London (ViaNews) – Theresa May’s Conservative Government have re-ignited their stated wish to increase the number of grammar school places available to pupils in England and Wales.
A significant aim in their last manifesto, moves were put on the back burner as Brexit matters held sway in ministers’ minds. Now a pledge of £50 million to fund additional places in Britain’s 163 grammar schools has caused anger among school leaders, at a time when budgets are being squeezed in non-selective schools.
Grammar schools are controversial for many reasons. Many believe that selection, when most pupils are still aged just 10, is unfair, with late developers and summer born children placed at a disadvantage. Others feel that these institutions become enclaves for middle-class pupils whose parents simply wish to avoid paying fees for Independent education.
However, the Government’s position is that selective education improves social mobility. Damian Hinds, Education Secretary, said that he wanted ‘to make sure every family can access a good school,’ a statement that has annoyed many teachers with its implication that non-grammar schools do not provide good educational opportunities.
ITV News has also reported that the Government feels that increasing the number of grammar school places will lead to greater social mobility and increase the scope for parents to select the best educational opportunities for their children.
‘By creating new schools where they are needed most and helping all great schools to grow, we can give parents greater choice in looking at schools that are right for their family – and give children of all backgrounds access to a world-class education,’ stated Hinds.
However, recent research supports the criticism that grammar schools do not increase social mobility and their places tend to be filled by children from certain specific backgrounds. Durham University conducted a study into the educational achievement of nearly 550,000 children across England.
They discovered that children who qualify for the Pupil Premium – additional funding to address poverty-related needs – make up 14% of the school population nationally. But when just grammars are considered, this figure drops to only 2%. Pupils attending grammar schools were also found to be from wealthier backgrounds and less likely to have either special educational needs or speak English as a second language. The study also supported the theory that older pupils within a year group are more likely to succeed at the entry test for such schools.
Ethnically, pupils from Chinese, Indian and Pakistani backgrounds did relatively better than other groups in the 11+ test, the entry system pupils take early in their final year of primary school.
Claims that grammar schools provide better outcomes for pupils were also questioned in the report. Stephen Gorard is a professor at Durham’s School of Education. ‘The progress made by grammar school students is the same as progress made by equivalent children who do not go to grammar school, on average,’ he explained.
That is because, although generally, pupils at grammar schools achieve better grades at GCSE, the selection process means that they are higher ability pupils in any case, and the evidence of the Durham University study suggests that such pupils make similar progress wherever they are educated. Because of the demand for places, and the fact that appeal systems mean that additional children end up at the schools despite not passing the tests, classes are often much larger than the recommended 30 students at these selective schools.
Buckinghamshire is one of England’s few full grammar school counties. Here, unless parents opt out, all children take an 11+ examination at the very beginning of Year 6, their final year at primary school. The educational company NFER provided these tests for Buckinghamshire for many years. Their research indicated that coaching for the tests made a significant difference to performance. Private tuition for the tests can cost between £30 and £50 per hour (more in some cases) and the difference in performance is most notable after three years of coaching. Such a weekly commitment over so long a period is out of reach for many parents.
In addition, local primary schools in Buckinghamshire that remain under local authority control are forbidden from coaching pupils for the tests. However, surrounding Independent Schools have no such limitations placed upon them. Milton Keynes Prep School is just outside the Buckinghamshire catchment area but is Independent School that prepares pupils for the grammar school entrance tests. It begins training students from age seven and achieves a pass rate often in excess of 80%; the average for fee-paying schools in the area is over 70%. In maintained schools, where the preparation is limited to two short ‘practice’ papers taken towards the end of Year 5, the figure is closer to 20%.
The Government’s notion that grammar schools improve social mobility is challenged by a study undertaken by Oxford University’s Steve Strand in 2013. It found that the gap in achievement between those eligible for the pupil premium and those not was greater in Buckinghamshire than in other, non-selective, counties.
A part of this is down to the sense of failure young children feel if they do not pass the test. The feeling of having failed is hard to remove, and such pupils often enter secondary school with a negative outlook towards their education which only the very best schools can overcome.
The additional funding promised by the Government, amounting to £300000 per grammar school (enough to fund between seven and ten additional teachers per school) is to be targeted towards raising the numbers of disadvantaged pupils such schools can take. Given that these schools set selective examinations, for many school leaders it is hard to see how the money awarded to them can impact on the achievement of children taking the test while still in primary school.
Nick Brook is deputy general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. He said, on hearing the news of additional funding for grammar schools: ‘The Government cannot point to a single piece of evidence that shows strong educational benefit of this misguided policy.’
Meanwhile, political opponents have also had their say. Angela Rayner is Labour’s shadow education secretary. She declared: ‘Once again, the Government is pursuing its own vanity projects, rather than, following evidence on what is best for pupils.’