If not grammar schools, what?


This week’s media debate about the value of grammar schools as instruments of social mobility has been profoundly depressing.

For the record, all the research evidence shows that the historical impact of selective education on social mobility has been negligible.

The proportion of disadvantaged learners currently admitted to grammar schools remains desperately low:

  • As of January 2013, 41% of grammar schools had FSM admission rates of 2% or lower; only three had rates above 10%.
  • 20% of grammar schools had 10 or fewer FSM-eligible students in their GCSE cohorts from 2011, 2012 and 2013 combined; only 10% had 40 or more FSM students taking GCSEs in these three years.

Recent efforts to improve the ratio of disadvantaged to advantaged admissions have been confined to a minority of grammar schools.

Admissions reform is strictly limited, for fear of upsetting the sharp-elbowed middle classes. Surreptitious support offered by the Coalition Government has apparently dissipated.



Contrary to received wisdom, grammar schools are not universally successful even with the few disadvantaged students they admit.

According to the performance table data for 2011 to 2013 inclusive, some 20% recorded significant achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged learners (the latter defined as ‘ever 6; FSM and children in care) on at least one of three basic attainment and progress measures.

Seven were weak across the board, recording gaps of at least ten percentage points on all three measures.

Unfortunately though, grammar schools are totemic.

As I observed once before:

‘They are much like a flag of convenience that any politician anxious to show off his right-wing credentials can wave provocatively in the face of his opponents. There is an equivalent flag for abolitionists.  Anyone who proposes an alternative position is typically ignored.’

Every single journalist and commentator I have read this week has ignored the bigger question posed in the title of this post.

If grammar schools are not the answer to the question:

‘How does one best support high-attaining learners from disadvantaged backgrounds?’

then what is?

What combination of:

  • Between-school selection strategies
  • Within-school selection and differentiation strategies and
  • National student support strategies

is optimal?

If we forswear all between-school selection (and I don’t), what then is the optimal solution?

It is simply wrong to argue that these learners will succeed without targeted support.

Both the National Audit Office and Ofsted have argued that, too often, pupil premium funding is going elsewhere.

Nor is it sufficient to claim that, by improving universal standards, by pursuing ‘excellence for all’, we shall make these excellence gaps disappear.

I have already proposed my own four-part answer to this question:

  • A commitment to ensuring that all existing selective schools and any new ones (including 16+ institutions) take in a larger proportion of high-attaining disadvantaged learners. Approval for expansion (including annexes) would be conditional on meeting demanding fair access targets.
  • Development of the existing cadre of 163 grammar schools into a national network with direct responsibility for leading national efforts to increase the supply of high-attaining disadvantaged learners emerging from primary schools. Selective independent schools might also join the network, to fill gaps in the coverage and fulfil partnership expectations.
  • A national policy to promote in all schools effective and innovative approaches to pupil grouping, enabling them to identify when different methods might be appropriate and how best to combine them to achieve success. Schools would develop, trial and evaluate new and hybrid approaches, so increasing the stock of potential methods available.
  • A national support scheme for disadvantaged high attainers aged 11-19 in their existing schools and colleges, meeting the broad specification I have set out several times before and funded primarily by an annual £50m pupil premium topslice.

Now, what’s yours?



October 2015


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