Wishing grammar schools away fails to answer important questions

2 Feb 2020, 5:00

Unless we come to terms with these five questions, we’ll never put the academic selection genie back in its lamp, writes Nick Hillman

If I were to be granted three wishes by a genie, one of them would be that I never have to speak about grammar schools ever again. Whenever we at the Higher Education Policy Institute delve into the topic, it leads to furious and unseemly spats.

Yet the role of academic selection in our school and university systems is too big for any educational think tank to ignore. That’s why we have recently published two evidence-rich reports on the topic.

The first suggested grammar schools boost the chance of under-represented groups, especially BAME pupils, reaching Oxbridge. The second, in contrast, suggested academic selection can depress achievement overall while also hitting the poorest children hardest.

Some people may regard it odd for a think tank to ride two horses simultaneously. But as an educational charity rather than a lobby group or political party, our role is to encourage debate; it is not to claim we own the final word on any issue.

Besides, conflicting positions are not unusual in debates about academic selection. Until recently, Durham University charged lots of money for setting 11+ exams even while their own academics were at the forefront of opposing school selection.

Moreover, most of the top academic researchers arguing against academic selection have chosen to work in universities that are highly selective. When asked at what point between age 11 and age 18 selection turns from bad to good, they usually dodge the question.

Many other questions about academic selection remain in play too, even though I would much rather move on to other topics. Here are five.

Conflicting positions are not unusual in debates about selection

First, why has the academic consensus against grammar schools failed to move the public? The only referendum on whether to turn a grammar school into a comprehensive took place among primary school parents in Ripon in 2000. The vote was lost heavily by 2:1.

Second, why do we talk as if the few remaining pockets of the 11+ is the main issue to do with selection, when school selection has largely shifted to age 16? There are many tough sixth-form selection processes in areas we still like to pretend are ‘comprehensive’.

Third, why assume any problems arising from grammar schools are inevitable? Perhaps the relatively poor performance of secondary modern schools stems from decades of underfunding. After all, selection is less controversial in some other countries, possibly because it has been made to work better.

Fourth, what is the right balance between society and individuals? Much (not all) of the evidence says children do better overall in non-selective systems. But the same research suggests many grammar school pupils do better than they otherwise would. Building a consensus against selection must therefore mean some families putting the wider benefits ahead of the advantages for their own children of attending a grammar school. Yet everyone, including policymakers, tends to put their own children ahead of those in society as a whole. So it remains unclear how change can be delivered.

Finally, why do we assume that numbers tell us everything? Even if the data say non-selective systems produce better exam results overall, is it right to structure an entire school system around this one fact? I’d rather have happy children with mediocre exam results than sad children with stellar ones. Academics hate it when universities are judged only by the salaries graduates go on to achieve. Shouldn’t we be equally wary of judging schools by a similarly one-dimensional metric?

The Conservative Party is back in power with its first stonking parliamentary majority for decades. It seems to be rowing back on the strong support for grammar schools of Theresa May’s time, but existing grammar schools are still growing and the debate over their future is unlikely to disappear. Nor should it – despite that wish to my genie – because these questions are important ones and they remain unsettled.

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    • Mark Watson

      Respectfully no you haven’t.

      What you have done is prove the precise point that Nick Hillman made in his piece.

      The very first thing you did in your response, intentionally or not, was misattribute what he said. You stated “Leave aside whether discussing selection is ‘unseemly’”, which of course is a million miles away from what he said. What he described as “unseemly” was NOT reasoned discussion but the “furious spats” that arise every time the subject of grammar schools is raised.

      You only have to look at the pages of SchoolsWeek. Every time the subject of grammar schools is raised it’s like tossing the ‘Brexit conversation bomb’. Comprehensive education fundamentalists clash with furious grammar school defenders, each trying to out do each other with their passionate attacks/defences, and crucially neither taking a moment to actually engage and listen.

      I’ve mentioned numerous times on these pages that although it seems like the ‘education establishment’ is fairly strong in its belief that selection isn’t a good idea, it simply hasn’t managed to convince the public at large.

      This is the first point Hillman makes, and it’s made on the back of ‘proper’ surveys done into selective education such as the detailed and specific YouGov survey carried out in 2016. In your piece, in order to support the point you want to make, you referred to the 2017 Survation poll done for the Daily Mail. This wasn’t an education survey, it was a General Election poll that asked people who they were going to vote for, and then asked over 40 questions, one of which was whether they supported the Conservative policy of lifting the ban on new grammar schools.

      Even then the overall support for the policy was larger than the opposition (39.5% to 32.7%). Picking out one sub-group that opposed the policy sounds like Jeremy Corbyn pointing out that the last election wasn’t all bad because Labour had a majority among 18 years olds in Kettering.

      And if you then track back to the YouGov poll, it showed that 38% wanted to create more grammar schools. Similar to Survation. However, a further 17% wanted to keep the existing grammars with no expansion, making 55% in favour of grammars in some format. This compared with 23% (less than half that number) who wanted to scrap grammars.

      So using the Survation poll to try and show that the public support for grammars has moved is, I would suggest, not realistic.

  1. We’ll have to agree to disagree on the first question about movement of public opinion recently (no poll has been done for two years – at least I couldn’t find one).
    Public opinion certainly moved in the 60s and 70s. It was parental lobbying which argued for comprehensives because they were regarded as fairer. If the comprehensive argument hadn’t have been successful, then selection wouldn’t be confined to just a few pockets.

  2. Carl Smith

    The evidence is clear and unequivocal; grammars have a negligible positive effect on the progress of the currently most able but a significantly negative effect on the progress of everyone else. The net effect is a less well educated population.

    Local votes are no way to decide education policy since most parents have neither the time or incentive to consider the wider long-term public interest. Grammars are an anachronism that damage our economic competitiveness and worsen our social mobility.

    • Mark Watson

      So to put it bluntly, screw the general public – they don’t know or care about the issue as much as you and the ‘educational establishment’ so forget about any pretence at democracy and listening to the people, let’s just go ahead and ban grammar schools.

      Rather than this high-handed arrogance, why not try persuading people as to why your point of view is correct? Yes I know it’s tedious trying to change people’s opinions, but hey that’s the world we live in.