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Grammar Schools: the cost of excellence

posted in: Thoughts on Education | 0

When I arrived on the Wirral*, all bright-eyed and Canadian way back in 1994, I learned four things in quick succession:

  1. Liverpool is not at all like Manchester.
  2. The other mummies don’t wear wool socks and Birkenstocks.
  3. Tea is something you eat.

And 4. My children were going to write an IQ test called the 11+ (even though one of them would only be 10 at the time) which would essentially determine their educational futures and probably colour their whole lives. Sorry? Could you repeat that?

Since then, we’ve witnessed what happens when children do get in, when they “fail”, when they choose not to write the 11+ at all. We’ve seen young people who most certainly have the brains but not the cultural background to get through the selection process. We’ve seen kids hate the whole seven years because they were constantly berated for not being at the top of the top of the heap. We’ve also seen grammar school children thrive. Even the ones who don’t thrive at the time seem to gain confidence and eventually discover, (and I quote my own boy child), “Guess what, I’m actually very well-educated.”

But what about the idea that they give poorer children a chance to move up the social and economic ladders? My gut says that’s not right, so I spent a day immersed in data and I think I’ve found the answer. I’m no statistician but these numbers are freely available from Gov UK**. I wanted to see how students on free school meals are served by the selective schools in our area and where they were most likely to achieve the government standard of 5 A*-C GCSEs including maths and English. I’ve added the percent of disadvantaged and low achieving students (measured in Year 6), who gain that same standard of GCSE.

Here’s what I found:

wirral-schools-gcse-results

And here’s what this table seems to be telling us.

  • Grammar schools don’t serve poor children. At Wirral Grammar School for Girls (top in the local authority and in the top 100 state schools in the country) there are only 17 FSM pupils in the whole school! This is not an accurate reflection of the ability of children whose parents are or have been on benefits. (It’s also infuriating that the top and bottom schools are a 5 minute walk from each other.)
  • Single sex versus coeducational seems to be something to look at.
  • Ditto faith schools. Why?

And the most telling find:

  • The schools that work best for everyone are the ones with the green band right across. Their pupils, including the disadvantaged and Year 6 low achievers, get above average results. Most tellingly, they have student populations which most closely reflect the socioeconomic make-up of the community they serve. (17% is the the average FSM across these 21 secondary schools.)

Conclusion? It’s probable that a child who goes to a grammar school will get a good education, but it will be at the expense of the many who don’t get in. When I run the world, (mark my words), all schools will teach all pupils without selection or profiling, and “excellence” won’t be a product of innate ability but of real achievement regardless of a child’s starting place.

 

Notes

*In case you’re thinking the Wirral has nothing to do with the rest of the country: this north western peninsula is used by governments to trial big ideas because it’s a microcosm of the whole country. We even manage to have a massive difference in life expectancy across just a few miles: 10 years for women and 12 years for men. Those figures alone might suggest that grammar schools don’t do much to close the poverty gap.

**I also used the Liverpool Echo Secondary School Ratings and am grateful for their comprehensive collation of data.

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