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Tuesday, 17 January 2012

What's the point of Grammar Schools?

The journalist Daniel Knowles has written an interesting article about Grammar Schools in the Daily Telegraph.  Part of its interest lies in the fact that Knowles takes a critical stance to a subject that has traditionally been simply taken for granted by the right-wing press.

Here is an extract of the article:

New grammar schools are a distraction from real educational reform

But what I have realised is that selection does not by itself improve a school. Rather, grammar schools help bright children precisely because if you put bright children together, they individually do better. And quite obviously, that comes at the cost of a reduction in the number of the brightest, most motivated children in the ordinary comprehensives. As I said earlier, I believe I did well at least partly because most of my peers were equally bright and motivated, and from the same sort of middle-class-background, and so I had to work to compete. It is that competition that I would have missed most had I failed my 11+.
This highlights an uncomfortable truth: affluence, motivation and intelligence (and the three usually come together) are not just individual strengths; their mere presence drag up results for others. I may have done less well at a comprehensive, but someone else – another bright child who failed the test – might have done a little better. Statistically, this shows. In Kent, which has one of the most extensive grammar systems left, 55 per cent of the poorest pupils get GCSE results in the bottom 20 per cent nationally. On that measure, it is close to being the worst performing areas in the country.
We have to admit it: there is a trade-off here. The extreme benefits of grammar schools for those few who attend come partly at the expense of those who don't. Selection at 11 leaves too many bright children behind, while adding to the segregation of our schools by class. Our education system needs reform and Michael Gove is doing an excellent job of trying to change attitudes in much of the state system. But he should be very wary of embracing selection. Tests don't improve schools by themselves; they just redistribute the children.

I live and have taught in Kent, myself, and have seen private tuition emerge as one of the few growth industries in the area.  Well-meaning parents send their offspring to tutors increasingly early in their schooling, placing more and more pressure on them to pass 'The Test' (which, of course, happens around the same time as SATs). 

The motivation to succeed is not to get a place in a Grammar School so much as NOT to get a place elsewhere.  Ability is not the criterion for enrolment with a private tutor; what's needed is a combination of fear and wealth.

Yet Grammar Schools remain hugely popular with large sections of the public, and especially with members of the Conservative Party and its supporters.

The debate usually falls back on a series on unsubstantiated assumptions, such as:

- Grammar Schools' selection methods for year olds are valid and reliable, and are not biased in favour of those from upper socio-economic groups (there is substantial anecdotal evidence from Primary teachers and parents that this is not the case);

- Grammar Schools create a 'rising tide that lifts all ships', in other words, they create higher standards for all (most independent data suggest the opposite is the case; as the article hints, those authorities that have Grammar Schools tend to perform worse than the national average);

- Selection is, in itself, the best pedagogical solution to the needs of the most able (evidence from systematic reviews shows this is not necessarily the case);

Of course, the case for Grammar Schools is usually either a personal or political one, and rarely muddies its hands with evidence, or the educational needs of young people, as a whole!

1 comment:

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