More nostalgia for selection – and why it’s wrong

Yet another rose-tinted attempt to argue a case for grammar schools has appeared on the Independent’s blog site (http://blogs.independent.co.uk/2013/04/10/grammar-schools-are-the-key-to-social-mobility/).  Rohan Banerjee, a former pupil of a Ramsgate grammar school seeks to peddle the old myth that “grammar schools are the key to social mobility”. His argument derives it would seem from his romanticised memories (“as I strolled over the green grass of the playing fields”) together with the usual attempt to argue by anecdote and example.

The school is not named in the article but there is only one grammar school offering places for boys in Ramsgate. That school in 2012 had 4% of pupils in receipt of free school meals. The girls’ grammar school had a whole 9%. The secondary modern school had 42% of pupils on free meals and the so called comprehensive 55%. Not a lot of evidence of social mobility there. The comprehensive has failed Ofsted inspections twice in recent years. So a few selected pupils may be having a good time but Ramsgate’s school system as a whole is clearly far from healthy.

The nearest the article comes to using evidence is to cherry pick a few examples of grammar schools that send a lot of pupils to Russell Group universities. Interestingly no Kent grammar schools are among the examples. When you look at some evidence, that probably isn’t surprising.

In 2012, Kent schools sent 8% of their students to a Russell Group university (including Oxbridge). Below the national average which is 9%. The same as comprehensive Surrey, Brighton and Oxfordshire and less than comprehensive Hampshire. And, ok, slightly more than East and West Sussex. But absolutely no evidence that grammar schools are doing something that comprehensives can’t and don’t do.

It ought to be pretty obvious that an individual comprehensive is unlikely to match an individual grammar school – schools with the whole range of ability won’t have as many high flyers. But looking at the system as a whole it’s entirely clear that comprehensives can and do deliver in all kinds of circumstances  – Russell group entries in Durham, Gateshead, Newcastle, Hartlepool and Stockton are all pretty similar to Kent.

Perhaps the most extraordinary admission in the article is that the author actually failed his 11+. What his grounds for appeal were is unknown. This fact seems to persuade him that the 11+ system is both inefficient and unfair but he still hankers after selection. Quite how this would be achieved without an 11+ is never explained.

That’s really the biggest problem with the article. It’s based on romantic nostalgia – “I stood in the impressive oak-beamed dining hall once more, admiring the honours boards and Oxbridge scholarships that hung proudly on the walls”. But trying to turn that into a policy requires believing a whole series of unproven assertions (“an academic rapture saves 20 per cent of pupils”).

We are told that “I cannot ignore the obvious benefits of realising a student’s potential”. No one would argue with that. But it is very obvious once you look at the evidence that this is exactly what a selective system doesn’t do.

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