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.