Grammar schools are a symptom not a cure

The design of the schools system requires that failure exists somewhere. Ed Cadwallader says the only fix is a broader curriculum that gives every child a chance to succeed and when knowledge itself is seen as more important than grades.

It has been heartening to see educators usually at odds with one another unite in opposition to the government’s proposed expansion of academic selection in England.

Beyond our professional bubble, however, polling shows that many people are in favour of more grammar schools. The evidence shows unambiguously that comprehensive areas outperform selective ones and high-performing academies, many of themin London, are held up as examples of how all the best features of grammar schools can be replicated without cherry-picking bright pupils.

But parental preferences are not based on hypothetical, ideal comprehensives, they are based on the actual comprehensives near where they live. The Arks and King Solomons of the world are lauded because of how they contrast with those schools, where parents know there are behaviours and attitudes to learning from which they would prefer to insulate their children.

Selection and separation are brutal

It is comforting to blame those attitudes and behaviours on factors beyond the school gates, but the reality is they are driven by our choices over how the school system operates. They are concentrated among those we term “the lower end of the ability spectrum” and therein lies the problem. A low grade signifies to a child that they are worth less than their peers and will go on to do worse jobs for less money.

When your pitch to a child is “you’re stupid and you’re going to be poor”, you shouldn’t be surprised when that child turns round and tells you where you can shove your lesson plan.

In theory our exams are criteria not norm-referenced – that is, if every child reached the requisite standard they would all receive a “good pass”. But this theory is at odds with political reality. Let’s say we could magically make every school as good as King Solomon academy, so nationally we had an A*-C pass rate of 90-100 per cent. Would a C still be considered a “good pass”? It’s at odds with stated policy too. Ofqual will use “statistical predictions” to inform the numbers at each grade of the new GCSE, which is to say it has been decided in advance that tens of thousands of pupils’ work and study will be considered as less than good.

Individual schools can and do improve their results by tackling bad behaviour and attitudes. But they are helped by a feedback loop, whereby increasing numbers of pupils in receipt of “good” grades, reduces the failure that was driving the bad behaviour. This effect cannot be replicated in all schools, because all pupils cannot be above average. The system design requires that failure exists somewhere and wherever it is, humiliation and disaffection will be found with it.

The system design requires that failure exists somewhere

For some, the existence of winners or losers is natural and desirable, so long as the link between those states and family circumstance can be broken. Though with stakes so high, do we really think we can prevent those with financial and cultural capital from using it to purchase winner status for their children? We have so little time to address the self-fulfilling prophecies of these divergent school experiences.

A boy in a Hackney primary once said to my friend: “Miss, when George grows up he’s going to live in a house.” Puzzled, she asked “Aren’t you going to live in a house too?” “No,” he replied, “I’m going to live in a flat.” “Why’s that?” “Because George is good at English and maths.” That child had come to school and learned he was going to stay poor for the rest of his life. He was 5.

There are no slight fixes to this problem. Only a broader curriculum giving every child a chance to succeed, and the redefinition of learning’s reward from grades to knowledge itself will do. For while selection and separation are brutal, comprehensives divide our children into winners and losers as well. As long as they do that, wealthy winners will seek to isolate their children from the anger and frustration of poor losers.

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