No one is talking about a return to the 11-plus

An element of selection will not necessarily lead to a return of the secondary modern, says Heath Monk. However, making selection work for all will need careful implementation

There’s no subject that unites the warring factions of the educational world more than their hatred of grammar schools. Largely abolished in the Sixties and outlawed (twice) in primary legislation by the Blair government, the merest whiff of their return has made strange bedfellows of progressives and traditionalists; of LEA nostalgics and academy zealots; of creativity fanatics and grammar nerds.

Even the freshly sacked Nicky Morgan got in on the act, presumably forgetting that it was her decision to approve a grammar school annexe in Sevenoaks that paved the way for the green paper.

And yet, as the days since the leaked memo pass, it increasingly seems to me that it is those railing and rallying against Theresa May’s plans, rather than the prime minister herself, who are firmly stuck in the 1950s.

I don’t believe that allowing an element of selection must necessarily lead to a return of the secondary modern.

No subject unites the warring factions of the educational world more than their hatred of grammar schools

We have all now seen the graph that shows the poorer children due less well in the selective authorities of Kent and Medway (although proximity to well-funded London boroughs and the county’s own mix of area of extreme affluence and poverty might also be contributory factors).

But no one, and certainly not the prime minister, is talking about a return to an 11-plus system. Or denying the importance of a well-taught core academic curriculum being offered to all children, whatever school they attend.

At the King Edward VI Foundation in Birmingham, we believe that our five selective schools can be part of a system that works for all. To that end, we have:

•    Changed our admissions arrangements so that 20 per cent of our places (25 per cent at Aston) are reserved for students eligible for pupil premium. Applicants still have to attain a “qualifying score”, but they are not competing directly against their more affluent peers who may have had extensive tutoring.

•    Developed a significant outreach programme to the city’s primary schools, including masterclasses (many led by sixth-form students), cultural opportunities and familiarisation sessions, all designed to make families from disadvantaged areas feel confident that their child can fit in and flourish in a selective environment.

•    Provided financial help with the costs of transport, uniform, residential trips and music tuition for pupil premium students.

•    Sponsored King Edward VI Sheldon Heath, a comprehensive academy that was previously in special measures, but is now thriving – and offering the same academic ethos of high expectations as our selective schools.

We know we need to go further. We are establishing a multi-academy trust and we acknowledge that our outreach work has been more successful in some parts of the city than others. And it could certainly be argued that our 20-25 per cent target is not truly representative of the population of
our city.

But the steps that we have taken could provide a blueprint for selective school places that offer genuine stretch to the most able children from disadvantaged backgrounds, while avoiding a return to the two-tier system of the past.

Selection is not, in itself, a bad thing

Selection is not, in itself, a bad thing. Specialist schools, for many years, selected a proportion of their intake by aptitude for particular disciplines. Most schools use setting and streaming. Entry to academic A-level courses is almost always based on prior attainment at GCSE.

Testing is also an accepted part of education. “Failing” the 11-plus is only detrimental if it condemns a child to a second-rate pathway and limits his or her life chances.

This need not be the case. There is nothing inherently better about selective schools – they could (and should) simply play their particular and specialised role as part of a diverse system of educational provision in which schools are differentiated, not just by exam results, but by their ethos, philosophy and approach.

I’m not expecting to win over converts – the opposition to selection is visceral and deep. But much of that is predicated on the way that the selective system was set up in the past.

Making selection work for all would require careful implementation. But we need all of the good school places that we can get – especially for the most disadvantaged – and maybe we should not be so quick to dismiss an element of selection as a potential way of creating them.

And some reforms that started out by being universally despised turned out to be quite successful. Teach First, anyone?

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  1. Helen Farrell

    So poor performance of secondary schools in Kent and Lincolnshire has nothing to do with selection? Why do people pay a fortune for tutoring and private education if they are happy with the education provided at non-selective state schools or secondary moderns as the more honest amongst us like to call them?

    And I have still seen no reason why that stretch for the most able cannot be provided within the comprehensive system. Why cannot schools which are close together offer advanced classes in Maths or Science in one of the schools? Would that really be impossible to timetable? Why not offer virtual lessons if there are a few pupils so far ahead that they can’t be accommodated in a standard top set?

    And most importantly why do I never see any discussion of parental wishes here? If I wished to persuade Bucks parents to abandon grammar and secondary moderns I would have to persuade a majority of parents to do so under a ballot. Yet there appears no provision for parents to preserve a comprehensive system if they wish to do so, if a few parents want a grammar the majority will just have secondary moderns imposed upon them. Given that the most recent YouGov poll showed only 26% of 24-50 year olds are in favour of new grammars(i.e people with children of school age) I cannot see what justification there is for imposing selection on them in this way.

  2. EducationState

    PS. Why are the articles that mention Teach First at Schools Week invariably moderated?

    Nothing to do with the personal ties between them, is it?

    (And they wonder why TF is compared to a cult…)

  3. There is no getting around it: selection at 11 creates a hierarchy of schools. Those who pass go to ‘elite’ schools designed to ‘stretch’ them. Those who fail (the majority) go to schools which aren’t quite elite. The latter are regarded as second tier schools while the former are deemed top tier. If grammars weren’t so regarded, then entering them wouldn’t seem so desirable and essential.
    But when these stretched grammar pupils (and their peers from independent schools) reach university they are outperformed by their equally-qualified peers from state comprehensive schools. http://www.suttontrust.com/newsarchive/comprehensive-pupils-outperform-independent-grammar-pupils-university-degrees/

    • There is no getting around it: selection at 18 creates a hierarchy of universities. Those who pass go to ‘elite’ universities designed to ‘stretch’ them. Those who fail (the majority) go to universities which aren’t quite elite. The latter are regarded as second tier universities while the former are deemed top tier.

      And the same people who object to selection at 11 think this is perfectly fine. So what rationisation allows people of object to one selection, but not the other?