Selection a live issue again

Suddenly selection is once again a live issue in the education debate once again. We’ve seen the devious use of the new Admissions Code to enable Kent to propose effectively a new grammar school in Sevenoaks. We’ve seen the BBC put out a quite extraordinarily one sided history of the grammar school – we still await of course the history of the secondary modern. Only this week 100 Tory MPs turned out at the parliamentary “Friends of Grammar Schools” reception – including Michael Gove.

We’re often told that there are “only” 164 grammar schools, so why do we bother ourselves too much. To begin with of course that means maybe 500 secondary moderns – so maybe 20% of secondary schools are affected by formal selection processes. But this ignores the much greater number of covert grammar schools.

In 2006, about 25% of pupils got below Level 4 in their Key Stage 2 SATs. From the 2011 performance tables, we now know how they were distributed across the country’s secondary schools. There are no less than 560 secondary schools where, in 2011, less than 10% of the year 11 pupils achieved below Level 4. This includes such lauded “comprehensives” as Thomas Telford and London Oratory (both 1%). Interestingly, ignoring the genuine grammar schools, two thirds of these schools manage their own admissions – a far higher proportion than in the country as a whole at that time.

So we need to be very clear that overt selection is only the tip of the iceberg. Our system is actually riddled with selection, often without even an attempt at a fair testing process.

Now though, even the testing process has taken an unexpected hit by the rather tactless admission by Buckinghamshire County Council (a fully selective authority) that “in the application of any test (11+, CATs or SATs), we know that affluence is a factor, probably a stronger factor than ethnicity.”

So here we have a selective authority admitting openly that the selection process they use is known to be biased in favour of the wealthy. Actually, not only are they admitting it favours the wealthy, they’re admitting its biased in relation to ethnicity as well – just not quite as much!

Bizarrely this emerged because one secondary modern in Bucks was trying to use the 11+ test data to establish a banding system for admissions and to get itself a comprehensive intake. Buckinghamshire is apparently happy to use a biased and flawed test for its own grammar schools – but clearly any argument to stop a genuine comprehensive emerging is good enough. You have to hope that Bucks have good lawyers because someone surely will be looking at the legality of a system it admits itself is unfair.

Meanwhile the evidence that says selection, as well as being unfair, lowers achievement continues to mount. The OECD regularly makes the point that overall achievement is highest when schools have balanced intakes. It concluded recently that “increasing the social mix within schools appears to boost performance of disadvantaged students without any apparent negative effects on overall performance”.

For those who want to develop the case against selection further, there is now a brilliant new resource on the website of Comprehensive Future. It documents very fully the arguments, complete with very detailed academic references. It should be compulsory reading for everyone involved in educational policy making. It can be found at:


One Comment on “Selection a live issue again”

  1. trevor fisher says:

    the policy is clearly political, and contradicts tory policy at the last general election. The commitment was to comprehensive education – albeit in the academy free school version – and the reaction to Ed Balls indicating this was not so was to call him a liar. The relevant statement was made by the DFE so was probably after the coalition formed. Worth contacting Balls to get a statement from him, since Labour has not said anything since Twigg’s initial and welcome reactions.

    Debate while interesting is not the issue, the fact is that the return to the eleven plus is political. We won the argument fifty years ago.

    I understand there may be a legal challenge. This I would support, but I am not a lawyer. It is the politics that need to be developed. In this context the high moral ground of broken promises by the coalition is key, particularly questioning the lib dems. Do they support this? Do they have any position?

    It is vital not to be drawn into manipulating the admissions code to reverse this. THat concedes that Gove had the power to do this. We should deny that he had any such moral right (legal may be something else). But it is clearly the case that the tories went to the public on a no return to the eleven plus promise, and this has been broken.

    Politics first!

    Trevor FIsher.