the selective admissions to a specific area, this is a direct route to setting up a poor relation secondary modern at the same time. The only way to escape the secondary modern factor is to apply the selection across a very wide area; you can’t have it both ways.
The alternative is to mix selection quotas with distance criteria with the hope that proximity to a successful school will allow fair access for students from deprived families. Given all the covert selection forces at play including the house price factor, (as I’ve explored in this post), a national system based on, say, 25% selection, 75% proximity for all schools might well be more fair than what we have now. But that system-wide thinking is not on the table. The Green Paper is suggesting that we set up more opportunities to take students out of comprehensive schools to put them into schools with selection; it’s robbing Peter to pay Paul. This isn’t a win-win scenario. It’s an explicit extension of our multi-tier system. The paper offers offers absolutely nothing to those students who do not fit the bill of having the ‘talents’ for the selective places, (even if we accept that the premise that these will be ‘better’ places.)
All in all, proposals for extending selection are a huge mistake:
- Selection in the system does not improve outcomes across the whole system.
- Selection is explicitly about elitism; it’s absolute folly to make claims for social justice through selection. Even if, anecdotally, this was true for some in the past, it absolutely isn’t true now.
- Selective schools do not necessarily deliver better educational outcomes in the round even for those who attend them; the majority of students at selective schools would get just as good exam results if they went to the local comprehensive.
- The testing process is complex and the test for FSM is far too crude to provide a robust and fair basis on which to base selection
- Even though existing selective schools might be fabulous for those who attend and work in them, that does not necessarily justify their existence let alone justify opening more given the wider needs of the whole system.
It should be said that the Green Paper also contains an awful lot of nonsense about grammar schools and independent schools working in partnership with comprehensive schools to increase the number of ‘good places’ – as the price they pay for their privileges. There is no evidence that this works. A grammar school Head might be good at running their elite and privileged school; this does not directly prepare them for engaging children from the other side of the disadvantage chasm. That requires a different kind of expertise altogether. I’m in a good position to know!