This is Part Two of a post examining fair access to selective education for gifted learners from disadvantaged backgrounds in England.
Part One brought us up-to-date with recent policy developments in fair access to competitive universities and reviewed different analyses of the most recent data.
In Part Two, I want to consider fair access to grammar schools and to explore what can be learned from a comparison with the parallel issue in higher education.
This will include an element of data analysis and some proposals for how selective fair access might be improved in the current educational policy environment. The proposals are my response to a challenge issued in the Fabian Society’s Next Left Blog to offer solutions to ‘the challenges of educational inequality’.
This post is not concerned directly with the question whether the outcomes of selective education are better or worse than those of comprehensive education.
Those wishing to know more about this are strongly encouraged to read ‘Evidence on the effects of selective education systems‘ an October 2008 report for the Sutton Trust by the CEM Centre at the University of Durham
I have drawn on this study for the historical and data-related sections of my post and commend it strongly, apart from one aspect which I address below.
A Brief History of English Selective Education
The selective dimension of the English school system polarises opinion and – if we were to mix metaphors for effect – has recently been a hot potato which most politicians have handled with kid gloves for fear of stepping into a minefield.
Potentially it could be almost as toxic for the Conservative-Liberal Coalition as higher education student finance is proving to be, though that is compounded by the decision of some Liberals to jettison their pre-election pledges,
In the early part of last century, a selective grammar school sector became established as an alternative to fee-paying public schools for the wealthy and state-run elementary schools which provided a free but basic education for the working class
Grammar schools concentrated on achievement of the School Certificate, so providing an access route to higher education and the professions. Scholarships to grammar schools began to provide a ladder of social mobility for a few children from poor backgrounds.
The landmark 1944 Education Act sought to establish a tripartite system of 11-18 grammar schools for those with academic ability, technical schools for those with technical aptitude and non-selective 11-15 secondary modern schools with a vocational slant.
In the event, few technical schools were opened, though the concept has recently re-emerged in the guise of university technical colleges . This new incarnation is non-selective however, intended for 14-19 year-olds and must be sponsored by a university or further education college.
Entrance to grammar school depends on success in an ‘eleven-plus’ (11+) examination, originally planned to select some 25% of the school population. The sector grew rapidly in the post-war years and, by the mid-1960s, there were over 1,000 grammar schools in England and Wales.
But at this point, the Labour Government issued a Circular (10/65) advising all local authorities to plan for comprehensive secondary education. In 1970, the Conservative Government responded with Circular (10/70) which explicitly confirmed that authorities could provide education through a combination of grammar, secondary modern and all-ability comprehensive schools rather than removing selection entirely.
Then Labour returned to power, but although Circular 4/74 reinforced the original approach of 10/65, the new tripartite arrangement of secondary modern, comprehensive and grammar schools now established in many authorities was accepted as the status quo.
The expansion of comprehensive education relative to grammar schools meant that, by 1980, some 80% of 11-16 year-olds were educated in comprehensive schools and 5% in all-through grammar schools, though a further 5% were in former grammar schools that were still phasing in comprehensive arrangements.
To give two personal examples of the kinds of transition involved:
In the 1970s I entered a three form entry (90 pupils a year) selective boys’ grammar school which became a six form entry boys’ comprehensive as I entered the sixth form (now known as Year 12);
In the early 1980s I taught in a co-educational comprehensive which had previously been a girls’ grammar school. This was particularly challenging because Year 9 and below were coeducational and comprehensive while Year 10 and above were single-sex and selective.
In 1992, specialist secondary schools were introduced which could select up to 10% of their intake according to their aptitude for the relevant specialism. There were various not very convincing attempts during the years that followed to establish a clear distinction between selection by aptitude and selection by ability so as to justify why one was acceptable while the other was not.
The 1997 Labour Government were urged in opposition to abolish selective schools, but instead introduced legislation to permit the remaining grammar schools to become comprehensive following a parental ballot. Only one such ballot has ever been called and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it came out in favour of continued selection.
While the Conservatives where in opposition, the case for expanding selective education was made regularly by the Party’s right wing. This continues now that they are part of the governing Coalition: Ann Widdecombe has most recently articulated this perspective.
But official Conservative policy during the last Labour Government was that there will be no increase in the number of selective secondary schools. This is also the official policy of the Coalition Government.
The legislation permitting the introduction of free schools provides that they must be non-selective and, while grammar schools are eligible to convert to academies and can retain their selective admissions criteria, no other academies may introduce selection.
The Coalition supports admissions by ‘fair banding’ in cases where school places are oversubscribed. Fair banding involves all students taking an admissions test after which they are allocated to one of several ability bands. The school then admits broadly the same proportion of pupils from each ability band. This mechanism is intended to increase the proportion of poor pupils in the best comprehensive schools, but it is logically hard to justify introducing selection by ability in this context while refusing to introduce it in others where it does not already exist.
There is continuing speculation that the Coalition will allow existing grammar schools to expand, increasing the number of places they offer, opening new premises and even creating new ‘satellite schools’.
- We know from the November 2011 Schools White Paper – analysed in an earlier post – that the School Admissions Code is to be revised and simplified by July 2011 and, presumably prior to revision, there will be consultation on whether academies and free schools can prioritise admission of children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
What Does Fair Access Mean in Schools?
The schools sector provides quite a different context for fair access and a different definition of the term.
The context is dictated by school admissions, which are governed by the current edition of the statutory School Admissions Code. The original version of the Code points out that:
‘The Education and Inspection Act (EIA) 2006 requires local authorities to promote fair access to educational opportunity, promote high standards and the fulfilment by every child of his educational potential, secure choice and diversity and respond to parental representations.’
It goes on to explain what constitutes fair access:
‘Admission authorities and governing bodies must ensure that their admission arrangements and other school policies are fair and do not unfairly disadvantage, either directly or indirectly, a child from a particular social or racial group, or a child with a disability or special educational needs… Admission authorities must also ensure that their admission arrangements comply with all other relevant equalities legislation… Admission authorities and governing bodies should develop and implement admission arrangements, practices and oversubscription criteria that actively promote equity, and thus go further than simply ensuring that unfair practices and criteria are excluded…
All governing bodies must ensure that their other policies and practices do not unfairly disadvantage certain social groups or discourage some groups of parents from seeking a place at the school for their child. Local authorities must work with all governing bodies to ensure that admission arrangements which appear fair are not then undermined by other school policies, such as a requirement for expensive school uniform, sportswear or expensive school visits or other activities, unless arrangements are put in place to ensure that parents on low incomes can afford them. Governing bodies of schools which are their own admission authority need to address this too.’
These important statutory requirements should be borne in mind as we focus below on fair access to grammar schools, but the Code also has specific provisions relating to selection:
‘Like all other maintained schools, the admission authorities for designated grammar schools are required to act in accordance with this code. Grammar schools are permitted to select children on the basis of high academic ability, and to leave places unfilled if they have insufficient applicants of the required standard. Most assess ability by means of a test, but they may apply any fair and objective means of assessing ability they consider appropriate…
Methods of allocating places for oversubscribed grammar schools vary. Some admission authorities allocate available places in rank order of performance in the entrance test; admission authorities for these schools must not give priority to siblings …Others set a pass mark and then apply other oversubscription criteria to determine which of the candidates who have passed will be offered a place; admission authorities for these schools may use any permitted oversubscription criteria. Grammar schools must not use oversubscription criteria prohibited by this Code.’
In relation to banding the Code says:
‘Banding, like other oversubscription criteria, only operates when the number of applications exceeds the number of places. Schools which use banding must not apply another test of ability once applicants are allocated to bands; they must not give priority within bands according to performance in the test. The admission authority must apply its other oversubscription criteria (such as random allocation) to each band to allocate places….
Pupil ability banding is used by some admission authorities to ensure that their intake includes a proportionate spread of children of different abilities. Banding arrangements are effective practice in schools providing fair oversubscription criteria, provided arrangements are fair, objective and not used as a means of unlawfully admitting a disproportionate number of high ability children.’
Grammar Schools Today
There are 164 maintained selective grammar schools in England. This figure is unchanged since 1999. Three-quarters of local authorities are fully comprehensive, but there is at least one grammar school in thirty-six authorities.
Thirty-three grammar schools are in a single large local authority – Kent – and there are more than ten apiece in Buckinghamshire and Lincolnshire. Seven London authorities retain selection, accounting for 19 grammar schools between them.
As a consequence of this uneven distribution – as well as the incidence of admission across local authority boundaries – the percentage of learners within authorities retaining selective education is highly variable. In 2006, over 40% of pupils resident in Slough, Buckinghamshire and Trafford were attending grammar schools, but less than 5% of pupils resident in Devon, Cumbria, Liverpool, Essex and Wolverhampton were doing so.
At that time some 20% of those attending grammar schools crossed a local authority border to do so. The proportion will be significantly higher in urban areas like London which is divided into several small local authorities.
Because the incidence of selective schools is uneven, the level of selection for particular schools will differ widely, depending on the ratio between the number of applicants and the number of places. In other words, some schools are much more selective than others. It follows that grammar schools are a relatively broad church.
Data on Fair Access to Grammar Schools Over Time
The key data pertaining to fair access gives the incidence of pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) our standard – if rather imperfect – indicator of pupil disadvantage.
This first table – FSM at grammar school 1995-2009 – is not as reliable as I would like. It has been constructed from several different replies to Parliamentary Questions and the assumptions underpinning the data for different years are not always entirely consistent.
Nevertheless, the table is sufficiently accurate to illustrate two key points:
Over the last 15 years, the percentage of FSM-eligible pupils at grammar schools has continued to fall. Indeed, at around 2.0% it is almost exactly half what it was in 1995.
Over the same period, FSM eligibility has declined much less significantly across all secondary schools, suggesting that grammar schools are becoming significantly more socially selective relative to all schools.
This supports the argument advanced by the Conservative Opposition in May 2007 when justifying why they would no longer call for an expansion of grammar schools. The Shadow Minister stated that ‘the 11-plus entrenches advantage’, adding ‘we must break free from the belief that academic selection is any longer the way to transform the life chances of bright poor kids’.
It is important to note in this context that grammar schools are not necessarily the most socially selective schools: we know from the Sutton Trust study that just 17 of the 100 schools with the lowest FSM-eligible intakes at that time were grammar schools.
This is partly because grammar school pupils tend to come from areas with a significantly lower than average rate of FSM eligibility. However it is clear that academic selection does not necessarily imply greater social selection.
Indeed, there need not be any significant correlation between academic selection and social selection.
The Sutton Trust study asserts that ability is correlated with socio-economic background though without supplying evidence to support that claim. While achievement and attainment certainly are correlated with socio-economic background, an equivalent correlation with ability is much more doubtful.
Indeed, the Government’s own gifted and talented policy was and remains predicated on the assumption that ability is evenly distributed by gender, ethnicity and socio-economic background, and schools are expected to recruit gifted and talented populations that broadly reflected their intake.
The Sutton Trust study has wrongly assumed that ability is the same as attainment/achievement whereas it is quite different.
Comparing Fair Access in Different Grammar Schools
This second table – FSM by grammar school March 2010 – is also from a PQ answer and shows the full extent of variation in the FSM-eligible populations of different grammar schools.
One can see that 20 of the 164 grammar schools (12.2%) have less than five FSM-eligible pupils in the entire school.
In the remaining 144 schools, the rate varies from 0.5% (St Ambrose College Trafford) to 10.9% (Stretford Grammar School in the same Borough).
Altogether, over 90 of the schools (some 56%) have a FSM-eligible population below the average 2.0%.
There is significant variation between grammar schools in the same local authority. In Kent, the range is from 5.2% to negligible (less than 5); in Birmingham the range is from 9.7% to 1.6%; and we have already noted the example of Trafford.
The pattern in London boroughs is also interesting. Only one of the schools with fewer than 5 FSM-eligible pupils is in London, but the highest incidence is just 3.8%, whereas secondary-level FSM eligibility across all Greater London boroughs is running at 23%, six times higher than in its grammar schools.
While the situation is variable there is sufficient evidence to show that, far from being engines of social mobility, most grammar schools have become quite the opposite.
Comparing Fair Access in Schools and Universities
What can we learn from a comparison between fair access in schools and higher education – and is there scope for applying some of the solutions adopted in the latter to the former?
It is clear that, whereas fair access to higher education is seen as central to Government policy on social mobility – having been brought to the fore by the intense debate over student finance – fair access to schools is currently less prominent, and fair access to grammar schools is not overtly on the Government’s agenda.
The planned revisions to the school admissions code may serve to raise its profile, as will the commitment to consult on options for free schools and academies to give priority in their admissions criteria to FSM-eligible learners.
It is not yet clear whether the Government intends to make this a ‘non-negotiable’ as part of its commitment to promoting social mobility. For it could choose to introduce a parallel requirement to that which requires schools to give admissions priority to children in care.
It may be left as an option for consideration, should free schools need to demonstrate that they are not middle class enclaves (as many of their opponents suggest they are) or should academies and free schools be attracted by the opportunity to earn more of the Pupil Premium, particularly as it increases beyond its initial level of £430 per pupil per annum.
Going back to comparison, one can see that, whereas in HE the narrative is about removing barriers that already exist, the current focus in the schools sector is very much on maintaining a level playing field: apart from the promised consultation, there is no active policy to address imbalances in school intakes.
If one wished to be more interventionist, one might argue that there is scope to introduce an ‘office for fair access’ to schools and a requirement for schools to conclude an access agreement with that office showing how they will:
increase the proportion of FSM-eligible learners in their intake so it is comparable with similar schools and/or reflects the rate of FSM eligibility in the locality
undertake outreach to explain to primary school parents that there are no obstacles to their FSM-eligible children’s attendance
offer tasters, summer schools, mentoring and other provision to make their schools attractive to such children and their parents
provide information, advice and guidance to clarify the processes involved in attending their school
ensure that none of their policies and practice – for example requiring expensive school uniforms and equipment – are inhibitors to the attendance of FSM-eligible learners and
in line with the planned consultation, possibly adjust their admissions requirements to give priority to FSM-eligible children (or definitely do so if the Government opts to make this a requirement)
One could even contemplate a National Scholarships Scheme for schools, to help parents meet the not inconsiderable costs associated with attending many grammar schools (and arguably maintained in part to create a sense of exclusiveness and so a barrier to access for the poor, despite the clear provisions of the Admissions Code which prohibit this).
It would help if the office and the scholarships were centrally co-ordinated but, unfortunately, the Government’s insistence on devolving funding to schools to use autonomously rather militates against such central solutions. A shame, for they would undoubtedly secure financial efficiencies and economies of scale more than equivalent to the necessary outlay on administrative bureaucracy.
Fair Access to Grammar Schools: a modest proposal
The operation of ‘fair access’ in a selective context – whether a university or a school -brings us back to a leitmotif of this blog: the balance between excellence and equity and how it should be maintained.
Loyal readers will recall that I presented this as one of the underpinning themes in gifted and talented education worldwide – and it applies in spades to this discussion.
The data shows that there is a worrying imbalance between excellence and equity in a significant proportion of grammar schools – equally as severe as that which exists in some selective universities – and this really needs to be addressed if the Government is serious about social mobility.
How might one translate some of the suggested responsibilities of an ‘office for fair access to schools’ into a meaningful policy proposal?
Here is some back-of-the-envelope policy-making which I offer for consideration by the Next Left Blog:
Many of the outstanding and good-to-outstanding schools that are responding to the Government’s invitation to become academies are grammar schools (some 70 at the last count).
It could be made a condition of funding for these schools, captured in their funding agreements, that they should negotiate and work towards explicit targets for improving their FSM-eligible intake to the average level of FSM eligibility across the local authorities from which they recruit
They will need to address this through a SMART action plan which sets out and costs all the activity they will undertake to secure this – and how it will be evaluated.
In addition to the ‘office for fair access’ responsibilities above, they will also need to evaluate closely their 11+ selection arrangements to ensure that they are as little biased against those from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds and as little coachable as possible. The Government could even go as far as researching and introducing a standard suite of 11+ tools that fit this description.
In the case of all grammar schools, the requirement on outstanding schools converting to academy status to provide support to neighbouring schools should be fulfilled through relationships with the maintained primary schools with the highest rates of FSM eligibility in their locality. Collaboration should be focused explicitly on the ‘office for fair access’ tasks, concentrated on outreach, advice and support for parents and learners, to raise aspirations and demystify the process by which the learners gain access to the schools concerned.
Through this outreach, all grammar schools should ensure that all FSM-eligible learners with the capability to enter them receive the same degree of familiarisation and practice with their 11+ selection tests as wealthier parents can acquire from private tutors (often paying over £25 per week for the privilege).
In return, schools will earn an increased share of the Pupil Premium for every FSM-eligible child they admit. This will be significant given that the income for many from this source is currently negligible – almost non-existent. This should be sufficient to meet the costs of outreach and provide in-school support for FSM-eligible learners once admitted.
Grammar schools which made good progress on this agenda might be allowed to expand by increasing their intake and even by opening satellite schools but this would subject to the condition that at least 50% of the new places are reserved for FSM-eligible learners who pass the 11+. This would further increase the Pupil Premium funding available to the schools
Ideally, the schools would form a national network to spread best practice between them and to pool resources where necessary, in the absence of national co-ordination by Government. Pupil Premium income might need to be topsliced for this purpose.
This still has several rough edges but, in principle, it provides a basis for grammar schools to once again become true engines of social mobility. Such a transformation would go a long way towards making them more politically acceptable, while also ensuring that grammar school academies continue to supply commensurate support to the maintained sector in their neighbourhoods.
It should attract the support of the Right Wing Conservatives and the more pragmatic of the Labour Opposition. For the abolition of selection will never happen. We must work together to restore grammar schools to their proper role as powerhouses of social mobility, rather than colluding in their continuation as guardians of elite education for the middle classes – a kind of independent education on the cheap.