Expert evidence supports Ofsted Chief’s stance against grammar schools

Speaking at the Festival of Education, England’s Chief Inspector for Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, has said he would not support bringing back more grammar schools , a pledge made by some politicians including UKIP`s Nigel Farage. He told his audience,

“I am a passionate believer in local schools for all abilites.”

Although Sir Michael emphasised he had come to ” reclaim and celebrate “ the comprehensive ideal he challenged comprehensives to tackle a tarnished image,

Despite the enormous strides the majority of our comprehensives have made in the past few years, the name is still associated in the minds of many with mediocrity, laxity and failure. For many journalists and politicians in particular, comprehensives remain, to use an infamous label, bog-standard.”

But, he rejected calls for more grammar schools,

“….let’s not delude ourselves. ‘A grammar school in every town’, as some are calling for, would also mean three secondary moderns in every town, too – a consequence rarely mentioned. What does the country need more of? Schools that educate only the top 20% of students, 90% of whom get good GCSEs, or schools that educate 100% of students, 80% of whom are capable of getting good GCSEs? I think the answer is pretty obvious.”

What does expert evidence say on selection and grammar schools, which admit children only on the basis of their academic ability? Good for social mobility; a ladder of opportunity for disadvantaged pupils or not?

Two leading academics comment:

Stephen Gorard, Professor of Education at the University of Durham:

“There is repeated evidence that any appearance of advantage for those attending selective schools is outweighed by the disadvantage for those who do not. More children lose out than gain, and the attainment gaps between highest and lowest and between richest and poorest are larger.

In England, social segregation between schools is much, much higher in areas with grammar schools, in terms of immigrant status, first language, ethnicity, educational needs, parental education or income. Most obviously, grammar schools have very few students eligible for free school meals.

There is copious international evidence of the damaging effects, both short and long term, of socially segregated school systems. Clustering potentially disadvantaged children with similar characteristics like poverty into the same schools is linked to worse treatment, worse teaching, more bullying, lower aspirations, and sectarian views.

Three things need to be established before selection by ability, such as is used in a grammar school system, can be promoted in an ethical manner. Selective schools must be shown to be more effective than non-selective ones. Then the largely disregarded rump of such a system, the secondary modern schools, must be shown to be at least as effective as non-selective schools. And the overall benefits must outweigh any unintended harmful side effects.

None of these three things has been established. Given the dangers, and the lack of evidence of any benefit at all, selection by ability is currently the very antithesis of an evidence-informed policy. Plausible as it may sound, selection by ability must not be promoted or condoned by anyone who cares about educational effectiveness or social justice.”

Dr John Goldthorpe, Emeritus Fellow Nuffield College, Oxford Unversity:

“Selection for grammar schools under the tripartite system of secondary education was largely based on children’s performance on ‘IQ tests’ taken at around age 11. There is no evidence that the ending of such selection, with the move to comprehensive secondary education that started in the 1960s changed the importance either of cognitive ability or of children’s social backgrounds for their eventual levels of educational attainment.

Analyses of data from three British studies, covering the lives of children born in 1946, 1958 and 1970, show that across these cohorts there was little systematic change in the effects of parental social class, parental social status or parental education for children’s educational attainment. Likewise the effects of cognitive ability were also fairly stable, except that for children in the 1970 cohort, who were entirely educated under the comprehensive system, having relatively low cognitive ability was somewhat less damaging for their educational attainment than for children in the earlier cohorts.

The important point therefore is that neither the selective nor the comprehensive system was highly ‘meritocratic’ in regard to cognitive ability. Even when controlling for cognitive ability, children’s chances of educational success were still strongly associated with their social backgrounds. For example, in the case of high ability children, those from the most advantaged social backgrounds had around twice the chance of chance of achieving at least A level or equivalent qualifications, than those from the least advantaged backgrounds had only around a 40% chance.

Results on largely the same lines were also found for Sweden.”

Note to journalists: Source: Erzsébet Bukodi, Robert Erikson and John H Goldthorpe, ‘The Effects of Social Origins and Cognitive Ability on Educational Attainment: Evidence from Britain and Sweden’, forthcoming in Acta Sociologica.

Text available from: erzsebet.bukodi@nuffield.ox.ac.uk.

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