The 11+ is back on the agenda – but this is why it shouldn’t be

cross post from Eddie Playfair is Vice Chair of the SEA

Thanks to the prime minister, it seems that educational selection is back on the agenda again. The grammar school issue in Kent and elsewhere is one aspect of the debate but it’s worth remembering that the segregation of learners by ‘aptitude’, ‘potential’, test or exam score is widespread with the 11+ being only one of a broad spectrum of selective practices.

Education in England is riddled with selective assumptions and practices from top to bottom. Learners are routinely selected and segregated into different provision, particularly at secondary and tertiary level. We have never had a national education system, let alone a fully comprehensive one. What we have is the result of a tension between comprehensive and selective tendencies operating in a context of market competition between unequal schools in an unequal society.

The case for selection is generally based on notions of fixed, measurable potential. Despite its regular revival, most recently in genetic or neuro-psychological forms, the idea that ‘intelligence’ is a single heritable attribute which is fixed and measurable has no scientific basis. Even when advocates of academic selection don’t rely on IQ tests or similar measures, they replace the idea of measurable and fixed ‘ability’ with something called ‘potential’ which is just as fixed. Both these concepts start from a deterministic approach to learning which implies that an individual’s ability to learn and to achieve academically is substantially pre-determined and unchanging. This view often leads to practices which progressively close the doors to certain opportunities for human flourishing to certain people rather than keeping all doors open.

Selection can operate at a whole-system level, providing different types of school for different ‘types’ of student as determined by some kind of assessment of their ability, aptitude or potential. It can also operate at the intra-institutional level with such practices as rigid streaming or limiting curriculum options to particular ‘types’ of student.

The prime minister has expressed his support for grammar school expansion in Kent. He says this is because ‘good’ schools should be able to expand. However, this fails to recognise that grammar schools are not isolated ‘good’ schools, but part of a system which has selection at its core. If you think a system of selection at 11 is wrong, then you cannot really argue that it is OK to keep, let alone expand, grammar schools. If you think it is right…well, then you would be arguing for it everywhere else too, like UKIP.

If academic selection and the 11+ are back on the political agenda then many of us will want to defend the comprehensive principle because we believe that the common school, college and university, like the NHS, are part of the foundations of the good society.

The comprehensive school is a successful and popular expression of equality of opportunity which transcends all social differences. The idea that children and young people should be educated with their neighbours and their peers in a learning community which reflects the composition of the geographical community they live in is still valid, even if some have abandoned it. A comprehensive system discourages competition for positional advantage by school, and seeks to ensure that every school and every student can flourish.

If we agree that the state should shape the kind of education system we have, then we can probably agree that such a system should broadly value the things we value, reflect the type of society we want and offer the best available to everyone. Do our current arrangements reflect this? Do they serve all young people well? If we want a cohesive and open society where everyone can develop and flourish as citizens, workers and community members and an education system that works well for everyone, perhaps we should consign academic selection to the dustbin of history.

“The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.” Jane Addams.

“One of the great tragedies of the last 100 years has been our failure as a nation to take on the essential concept of human educability and thereby challenge the idea that children are born with a given quota of ‘intelligence’ which remains constant both during childhood and adult life.” Clyde Chitty.

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Time to Act – an Education Bill for the new Parliament

Over the last year the SEA together with our partners in the Reclaiming Education Alliance has been promoting seven key principles that we think should be at the heart of a new government’s education policies. We believe that they all need to be implemented if we are to build a school system that promotes high standards, fairness and equality across the country. As we approach the election, we have developed our ideas about how the principles can be put into practice.

To this end we have prepared a draft Education Bill which we will be presenting for debate at an open meeting at the House of Commons on 25th February and publicising widely thereafter. The new bill will:

1. Broaden the National Curriculum to include promoting the emotional well-being of young people;
2. Establish a fully comprehensive system by ending selection by ability or aptitude;
3. Prevent schools from manipulating the admissions system so as to get themselves a more favourable intake;
4. Ensure that there is no discrimination against young people of any kind – those who have special educational needs or disabilities, those who have different ethnic or social backgrounds or because of their gender or sexual orientation.
5. Establish a common funding system that applies equally to all kinds of school and meets the needs of all young people;
6. Promote co-operation between schools rather than competition;
7. Require inspections to be supportive and to promote improvement rather than being essentially punitive as is the case currently;
8. Ensure that all teachers have qualified status and engage in regular continuing professional development.
9. Return all academies to maintained status so that these proposals apply to all schools. All schools should have the same rights and responsibilities and the same level of autonomy.

We intend to promote these ideas as widely as possible in the hope of influencing positively the policies that will be followed over the next few years.

So we are asking all our supporters to join in the debate on Wednesday 25th February at 7pm in Committee Room 12, House of Commons, Westminster, London SW1A 0AA.

You can download the papers for the meeting from

If you have not already booked your place, please do so now with your name(s) and contact details.

If you don’t do triple science, you’re doomed – or whatever happened to broad and balanced?

“Pupils in some parts of England are unlikely to take exams that could be vital to their job prospects – such as sciences and languages – due to a subject “desert”, a study has found.”

That is how the BBC website introduces a new report from the Open Public Services Network which has researched the availability and take up of certain GCSEs in English schools. The focus is on triple science and modern languages and the message is the increasingly familiar one that lazy schools are letting poor pupils down by not letting (making?) them take supposedly hard courses.

Before we accept this simplistic view, a little background may be useful. The National Curriculum when first established expected all students to follow a broad and balanced curriculum up to 16. It set out positively to counter the narrow specialisation at 14 that was then common. 20% of curriculum time was normally to be spent on science – even then it was hard to fit all areas of experience into the week but it was possible to get a decent balance. Before 1988 there was massive gender stereotyping in science subject choices and integrated science courses were designed to challenge that.

Let’s be clear – triple science either means kids have a seriously unbalanced Key Stage 4 programme or they are forced to do it in the time normally given to two GCSEs. Neither of these is desirable but nevertheless this has become one of those supposed signs of rigour that some schools and parts of the media are in love with. It’s become a badge that a lot of schools feel they have to have if they’re going to be taken seriously academically – another of those ways in which they try and attract the right kind of parent.

According to the report pupils’ life chances are at stake and “One important reason why bright children from low and middle income pupils miss out on the best universities is that they don’t take the right subjects at school.” Notice the assumption here that what the “best universities” say they want is automatically what we need to be doing.

Nowhere does it ask the question, just how many students’ job prospects are at stake. As ever we’re talking about the tiny minority that might want to do some very particular courses at a very particular group of universities. But somehow, the impression is given that just about everyone is at risk.

And in fact nowhere is it written down that triple science is needed for anything. Not one single medical school demands it and most are quite specific in saying they accept double science on an equal basis. It may of course be that under the surface this kind of thing is noticed but if it is, it is one more example of how university entrance is a “secret garden” open only to those already on the inside.

It’s claimed that students doing triple science are more likely to do science A levels and do better at them. Of course if they’ve specialised to this extent at 14, they have far fewer choices at A level so, to slightly misquote, “they would wouldn’t they”. And if you enter the ablest students and those keenest on science for triple science, yes they probably will do well in the future – who’s surprised by that?

We should be standing on the principle that young people deserve a balanced curriculum that keeps options open at 14. And we need to resist the view that says only the subjects of the 1950’s grammar school curriculum are worth anything. We really should not allow a small group of universities to distort the experience of young people by driving narrowness and specialisation further and further down the school.

The other feature of this report is the assertion that there is a relationship between deprivation and the curriculum available and that schools in deprived areas are gaming the system by stopping kids doing “hard subjects”. It asserts that “There is a link to deprivation and affluence – with schools in wealthier areas more likely to offer triple science.”

If you look then at the map provided you find that the 16 areas where the fewest schools offer triple science include Torbay, Kent, Milton Keynes, York and Camden and Kensington and Chelsea. Whereas 100% of schools offer triple science in Wigan, Barnsley, Sheffield, Newham and Barking and Dagenham. Hardly a simple pattern!

To the extent that there is truth in this analysis, in reality it comes back to inequality. We know how strong the relationship between economic circumstances and educational attainment is. But we keep on pretending that if only schools did something different, the relationship will go away. And as ever, our definition of social mobility is whether we can rescue a few bright kids from challenging areas and never mind what happens to the rest. So that, we’re told, must have absolute priority in deciding what we teach and how we use our resources.

I wonder how long it will be before we have a report condemning schools too few young people get an apprenticeship or go on to a vocational course in FE . That might be one small sign that we are taking challenging inequality more seriously

No more Mr Nice Guy – Cameron and Morgan not making up with teachers after all.

The Conservative’s love-in with the teaching profession seems to have come to a shuddering halt after only a few short months. The pressures of the campaign seem to have driven both Cameron and Morgan back to the familiar school and teacher bashing approach that has been their default position throughout this government. Clearly someone has decided that Mail and Telegraph readers are more important electorally than the teacher vote.

First Nicky Morgan announces that every single primary pupil will pass her tests or dire consequences will follow. What the tests will consist of is not entirely clear but they will, it seems, “expect every pupil by the age of 11 to know their times tables off by heart, to perform long division and complex multiplication and to be able to read a novel. They should be able to write a short story with accurate punctuation, spelling and grammar.” Then, Cameron followed this up with “an assault on mediocrity”. His target is schools in the Ofsted category of “requires improvement”. Some might think this amounts to “weaponising” education!

The really alarming feature of all of this is the extraordinarily simplistic approach to school improvement. The argument runs, it seems, underperforming schools have bad leaders, so if you change the leaders all will rapidly be well. And of course they cling to the conviction that making a school an academy is a magic bullet.

We’ve argued before on this blog that real school improvement is a complex business that requires a long term commitment from the whole staff, external support and indeed the whole community in which the school is located. The ability of politicians to believe that the simple things that they can control with the stroke of a pen will make the difference is extraordinary and deeply depressing.

So is the belief that just setting a target will of itself bring about change. This rests on the assumption that without that pressure teachers are just idle and won’t bother to do the best by their pupils. What actually happens of course is that all the attention goes on what is to be measured. We can imagine the regime in year 6 if knowing tables by heart is what everything depends on. It takes me right back to 11+ preparation in the ‘50’s and the grindingly boring repetition of practice papers every single day for a year and a half.

New Labour was of course big on targets. But in all fairness it also understood that there needed to be an infrastructure of support and very substantial funding was put into national and local school improvement services, CPD and classroom resources.

The belief now is that superheads plus academisation is all it takes. The finding of the Select Committee that there is no evidence that academy status makes any difference either way are just swept aside. So are the basic numbers from the performance tables just published. 36.5% od sponsored academies were below the 40% target for GCSE results. Even more shocking so were 5% of converter academies all of whom were supposed to be good or outstanding before they were allowed to convert. Also below target were 22% of the tiny number of free schools and 2 out of 5 UTC’s. Overall 13.6% of academies were below target compared to 11.7% of maintained schools.

So the answer now is that maintained schools become academies and academies change their sponsor. Though it will be interesting to see, if a converter academy or a sponsor got stroppy, just what powers the Secretary of State has when a school is not in special measures.

Above all though, we need to think about the effect of the culture of pressure and punishment. Who will want to risk their career taking on the headship of a school needing improvement? Who will want to lead a primary school if it takes just one 11 year old having a bad day to end your career? Who indeed wants to join a profession where the prevailing ethos is one of mistrust and blame promoted by politicians for whom a quick headline is more important than the real future of the service.

We know that places in initial training are not being filled. Meanwhile just this week the TES reported that

“More teachers are quitting the profession than at any point in the past 10 years, fuelling fears that a recruitment shortfall is being compounded by retention problems. About one in 12 full-time teachers are leaving the profession every year, according to the latest figures. Teachers have cited excessive workload, the pressures of inspection and the relentless pace of change as reasons for quitting.”

And this at a time when pupil numbers are going through the roof!

Nicky Morgan was appointed, we were told, to make peace with teachers. An important symbol of that was the workload challenge. Unfortunately it seems the answer teachers gave when asked what the biggest issue was replied “government policy and interference”.

But clearly the message hasn’t been heard.

Remembering Brian Simon 1915-2002

Brian Simon was born one hundred years ago. As is fitting, his life’s work and achievements will be celebrated at the London Institute of Education on Thursday 26th March. From his early battle against the ideology behind IQ testing to his later detailed work on the history and poltics of education, he contributed massively to our understanding. I would like to remember him here through a brief consideration of just one of his many contributions but one which I think retains all its relevance and vitality.

Brian Simon’s book  Does Education Matter? was published in 1985. It was a collection of articles and speeches from 1977-84. The first chapter, which I will consider below, is a speech entitled Can Education Change Society? Delivered at the University of British Columbia in 1983.

These days whenever a discussion of the impact of education on society comes up, a reference to Basil Bernstein’s Education Cannot Compensate for Society (1969) is sure to follow. The problem is that Bernstein was not dealing with the broad question of education’s role in social change but with the the specific one of the claims made for the theory and practice of Compensatory Education. The article was based a more detailed paper: A Critique of the Concept of Compensatory Education. This title better reflects his purpose. It is just a pity that so many references to the shorter article seem to be based on no more than its title.

Brian Simon’s British Columbia speech, on the other hand, did take on the big issue. So it is disappointing that it rarely gets the acknowledgement that it deserves. He brought all of his vast knowledge of the history of education, his involvement with arguments about educational psychology, and his deep understanding of Marxism to bear on the fundamental question ‘can education change society?’.

The speech has two main characteristics: (1) a refusal to reduce education to schooling; (2) a long historical view of the interaction between education and the rest of society.

Joan Simon defined education as “the mode of development of human beings in society” and this is key to the speech in which the idea is spelled out:

… education involves all those formative influences including the family, peer groups, the Church, apprenticeship and the village or civic relations with which all are involved from the earliest times: relationships growing in complexity, of course, as society itself becomes more complex. Within these sets of inter-relations, organised schooling, of course, plays a part, but one which only affected a small, even tiny, proportion of the population until recently.

If we only look at one part of the process, schooling, then we lose site of the broader picture with a consequent loss of meaning of that part.

Brian Simon illustrates the inability of the narrow view to resolve the conflict between extreme judgements (i.e. education is the key to social change vs education passively reflects the nature of the surrounding society). He refers to a widely circulated reader on the sociology of education, Education, Economy and Society, edited by Halsey and others in 1961, and comments: “The many contributors here unanimously expressed the view not only that education could be, but that also that it certainly was, a major factor in bringing about social change”.

Sixteen year later Halsey, with Jerome Karabel, edited another collection, Power and Ideology in Education, in which it is the consensus view “That education can do nothing of any significance; that it must inevitably reflect the society that creates it …”.

After an analysis of the relation of these differing stances, with changes in the political context in which they appear, Brian Simon rejects both views. Education as a key part of the social whole has its own specific characteristics and problems. It is neither some kind of external motor driving society forward by means of its separate source of energy and purpose, nor is it a passive reflection of the social whole. It has relative autonomy and is an important part of overall social change.

This point brings out the importance of Brain Simon’s Marxist understanding. Following Marx he argues that people are not merely products of their environment (a view widely shared by Enlightenment thinkers). Nor can we explain social change as brought about by utopian inspiration. Rejecting both the mechanical materialism of the former and the idealism of the latter he emphases the role of human social activity.

We do not merely react to the world around us we engage with it along with others and in so doing we change not only that world but also ourselves, in the process we become something different to what we were at the beginning. It is this dialectical view that Brian Simon applies to education. Education is not merely a passive reaction to social needs but is a way we act collectively to  satisfy those needs. This means that the role of education must be seen as a dynamic one in which education, in responding to the needs of society, creates a new situation with new needs and new problems to solve.

Can education change society? Brian Simon’s response is that education is and always has been a key component of social change. As part of society’s process of self-movement, its role should neither be exaggerated (it is internal and not external to society as a whole) nor minimised (it is not a mere social epiphenomenon). As a dynamic part of the process of social change it is limited by the tasks set and the means available to solve them. But in solving them, it makes its specific contribution to overall social movement. There is no better way to gain a solid basis for analysing the impact of education on society than by reading this speech.

School Admissions should be part of Labour’s campaign for a fairer society.

A central theme of Labour’s 2015 campaign is the idea that our country is increasingly dominated by the privileged and by powerful interest groups at the expense of the rest of us. This can be, for example, energy companies overcharging, employers imposing zero hour contracts or private landlords abusing their position. The result is that the privileged and the wealthy increasingly gain and more and more people find it ever harder to get a fair hearing.

Yesterday’s report of the Schools Adjudicator shows clearly that school admissions should be up there as one of the big rip-offs currently operating in our society. Her report can be found at The adjudicator only deals with the tip of the iceberg – with those cases where people are sufficiently determined and angry to follow a bureaucratic solution through to the end. This year, the number of objections considered jumped by nearly 70%. Clearly the message is not getting through to the schools that need to listen.

The adjudicator is clear that local authority criteria for maintained schools are almost always clear, simple and fair. The problems are much the same as in previous years and are overwhelmingly down to schools that are their own admission authority. The key issues according to the adjudicator are:

• Schools not consulting on and publishing admission arrangements at the right time

• Sixth form Admissions are too often difficult to find, lack an admission number, do not include oversubscription criteria and have application forms that request information prohibited by the Code – so schools can pick and choose who they want to take.

• Schools that are their own admission authority often request prohibited information in their supplementary information forms – the back door to selecting those whose faces fit.

• Admission arrangements for too many schools that are their own admission authority are unnecessarily complex. The arrangements appear to be more likely to enable the school to choose which children to admit rather than simply having oversubscription criteria

• The practice of some primary schools of giving priority for admission to the reception year to children who have attended particular nursery provision has again been found to be unfair to other local children

Paragraphs 60 to 62 of the report paint a vivid picture of the minefield that parents have to negotiate. There can be “numerous oversubscription criteria and sometimes sub-categories within them; different categories of places; more than one catchment area; feeder schools; tens of points available and needed to gain priority; banding and therefore tests to be taken; aptitude assessment and several faith-based criteria.”

Requirements at some faith-based schools “require a parent to be well organised and study the arrangements carefully, sometimes several years before applying for a place, to ensure that their child will have a realistic chance of gaining a place at the school.”

The effect of all this is becoming increasingly clear. Even amongst so-called comprehensive schools, Sutton Trust research has shown that those with the best results take far fewer disadvantaged pupils than they should. In other words they aren’t necessarily best at teaching – just best at manipulating their admissions. Similarly the Fair Admissions campaign has highlighted the shocking level of socio-economic segregation to be found in many schools – many but by no means all faith schools.

Defenders of this state of affairs regularly take refuge in the claim that it’s all about where people live – well-off parents buy houses near good schools. Sometimes this even leads to the ridiculous claim that grammar school selection is fairer because children come from a wider area – ignoring the obvious fact that hardly any disadvantaged children get into grammar schools by any route. The adjudicator’s report spells out clearly that housing is not the only issue. Too many schools are driving a coach and horses through the admissions system in order to secure an advantage for themselves.

It will not be enough just to talk about tightening the Admissions Code. At present, no one has the job of looking pro-actively at admission systems and at the outcomes of those systems. A system that only reacts when complaints are made is not good enough – it wouldn’t stop most bad landlords and most bad employers and it won’t catch many non-compliant schools.

It needs to be a key responsibility of the Director of School Standards to make sure that admissions are really fair in their area. If necessary they should be able to take over the admissions function from schools that don’t recruit an intake that is representative of their area. No doubt there will be a row. Expect the Mail to weigh in on the side of so-called good schools as they struggle to retain their privileged position. Expect those who benefit – like Blair, Clegg, Gove and probably Cameron – to join in.

But we have to recognise that this is one of the many ways in which things are rigged in favour of the already privileged. And also that a system so socially and economically segregated produces worse results than one that is open and fair to all – all the international evidence confirms this. All the evidence says that it is time to take this issue on.

Gaming v Latin – Free School culture wars coming to Hammersmith.

(Peter Wilby’s article in the Guardian on 6th January provided the inspiration and some of the background for this post)

West London Free School has become a well-established feature of the educational scene in Hammersmith. As is well known, it has a very particular approach to the curriculum and to the process of learning. In its own words:

“We offer children a classical liberal education – a core body of knowledge in a fairly narrow range of academic subjects, complemented by lots of art, music, drama and competitive sport. No technical subjects, no vocational ones.”

If a current proposal is accepted, it will be joined in 2016 by a school that is, according to its own rhetoric, the polar opposite. Its focus will be on science, technology, engineering, art, maths and developing computing, coding and creative skills. Appropriately enough as its founder sponsor is Ian Livingstone one of the key figures in the British computer games industry.

The result has been an initial flurry of predictable and rather tired argument about how schooling should be conducted. According to Livingstone:

“Children are totally different from 50 years ago. They run their lives through social media and smart phones. They collaborate naturally.” But at secondary school “they meet a regime of standardisation and conformity requiring them to memorise a lot of stuff that they won’t ever need because they can google it.”

In Toby Young’s view, the regime advocated by Livingstone has actually been the norm in English schools since the 1960’s and is the fundamental reason why we’ve been outstripped by Asian school systems. Moreover it has served, in his view, “to entrench poverty and preserve privilege. The reason for this is obvious: if ordinary children are learning very little at school, they’re never going to be able to compete with those from more affluent backgrounds.”

The absurdly polarised debate between “memorising a vast array of facts” and an apparently exclusive focus on creativity and problem solving does little to advance anyone’s understanding. The actual process of learning arguably is a good deal more complex than either side allows. There is, in any case, more than one way to skin a cat. But the possible juxtaposition of two schools with such strong ideological convictions leaves us with a number of interesting issues about how things like pupils’ entitlement and the encouragement of innovation play out in practice.

Labour’s current position is that schools should have curriculum freedom but within the context of a broad and balanced curriculum – a concept which is yet to be defined. There’s a loose assertion amongst all parties that schools should prepare pupils for life in modern Britain. This is often about values but can also be about not narrowing the curriculum so as to restrict children’s opportunities – for example by refusing to teach evolution or by excluding sex and relationships education. So, in this context, what do we make of a school that proudly asserts “no technical subjects, no vocational subjects”?

Michael Gove was a great convert to the cause of recasting the teaching of computing to focus on “creating content and making applications rather than just using them”. But at West London, there’s no technology and no computing on the curriculum at all and no mobile phone may be seen, let alone used, on pain of confiscation.

Is this school actually offering a broad and balanced curriculum? Is it preparing pupils for life in modern Britain? Can it help to create such a chasm between the way school operates and the way young people actually live their lives? It would claim of course that it is and it can – Latin (a subject Mark Zuckerberg learned up to age 18) it’s argued is an entirely adequate substitute for coding.

It may be that Livingstone’s school errs in the opposite direction – by being too loose and unstructured. We can’t know because it is still just an idea. It will need to be subject to the same rigorous scrutiny to see what the actual experience of young people is. The point here is not so much to argue the case one way or the other but to make the point that concepts like “broad and balanced” and “life in modern Britain” are not self-defining. They need much more serious thought than they are getting.

Both of these schools are in danger of buying into the belief that everything everywhere else is rubbish and there is but one true path to salvation. This has never been true. Most schools do a decent job but they’re human institutions so don’t always get everything right. To talk about secondary education as being exclusively a “regime of standardisation and conformity” is a gross caricature. So are the assertions that child-centred education has been ubiquitous since the ’60’s and “the effect on our public education system has been disastrous.” Even the persistent assertion that we do badly in PISA is likely to have not much to do with how schools work – it’s been shown for example that if Chinese heritage pupils in Australian schools were entered for PISA on their own, they’d come second in the world. Something outside schools may just be important too.

Innovation is important. Schools do need to develop their own personalities and to try out different approaches. Education would be the poorer if this didn’t happen. But this needs to be balanced by an entitlement for all young people not to have a school experience that is unduly distorted by a particular ideology whether religious, political or pedagogical. Where the boundaries should be is a hard but critical question.

Some will claim that the answer is choice – individual schools can push the boundaries because children can always go somewhere else. The answer of course is that they can’t always go elsewhere – there is a growing shortage of places and outside the big cities there is often no practical choice. The early comprehensives offered variety in one institution by often being huge. We no longer see that as the answer and we’ve replaced it by the notion of choice between schools. But schools do need to understand that not all pupils will go to them because they buy 100% into their beliefs – there are other drivers like not travelling, staying with friends and (a real issue in Hammersmith) not being Christian so not actually having much choice. Just as faith schools ought to take account of unbelievers, so should the pedagogically pure.


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