Poor old Grammars – a defence of selective schools

On Friday the Sutton Trust released their latest report, “Poor Grammar” (http://www.suttontrust.com/public/documents/poorgrammarreport.pdf), a critique of the lack of social mobility of selective schools: they are not taking enough pupils with Free School Meals (FSM).  I am not a disinterested party here as I am a grammar school teacher but I did feel that the report, subsequent reporting in the media and discussions on twitter from those involved have been a little unfair.

To begin with, look at the title.  Now I appreciate that they probably sat around trying to find a pun with the word grammar in and that was the best they could find but, and this pun is definitely intended, it’s rather a cheap shot.  It is really not grammar schools’ fault that ambitious, middle-class parents tutor their children for years to gain an edge.

The headline figure is that 13% of grammar school pupils, four times as many, come from preparatory (fee paying) schools while only 3% are on FSM.  I have two responses to this.  The first is that many prep schools are themselves academically selective, which does rather stack the deck.  The second is the percentages of pupils attaining level 5 at the end of KS2.  For example, in a selective LA such as Bucks less than 10% of FSM children get level 5 in English and Maths, which perhaps puts the 3% into a little more proportion.

There is also no mention of the Sutton Trust’s previous report (http://tinyurl.com/o2c3phh) showing that the top comprehensives are more socially selective than grammar schools.  “The researchers found that the country’s top 164 comprehensive schools took only 9.2% of children from income deprived homes although they drew pupils from areas where about 20% were income deprived. The 164 remaining grammar schools, also drawing their pupils from areas where 20% were income deprived, were found to be more inclusive, admitting 13.5% of children from poor homes.”

Lee Elliott Major, the Director of the Sutton Trust, took to Twitter yesterday to draw attention to comments from Bob McCarthy, Chairman of the National Grammar Schools Association (NGSA).  In particular, his comment that “Many, many parents from deprived areas, including what is generally called the dependency classes, are essentially not particularly interested in any form of academic education. Their interests are directed towards pop culture, sports.”  I would hope that quotation makes us all angry.  The NGSA does not ‘represent’ grammar schools and none that I know of will have anything to do with it.  But google “grammar school association” and there it is as the top hit.  It is a fringe, far right pressure group.  I would hope that hard working journos would look beyond the first hit on google, or even ask a few grammar school heads.  Who am I kidding?  If they had looked just one hit lower, at the Grammar School Heads Association, they would find an actual representative body.  Lee Elliot Major’s tweet comes with a heavy implication that the NGSA represents the views of grammar schools.  Now, everything I hear about him says he is a fine, principled man, and I know that in 140 characters it is difficult to get across your complete intention.  Perhaps I am too prickly.  Perhaps others will not infer the same.

Looking at figure 3 on p. 14 of the report, you can see that of those getting level 5 in English and Maths the proportions going to grammar school are less for FSM.  But we are talking about a tiny number of schools here and a small number of pupils.  And I think that is my main problem with this report – it seems to infer a large group of extremely bright but poor students whose life chances are diminished by being denied access to selective schools.  Is there any evidence that a large number of these students exist?  If they have a good, local school, will they not succeed?  If every grammar took one or two more students on FSM, that would change the graph quite a lot.  This seems quite a lot of drama for, say 300 children nationwide.

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6 thoughts on “Poor old Grammars – a defence of selective schools

  1. Seems to be a pattern: institution is considered elitist, therefore public scrutiny focuses on the institution rather than the flaws earlier on in the chain – eg, Oxbridge continually moaned about when the real outrage should be directed at state, non-selective sixth forms which fail to encourage their students to aim high.

    Report does fall into this trap. Page 19 – why is it just grammar schools that need to provide examples – a whole page! – of “good practice”? What about the primary schools that have educated these children for seven years? In the final paragraph, however, the analysis admits that it is “difficult” to find primary schools that have had success, and indeed there are grammars who exemplify best practice, with outreach activities and the like. Incidentally, why did the sample of primary heads interviewed only consider schools which were already doing the right thing and helping their children into grammars: what about primaries which don’t even enter them?

    So yes, “if they have a good, local school, will they not succeed?”. If not, surely that is the real problem – but as it is so much easier to attack the grammars rather than really scrutinise the failures of our state primaries, I wonder if your question will ever be addressed…

  2. Good post Tim – although, of course, we are biased. I’ve blogged about this myself. The data issue is annoying. The link between educational outcomes and measures of deprivation is evident in nursery schools. It runs deep. The FSM data for selective schools is just circular – obvious and inevitable. Compare them with the top set or top table in all Y6 or Y7 groups – the pattern will be the same. The question is more broadly, why have Grammar Schools at all – and that can’t be based on deficits elsewhere. I think that there is a case a) for specialist provision for very able students – niche curriculum provision that doesn’t exist across the system and b) for alternatives to post-code/house price selection. If we close all Grammar Schools, we are saying house price is inherently a more fair way to give people school places – unless you pay for private education. I don’t think it is. The other line of argument is pragmatic; ok, Grammar Schools are there. Do we close them – and then what? Will other schools deliver the same learning experience for those students? Will there be a net benefit to the system? I don’t think there would be. However, there is good case for saying there are too many selective schools in some areas – leaving other schools gasping for air and not thriving. That doesn’t apply in Essex but it does in parts of Kent..

    All that said, the Sutton Trust report that I think needs more attention is the one that shows faith schools are far more socially selective Grammar Schools. Don’t touch Grammars if you don’t want to close Faith schools. That wakes a few people up I find.

  3. The Sutton Trust are not opposed to grammar schools or selective education on principle, though. They are basically pragmatic – since grammar schools exist, they want to know how can they be made less socially selective (primary school outreach, FSM admissions criteria, nature of the 11+ test etc)?

    For example,they spent a significant amount of money on making access “needs blind” at the selective Belvedere School in Liverpool http://www.suttontrust.com/our-work/programmes/schools/belvedere-school-open-access-scheme/).

    • That Belvedere story is very interesting – it’s what most village schools were like back in the day.

      I suppose I just object to their laying the responsibility at the feet of the grammar schools. I’m sure at LRGS you want the brightest 112 boys, irrespective of background. How many of your local primaries really encourage their cleverest pupils to apply and help them to prepare? I hope it’s more than those in Chelmsford!

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