Having always been a comprehensive school student and then a comprehensive school teacher for 17 years, I still feel like an observer rather an insider now that I work in a selective school. I am challenged on the validity of selection by testing from time to time and, as I work very closely with colleagues from a range of school types, it is an issue I am happy to debate and discuss. Having seen both of my children through the school choice circus, I have a parental perspective too. (You might have missed this post on the whole school choice open evening circus).
The general arguments against selection run along the following lines:
It is fundamentally incompatible with creating a cohesive society; it is reinforcing a sheep and goats social sieve; the ‘social mobility’ claims can’t be substantiated; the nature of testing is flawed and only certain abilities count; testing acts as a social selection because affluent parents can more easily afford coaching; some selective schools cream off talent to the extent that neighbouring comprehensives are essentially secondary modern schools, disadvantaged beyond what is reasonable; fully selective areas do not show significant overall levels of increased attainment; 11 is too young for children to experience failure/rejection.
This argument is often put to dampen the enthusiasm anyone might have to open new selective schools; it can also be put to suggest a policy to close grammar schools or, more accurately, to remove their selective admissions policies. This is part of the movement to promote the idea that all children should go to the local school so that, in so doing, we would have a more equitable, integrated and fair society. The arguments are also put forward to help contextualise the performance records of non-selective schools; if you start off by selecting the intake, then no wonder the results are so high and so on.
I fully understand all of this and I believe it is an important debate to have. However, it frustrates me that the debate is often too polemical and too limited. People (including me) tend to argue from a perspective that justifies their decisions as parents and teachers; radical idealistic policy suggestions are all too easily made when they’re never likely happen in practice given the range of public opinion among the electorate (this includes the idea of abolishing independent schools as if any government could control how people spend their money to this degree); selection by testing is often isolated from a myriad of other factors when, in truth, there is always selection at work (see below). For me the biggest issue, is that the admissions debate is a sideshow relative to talking about educational standards and the difference we could be making by focusing on classroom practice.
Here is my perspective on all of this:
I am not a spokesperson for selective education per se; I am happy to concede that in some areas, it could well be the case that the net effect of selection is neutral at best in terms of the overall impact on the education of the population in that area, even though it is impossible to separate school quality from the evaluation. I’d say the jury is out. However, after spending a few days in my school, I would suggest that there wouldn’t be many people who’d say that the school shouldn’t exist. In fact, I think it is a wonderful thing that a school like mine is funded by the state. Why? Because I think we offer a form of educational opportunity that isn’t generally present in the system. KEGS is one of many similar schools that provide specialist provision for able students including an extraordinary breadth of curriculum and a learning culture that they would not get elsewhere. I was astonished at what I found here when I first arrived as I describe here. I know that saying this winds people up… but it’s just true. The average points scores for my students last year were 560 at A Level (A= 120) and 680 at GCSE (A*=58). This volume of high achievement is difficult to deliver except in specialist environments. In addition to the range of subjects and extra-curricular opportunities (including, for example, a rare state-school CCF contingent of 200+ cadets), very simply, expectations of students are phenomenally high. This is the key distinguishing feature of my school. It remains my conviction that, every day, students at KEGS are challenged to a far higher level that their peers in most other schools. It should not have to be that way, but it is and my children’s school experience supports that view. (This is nothing to do with how hard teachers work or what other challenges schools face… I recognise all of that.)
Of course, not everyone who wants a place can have one but does that mean that free education like that on offer at KEGS shouldn’t be available in the system? Should it only be an option for those with the money for private schools? Education isn’t a redistributable asset. One person’s excellent education doesn’t have to come at the expense of another; you can’t share it out like money. But, I feel my school shows what can be provided and a great deal of what goes on could be transferred elsewhere, without the selective intake, if people set their sights higher. (Again, this doesn’t go down well but I believe it is true.) The goal should surely be to provide the same level of expectations and curriculum elsewhere and reduce the unevenness in the system that way; level up, not down.
As Tony Blair and Andrew Adonis agreed at the start of the New Labour government, there is nothing to be gained from closing down successful institutions. In a democracy, it will never be acceptable and, pragmatically, it isn’t sensible. The same attitudes prevail today and so, in short, closing selective schools ain’t going to happen and, therefore, it’s a fruitless discussion. The battles of the 1970s are over and with a history dating back to 1551, I actually feel that KEGS, and schools like it, deserve to be protected and preserved, provided that they continue to deliver; and we do.
However, if it is argued that selective admissions should be phased out, it is worth considering the impact. KEGS is one of four selective schools out of 79 secondary schools in Essex Local Authority. From our intake of 120 into Year 7, only about 50 come from the town of Chelmsford, who might otherwise have gone to 7 or 8 local schools. Our admissions area, from which 80 % of places must be offered, is 25 miles wide; 20% of places are offered further afield. If KEGS became a non-selective school, we’d be taking all 120 students from the town (an additional 350 students over five years) which, in my view, would have a significant negative impact on the local schools as well has having an impact on the local housing market. I think the balance of numbers in Essex works very well; no one school suffers a creaming effect of any magnitude and the local schools have the full ability range. My school sits among them offering a unique form of provision as part of the overall offer in the area; it’s a balance that has evolved over many years and I think it works.
Another important factor is the issue of diversity. My school has a BME intake of about 35 % overall. This is three times higher than the local average; I think KEGS has a good shout for being the most ethnically diverse school in Essex. Diversity takes many forms and I’d suggest that my students experience a form of diversity that my own children, despite being in North London (comprehensive but socially selective schools) do not experience to the same extent, especially when they go into their ability groups.
De Facto Selection
One of my biggest frustrations with the ‘local school’ argument is that proponents very often gloss over the realities of de facto house price selection. In the scenario where everyone went to the local school, using proximity measures alone, school choice would be entirely determined by the housing market – in terms of renting or buying. In my area of North London this is significant. The same is true in parts of Essex and all over the country. Taking all other selective factors away, the key determinant of school choice is how much you can afford to pay for where you live. Arguing the local school case, is arguing for housing market selection; there is no escaping that. I know for a fact that many of my students come from families with incomes that mean they could not afford to go to my school if they had to buy or rent a house in the area if we became non-selective. I also know that people choose to rent small flats without gardens in Muswell Hill to gain access to the local school when they’d rather have bought a house with a garden somewhere cheaper. Only people with serious money get to have both. This is the reality of the ‘school choice via Estate Agent’ system; it serves the wealthy to a far greater extent than any issues to do with general affluence, coaching and cultural capital; the sums involved are straight forward to compare.
In Essex, there are situations where the school profiles are radically different in different parts of the same town, far away from the influence of selective creaming. School choice by housing is literally how things work and I’d suggest that the ‘choice’ to stay in some areas is not one many local school campaigners would make gladly and they’d move if they could afford to. There are plenty of parents in many parts of the South East who choose to stay in relatively low cost housing but spend their money on private education or extra home tuition. They are scoffed at but I’d suggest that they’re often spending less than people buying the £800K ++ homes in North London that enable people to go to the better local schools – or, to be more accurate, the school of their choice.
Another element in the debate is the role of faith schools. The Sutton Trust report from 2008 showed that, of the 100 most socially selective schools in England, based on a measure derived from comparing school vs local Free School Meals rates, only 17 were grammar schools. (See Chapter 7) 53 were voluntary aided faith schools and the others were comprehensives. None of the 20 most socially selective schools are grammar schools. The report suggests that faith schools have a significant impact in terms of social selection. To me this is important; when selective schools are being evaluated, it is obvious to me that any debate has to include faith schools. As an atheist – where, by definition, I don’t believe in a supreme being – it is odd to me that gaining access to schools can be determined by demonstrating faith in something that isn’t real. Now, I know lots of religious people extremely well and I respect them for having their faith; I’m well aware of the place religion has in our culture and history and there is never likely to be a political agenda to remove faith schools from the system - but when one child gains access to a school instead of another because of their parents’ stated faith allegiance, and when this extends to employing staff too… I obviously feel I have less to defend in my own position as Head of a secular selective school. Imagine if we had humanist schools…..
The Social Justice Case: FSM
A recent Sutton Trust report on social selection in comprehensives attempted to suggest that new converter academies were more socially selective than the average and less so than the original sponsored academies. To me this was simply self-referential data-truism. These academy types had initial origins in ‘Outstanding’ schools (converter) and ‘schools in challenging circumstances’ (Sponsored). By definition the FSM characteristics of these schools on average would show divergence. The same logic is applied to selective schools; yes it is true the selective schools have proportionally fewer students on free school meals. Why? Well.. take a look at the ‘top table’ in any Y6 classroom – or the average of all Y6 ‘top tables’. Take a look at the demographics of the top set in any comprehensive school. What do you find… ? Of course there is a deep and well-established correlation between attainment and socio-economic advantage. You find this in reception classes. The 2008 Sutton Report actually shows that the level of social selection at selective schools is no greater than that explained by academic selection alone; grammar schools don’t add additional social selection beyond the act of testing. The issues pre-date arrival at the schools themselves and as I’ve argued elsewhere, stopping gaps emerge should be our priority because narrowing gaps is a false promise.
I know all the stuff about the Halcyon days of grammar schools, where ordinary boys were able to become socially mobile, is often overblown. But it certainly did have that effect for hundreds of students at my school over the years; they tell me so and still we have students gaining that benefit. That said, even if my school now largely serves a middle class ethnically diverse, elite, I’d still argue that it shouldn’t be necessary to limit educational experiences like my school offers to those who can afford private education. KEGS is like an Oxbridge College for kids… but it’s free and is far more equitable in terms of entry than either Oxford or Cambridge. I can live with that.
So, on the basis that ‘something should be done’, we need some solutions. Here’s where I’d start.
- Freeze changes to school structures, but make all schools funded on the same basis with the same freedoms. I don’t think adding more schools necessarily solves underlying issues in the system – so far, there is no evidence of that. However, we should give Local Authorities overriding school planning powers so that any new provision derives from clear need and references existing provision with the potential to improve. If that includes a strategically placed school like mine, so be it – but that that needs careful planning and consultation not just the drive of some local power-players.
- Focus on school improvement; however hard it seems, with some schools in much more difficult circumstances than others, leveling up is the only justifiable course of action. Raising expectations is at the heart of this. Probably all schools have some students just as talented as mine – so give them the same curriculum experience and set the same expectations. I’m not saying it’s easy…..but people want to come to my school for a reason.
- Focus on teaching and learning; instead of tinkering with school types and funding, invest all our time and energy into improving the quality of teaching and the quality of both the planned and the enacted curriculum. This might include providing additional incentives to teach and live in more challenging areas…(but actually, spend a week teaching in my school and you’d experience challenge of a different sort. It’s not for everyone.)
- Explore wider use of lottery and banding systems and other mechanisms that reduce house price selection. This can only really work in certain circumstances – as it appears to in Greenwich and at London Nautical School – and it reduces the school-community link to some extent. (Banding seems like a good idea although the idea of doing too well on a test to get a school place doesn’t seem entirely right… and this is an inherent issue.) However… let’s not have debates that are essentially only arguments for letting the housing market determine school places, unchecked without release valves for those with less financial power.
- Explore wider use of selection. This doesn’t mean opening new selective schools, but if all schools could offer some or all places on a form of aptitude selection – then, theoretically, all schools might be open to anyone. There might be winners and losers, of course, but this might create mass mobility where house prices were no barrier and we might achieve greater equity overall. It would be worth modeling with different proportions of places allocated by promixity, by aptitude and by banding.
Above all, I’d argue that the polemicists need to tone down their arguments in favour of a more considered and rounded view of these issues. Ultimately, it is all a case of relative values and some form of selection over another. Faith? Ability? Wealth? Random? Who is to say which order these should come in…. it’s more complicated than we’re often allowed to admit or discuss. There is no system without selection of some kind and, having arrived to KEGS from ‘the plantation’, I’m confident that we’re making a contribution that the system needs.