18,000 secondary pupils go missing – in one year!

Martin Johnson writes:

The Education Datalab study of mobile secondary pupils, featured in the TES on 13/11/15, contains a particularly startling statistic. Of the 74,000 pupils in England who left a secondary school before school leaving age, ‘around 18,000’ did not turn up at another school or other provision. Yes, that’s right, 18,000 pupils from a single year group disappeared during their secondary years. The researcher Becky Allen writes ‘We do not know about pupils who emigrate or, sadly, die.’ She does not estimate the likelihood that most or all of the 18,000 are in those two categories, but in the whole UK in 2012 just 340 children aged 10-14 (ie 5 year groups) died.

Many people, including Dr Allen, have heard anecdotes of schools ‘losing’ pupils who would damage their GCSE scores. She writes, ‘Apocryphal tales of parents being ‘encouraged’ to take their children off-roll and educate them at home are widespread.’ This phenomenon is of course almost impossible to research; instead Dr Allen proposes a disincentive for such behaviour in the form of a new method for scoring GCSE outcomes, by weighting the results for time-served in the school. The GCSE points for a pupil who was at school A for 9 terms before moving to school B for 6 terms would be ascribed 9/15 to A and 6/15 to B. There may be many pros and cons to that idea, but using that method would result in six schools, all academies and five of them in London, scoring at least 10% lower on GCSE than the current method.

The key point to take away from this study is not how to tweak the accountability measures to reduce the attractiveness of ‘encourage to leave’ (a term used, by the way, in a school where I taught in the early seventies when the leaving age was 15). No, the real message is that the drop-out rate from our secondary schools is 18,000 pupils a year, undoubtedly incentivised by the accountability system. These are 18,000 highly vulnerable youngsters. Do we care? More, does the government care?

How strong is the support for grammar schools?

I recently attended a discussion on grammar schools at which a speaker quite rightly said that the issue of selective education is one that “has to be won in the court of public opinion”. He added in the same spirit that “It is not enough to bully a couple of Shadow Ministers into saying something on the matter”.

Later the same speaker said “all the polling, even when when you ask the question ‘would you support 25% of people going to grammar schools and 75% going to secondary modern schools? all the polling says ‘absolutely, we support it’ by about two to one”.

Well, I have seen the polling too and I am unconvinced. Seasoned poll-watchers may well feel that there is not much about most polls, especially educational ones, that can be regarded as “incontrovertible”.

I guess that the reference was to the YouGov poll on grammar schools carried out for The Times by YouGov in November 2014. The Times headline to an article reporting the poll results was “Parents say yes to more grammar schools”.

But is this interpretation really “incontrovertible”? Certainly Janet Downes did not think so in her comment on the Local Schools Network where her piece on the subject carried the heading “Only 38% would support building new grammars, says latest YouGov poll”. The basis for such diverse interpretations merits examination.

The polling questions, put to 1890 people, were framed with the statement “Thinking about grammar schools and schools that select pupils by ability, which of the following best reflects your views?”

The options which followed, along with the percentage in favour of each, were

The government should encourage more schools to select by academic ability and build more grammar schools


The government should retain the existing grammar schools, but should not allow more selective schools or new grammar schools to be built


The government should stop schools selecting by academic ability and the existing grammar schools should be opened to children of all abilities


Not sure


The Times presented this a parents supporting grammar schools but Janet Downes was also justified in presenting it as 46% against grammar school extensions compared to 36% in favour. While I do not question the idea that the arguments over grammar schools have to be won in the court of public opinion I take some comfort from this result which was obtained in the absence of any Labour Party leadership on the issue.

Also a more thorough poll might have investigated the illogicality of being against grammar school expansion but not in favour of ending existing selection.

The break-down of the results by age is interesting. In the age groups 18-24, 25-59, 40-59, 60+ there was increasing support for grammars by age reaching the highest value in the 60+ age group i.e. the group most likely to have been to grammar school. Thus in answer to the first question support fell to 29% in the 18-24 age group and rose to 51% in the 60+ group. It is also interesting that support for new grammar schools among UKIP (the only Party without outright support for the policy) voters was only 46%.

We also need to study how views change in time. This is, of course, difficult in the absence of systematic polling on a common basis. However, it is interesting that the poll carried out for National Grammar School Association in July 2007 seems to show stronger support for grammar schools than the Times poll of 2014. The question on support for grammar schools was framed with “Most State secondary schools in Britain today are comprehensive but a few counties in Britain still have grammar schools where entrance is through the eleven plus exam. Please click on the option below which most closely describes your views about grammar schools and the eleven plus” the following results were obtained

I think that all secondary schools should be comprehensive with no grammar schools


I think that all secondary school aged children who wish to should be able to go to grammar school if they pass an exam


Don’t know


When asked “And would you support or oppose the creation of new Grammar Schools in areas that do not currently have any?” 60% said “yes”, 18% said “no” and 22% were don’t knows.

Both polls were conducted (1) against a background of a long-term continuous barrage of anti-comprehensive, pro-grammar propaganda in the media and (2) in the absence of any serious effort by the Labour Party to explain the success of comprehensive schools and the harmful effect of grammar schools on the education system as a whole.

It is also worth noting that a YouGov poll reported in Prospect Magazine in February 2013 recorded 83% of primary schools parent and 77% of secondary school parents agreeing with the proposition “Our local state schools generally provide a good quality education”.

The battle for public opinion has indeed to be fought and won but the results of the above polls and others show, I believe, that there is every reason to believe that a clear majority of the electorate is ready to listen to the case the case for good quality comprehensive schooling. The arguments are there in plenty. The research has been done. The key to success is now that the Labour Party decides on whole hearted support for a fully comprehensive education system. This argument for this needs to be raised at every opportunity and level in the Party so that the Shadow Education Secretary is clear as to what Party member members want and so that corresponding policies are adopted through the Parties decision making procedures.

Education and Inequality – a key theme of the Reclaiming Education Conference 14th November

Richard Wilkinson, co-author of the Spirit Level will be developing the ideas in this blog at the Reclaiming Education Conference on 14th November in London. Book for this conference at http://www.reclaimingeducation.org.uk/

In terms of life expectancy, mental health, the educational performance of school children, child wellbeing, levels of violence, social mobility, drug abuse, teenage births and imprisonment, people in countries with bigger income differences between rich and poor do worse. Although greater inequality has its most severe effects on the least well off, even well educated people with good jobs do less well in countries with bigger income differences.

Children’s educational performance is strongly influenced by their home back ground. Compared to children in more equal countries, average standards of child wellbeing are lower across a wide range of measures among children in more unequal countries. Greater inequality adds to the stresses of family life and damages family relationships. As a result it affects children’s early cognitive development, even before they are old enough to start school.

When at school children in more unequal countries experience much more bullying, and data for the 50 states of the USA shows that children in states with bigger income differences between rich and poor are much more likely to drop out of high school. International assessments show that children in more unequal countries have lower overall scores in maths and literacy tests. They also show that the differences in levels of achievement between children from richer and poorer backgrounds, tends to be larger in more unequal societies.

Psychological experiments show that when children are made more aware of social status differences, the performance of children from poorer backgrounds drops substantially.

Lastly, social mobility is lower in more unequal countries: social status becomes more important and it becomes harder to move up the social ladder.

Research is gradually revealing the reasons for these patterns. As well as showing the basic data, this lecture will also suggest the social processes behind them.

For a full report on education and inequality, see: K Pickett, L Vanderbloemen, Mind the Gap: Tackling Social and Educational Inequality. York: Cambridge Primary Review Trust. 2015.
Download from: http://cprtrust.org.uk/research/equity-and-disadvantage/

Four big education campaign events in November

November is a busy month for everyone interested in building resistance to the massively damaging education policies of this government. It sees four events, all of which will in different ways provide the opportunity to debate the current state of education and options for the future.

Where events can be booked in advance, please do reserve your place – if only to calm the nerves of the event organisers!

These events are:

1. SEA Members meeting at 2.00 pm on Saturday 7th November in room BO3, 43 Gordon Square, WC1H OPD. All SEA members are welcome. Among the topics for debate will be

• school admissions and how schools manipulate them with Richy Thompson of the British Humanist Association
• the Education Bill currently before Parliament which is designed to greatly increase the number of schools forced to become academies
• current proposals for so called extensions to Grammar School.

No booking needed – just come along.

2. The Caroline Benn Memorial Lecture to be given by Professor Susan Robertson of Bristol University. This year’s lecture will have an international perspective. It will look at why it is that education is not making the contribution that we would hope for towards more equal and democratic societies worldwide.

It will take place in Committee Room 14 at the House of Commons at 6.00 pm on Tuesday 10th November. It’s a free event but, if you haven’t already, please book a place by e mailing socialisteducation@virginmedia.com.

3. Reclaiming Education’s Annual Conference on Saturday 14th November at the NUT building, Hamilton House Mabledon Place, London WC1H 9BD beginning at 10.30. Richard Wilkinson, joint author of the acclaimed book “The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone” will introduce the conference’s key theme – how inequality undermines education. He will be followed by speakers and debate on all aspects of the current education scene including early years, inclusion, schools, further education and local authorities.

Online booking is now available at http://www.ticketsource.co.uk/date/181569. Tickets cost £27.50 (£30.00 on the door).

Reclaiming Education is an alliance of education campaigns in which SEA plays an active part.

You can find out more about Reclaiming Education and the conference at http://www.reclaimingeducation.org.uk/

4. Comprehensive Future’s annual conference and AGM is on Saturday 21st November. It’s at the Abbey Community Centre, 34 Great Smith Street, SW1P 3BU and costs £10 including lunch.

The aim of this conference is to bring together those across the country who share concerns about selection at 11 and the growing problem of unfair school admissions and want to do something about it. In the light of the decision on the Kent Grammar School extension. this issue is more important than ever.

Book on line at https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/date/185434

Kent Grammar School decision will make our society less equal and more divided.

Today it’s been announced that the first new grammar school in a long time is to be opened in Kent. It’s using a loophole in the law by claiming that it’s really an expansion of an existing school – even though they’re nine miles apart. Apparently, in order to prove it’s one school, kids will have to be bussed backwards and forwards.

This is being presented as an unusual one off event which doesn’t mean Tory policy is changing. According to Nicky Morgan “”I don’t want to fight the battles of selective and non-selective… This is one particular application with one particular set of circumstances. Why would I deny a good school the right to expand?”

But in fact it’s clear that this will not be a one off. The Guardian is already reporting that “The government’s controversial decision to approve the first selective school in 50 years looks set to prompt a series of similar applications for “satellite” developments to existing grammar schools.”

Buckinghamshire looks like being first in the queue with a plan cooked up with Tories in Windsor and Maidenhead to open a new school – sorry, an extension – in an authority where currently all the schools are comprehensive.

What is now clear is that on this issue, as on many others, the reactionary wing of the Tory party is increasingly calling the shots and Cameron is too weak to stop them. Back in 2007, David Willetts, then Tory shadow minister said “We must break free from the belief that academic selection is any longer the way to transform the life chances of bright poor kids … there is overwhelming evidence that such academic selection entrenches advantage, it does not spread it”. Almost certainly today’s decision is not one that Michael Gove would have made. For all his faults, he did believe that education needs to work for all children. In the modern world it can’t be about just selecting out a minority of pupils for favoured treatment.

Sadly this decision may have been caught up in the Tory leadership campaign which looks like running for the next four years. However improbable it may seem, apparently Nicky Morgan thinks she has a chance. Certainly Theresa May, who is involved in the Windsor and Maidenhead proposal, thinks she does. Both it seems are using this issue to appeal to the Tory grass roots – or at least to what is left of them.

Grammar schools of course are defended as engines of social mobility. The myth of the poor bright child rescued by a grammar school education is pervasive. But it’s also completely wrong. And it always was wrong.

Back in the so-called golden age of grammar schools, there was plenty of research showing how, even if kids from working class backgrounds got to grammar school, there were lots of ways in which schools failed those children. More recently Selina Todd devoted her Caroline Benn Memorial Lecture for the SEA to debunking the myth of the grammar school (https://socedassoc.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/cbml_2014.pdf).

The reality now is that working class children don’t get to grammar school. Even where two children have the same key stage 2 results, the middle class child is far more likely to get to grammar school. The numbers of children on free meals at grammar schools is pitiful. Grammar schools are dominated by those with private tutors and even those from independent primary schools. So this decision will do nothing for social mobility – actually it will reduce the opportunities for poor children by lowering academic standards in the schools they do go to.

This is of course becoming the standard approach of this government. It talks the talk, as Cameron did in his conference speech. But what it does is quite different whether you’re talking about tax credits, social housing, devolution, the NHS and now schooling.

But the left can’t be complacent on this issue. The evidence may be on our side but too many people haven’t heard it and believe that selection will make things better. Back in February YouGov asked a question to two different samples. Half were asked if they’d like to bring back grammar schools across the whole of Great Britain – 53% said yes, 20% said no. The other half were asked if they’d like to bring back the system of an exam at 11, with 25% of children who passed going to grammar schools and the other 75% going to secondary moderns. Now 46% of people supported it, 34% of people were opposed.

This needs to be a wake-up call. The international evidence about what kind of system works best is clear. It’s clear too that selective education consolidates class advantage rather than challenging it. As Michael Wilshaw said “grammar schools are stuffed full of middle-class kids. A tiny percentage are on free school meals: 3%. That is a nonsense. Anyone who thinks grammar schools are going to increase social mobility needs to look at those figures. I don’t think they work.”

Maybe this decision will provoke a reaction and will force the issue out into the open. This decision needs to be fought not just in the courts but in every possible forum or we will find ourselves once more entrenching privilege and wasting talent – we can afford to do neither.

British Humanist Association exposes the scandal of school admissions.

School admissions are one of the great “under the counter” scandals of our society. We’ve created massive incentives in the system for schools to get an intake that is likely to be high achieving and not likely to present extra challenges. Then we’ve allowed increasing numbers of schools to manage their own admissions. Not surprisingly the result is an increasingly segregated system by class, religion and ethnicity.

Yet this goes virtually unchallenged. Essentially this is the result of an unspoken deal between the socially and religiously selective schools and the people who benefit from the system. So Michael Gove was unlikely to take on Greycoat’s admissions practices which blatantly breached the admissions code because he (and David Cameron) benefited personally – getting brownie points for choosing a so-called comprehensive school while in practice getting into one of the most selective schools in the country.

The Fair Admissions campaign has done a fantastic job in identifying the level of segregation in our schools. At http://fairadmissions.org.uk/map/ you can see just how discriminatory our secondary schools are. Now the British Humanist Association has issued a major report unpicking just how religious schools manipulate their admissions. You can find the full report, appropriately entitled “An Unholy Mess” at http://fairadmissions.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/An-Unholy-Mess.pdf.

It explores in detail the admissions policies of a sample of religious (and not just Christian) schools. It found breaches of the code in almost every one. The campaign then went on to present objections to the Schools Adjudicator. It transpired that “the Adjudicator did not simply find breaches of the Code in every one of the schools we objected to; it invariably found further breaches beyond those that we had initially identified.”

The list of code breaches is very long but these are a few of the most significant:

• Widespread issues with clarity, fairness and objectivity
• Almost 90% of schools were found to be asking for information from parents that they did not need.
• A majority of schools were found not to be dealing properly with looked-after and previously looked-after children
• A quarter of schools were found not to make clear how children with statements of special educational needs were admitted
• Over a quarter of schools were found to be religiously selecting in ways not allowed in guidance from their religious authorities.
• Almost a fifth of schools were found to be requiring practical or financial support to associated organisations.

It would of course be only fair to point out that there are increasing numbers of highly segregated non- religious schools. The growth of academies and free schools is massively increasing the scale of the problem.

It is also worth saying that there are seriously questionable practices that are sadly permitted under the code – one of the most common is banding in relation to the applicants rather than against the profile of the local community.

But above all though, we need to be clear that this issue really matters. It matters to individuals – the report includes some personal testimonies and here is just one example: “I can’t understand how we can have three schools 0.4 miles away but due to religious discrimination we are unable to get in any. I now won’t be able to return to work as I can’t get my son to his school and me into work.” Mother, Surrey

But more than that it matters to our society as a whole. Professor Ted Cantle writes in the preface to the BHA report: “it seems to me that if we had to pick any one part of society that we wish to be a microcosm of our society as a whole, it is our schools – as it is through our schools that prejudices can be dispelled before they have a chance to develop and it is where tolerance and understanding should be inculcated. If our schools are not inclusive, our society cannot be.”

And Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the BHA writes: “Not only does the system provide schools with ample scope to act on the perverse incentive to admit only the most ‘promising’ children, it encourages and often forces parents to lie about their religion in order get their children into the local school. But perhaps worst of all, it defines those children by beliefs they are too young to confidently hold for themselves and then seeks to divide them on that basis.”

The time for more tinkering with the Admissions Code is surely over. At the very least we have to say that admission procedures for every school should be set and administered independently. School self- interest cannot be allowed to be the main driver of the system.

And even more fundamentally, we have to challenge the privileged position of religious schools. A multi (and no-) faith society should not allow itself to be divided in this way. These are schools overwhelmingly paid for by us all – there should be no right to discriminate and indoctrinate in any public school system.

The situation for Labour and the Left

John Dixon writes

1. Rank and file party members, with recently recruited new supporters, voted by a substantial majority for the platform Jeremy Corbyn had spoken up for in some dozens of meetings in the major towns of England. This platform marked a decisive opposition to government policies in almost all sectors.

2. It also represented a rejection of the platform that had led to a severe defeat of Labour candidates in the May elections. Thus in Scotland, once a Labour stronghold, Labour lost overwhelmingly – well over forty seats – with Alexander, organizer of the Labour campaign, going down to a straight-speaking young undergraduate.

3. Unfortunately for the Westminster party, the majority of MPs had been elected on that losing platform, two of the candidates for the leadership had been part of the front bench that backed it, and the remaining one explicitly put forward a more right-wing alternative. Thus, all except those MPs who had supported Corbyn were faced with a dilemma: the rank and file of the party were now rejecting the platform they’d been elected on and supporting a different strategy.

4. Equally, the new leader faced a similar dilemma when he returned to Westminster. He’d been elected on a new platform; most of the others on the old one. His decision was to recruit a shadow front bench from across the full range of MPs, a few from his own campaign team, and the majority from the other candidates teams. Evidently this decision accepted an unresolved tension. But the key question remains: will those who have accepted positions on the front bench treat the decision of the rank and file of their party with respect?

5. There’s probably no clear answer: we shall see. But meanwhile, what are the rights and duties of those members who voted for the new leader and his campaign team’s platform? I’m hoping that some of the answers that follow will get support from a large group of fellow members, and sympathisers.

6. Given the dilemma facing many MPs, it seems sensible to call for the party as a whole to unite on an anti-austerity platform, that is, to campaign in parliament and beyond to protect our country from two things: the savage cuts to social welfare budgets in every form (including the wages and working conditions of workers in those sectors), and equally the insidious ideological effort to expose public services (from the NHS on) to a market driven by global finance corporations.

7. This would be treated as an interim position, to promote a hard-hitting campaign by the PLP in Westminster, and beyond that through joint branch, union, and supporters actions in as many regions as possible.

8. Meanwhile, it seems sensible to call for informed discussion, from the branches up, and including area conferences, to take stock of the arguments for policies that involve radical change – and which have already attracted support from some tens of thousands of new members.

9. ‘Informed discussion’: make no mistake, every effort will be made – is being made already, relentlessly, every day – to undercut any such a possibility, with all the forces of the media oligarchs and the government deployed. Only the most well-designed, well-judged and strenuous efforts will ensure that mind-forged manacles aren’t clamped on it. Fortunately there are models close at hand: where else in the UK has a campaign recently had to face every trick of the media to blacken and oppose it? – answer, in Scotland. And the Scots, fortunately for us, are still showing how campaigning groups of very many kinds, and by no means all simply SNP, have formed. Details of that later (**).

10. But first, back to the LP national exec. They can make a start. As a young member in the 1950s, I can still remember the monthly booklet of facts and hard-hitting statistics put out by the Labour Research Department, as background for us members. The new social media make this more than a possibility – it’s a must.

11. ‘Discussion’ not ‘debate’: that effete institution, the House of Commons shows why the days of ‘debate’ are finished. But the Select Committees, at their best, show how power can be challenged to answer penetrating questions. Then comes a new opportunity, given by the Web: the chance for the rank and file to answer back – to learn to take part in a two-way exchange. This is the major breakthrough that’s needed.

12. Informed discussion takes time and has its own ground rules. Maybe these should be obvious to a party that aims to be democratic, cooperative, egalitarian, non-sexist, internationalist…? It’s about turn-taking, listening, treating others with respect, seeking to develop and strengthen what others are suggesting… (In our U3A branches we sometimes collectively make such principles explicit from the start: it takes very little time.)

(**) For a start, try the independent think tanks, Common Weal or The Reid Foundation, and for articles, Better Caledonia, Wings over Scotland, or National Collective. [Thanks to A & S Slimon for help here].
So over to you, my readers.


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