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May 22, 2006

Hattersley on Comprehensives

Roy Hattersley claims that the mere existence of a grammar school has a grossly detrimental effect upon the surrounding schools:

It is clear why he supports that reform. The survival of about 160 grammar schools - not all of which are the centres of excellence that their apologists claim - has a devastating effect on the whole area from which they select their pupils. To suggest that they can coexist with comprehensive schools is clearly absurd. Every grammar school condemns the three or four secondary schools around it to the level of the old secondary moderns.

Clearly appalling and disgusting. The question is, is it actually true? As Paul E Davies puts it in the comments:

Mr Hattersley claims that grammar schools have a "devastating effect" on the surrounding area and condemn nearby secondary schools "to the level of the old secondary moderns." I'd like the see the statistics to support this assertion. My sister moved a few years back from Bristol (all-comprehensive in the state sector) to Lincolnshire, where grammar schools have been maintained. Education was a factor in the move. In Bristol, the three local comprehensives to which she could have sent her kids had GCSE pass rates of less than 40 per cent. In Lincolnshire, the local grammar school has a pass rate of 99 per cent (which you might well expect), but all the nearby comprehensives have pass rates of the order of 70 or 80 per cent. Of course, one can't prove from this that the presence of the grammar school somehow improves standards at neighbouring comprehensives. But it does show that Mr Hattersley's assertion is - in at least one area where grammar schools have been retained - utter nonsense.

Difficult from that to see that it is. Anyone want to try and provide further data?

May 22, 2006 in Academia | Permalink


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It's not obvious to me that a comparision of Briston and Lincolnshire is very instructive. Kent certainly has pretty bad results outside of its.

I'm surprised you are so pro-grammar schools; I'd have thought you would be in favour of letting schools set their own admissions policies. Even James Bartholomew doesn't believe grammar schools would do anything about the worst schools in Britain.

Tim adds: I’m in favour of a pure voucher system, something like the Swedish. Some will be academically inclined, others more vocationally.

Posted by: Matthew | May 22, 2006 9:05:28 AM

Of course the prescence of a grammar condemns the surrounding comps to lower grades. They remove the top grade winners. Say you have 80 students averaging a 4 (grade D). Now say you also have another 20 students averaging an 8 (grade A*). The school's average is now 4.8 (grade C). If those top 20 go to the grammar school instead, the comp's average goes down to the D again.

But the question is, what about the low achieving students? Are they affected at all? I can see how being taught to the level of your ability rather than the level of students much smarter than you can help you to learn better and being in an environment of your peers rather than surrounded by people hogging all the glory would be better for morale.

Even without grammar schools, will the worst students be doing any better? Or will they just not be noticed because they get lost in the statistical noise created by having the better students bringing up the average?

Posted by: Josh | May 22, 2006 11:31:51 AM

Josh - The hard evidence indicates that is nonsense for the following reasons.

Those railing against selective schools have at least two awkward facts to contend with. So far, convincing responses have not been forthcoming.

Firstly, a cluster of maintained - that's official jargon for "non-fee paying" - selective schools has survived in the London borough where I live. Despite that, the borough as a Local Education Authority (LEA) has consistently remained close to the top of the LEA league table for England since the early 1990s where the league is ranked on the basis of the *average* points achieved by candidates in the GCSE (or Level 2) school exams for all 16 year-olds:

Among the cluster of surviving selective (and maintained) schools in the borough, four rank in the top 200 schools in England based on last year's A-Levels:

Of those four schools, three achieved better average results in last year's A-Levels than Eton, a non-maintained school.

The clear evidence is that the presence of the cluster of selective schools in the borough has sustained a near top-ranking average attainment in GCSE exams across all the schools in the borough - for whatever reason. However, the borough is not unusually affluent: in an exercise by Barclays Capital of a few years back to rank districts and boroughs in England on the basis of average incomes reported in Inland Revenue Statistics adjusted for housing costs, the borough turned out to have virtually the same average adjusted income as Milton Keynes, which is not normally considered unusually wealthy. And the borough is not a high spender on schools.

The second awkward fact comes in Monday's Guardian:

"Schools in the government's £5bn academy programme, which aims to create 200 privately run state secondaries by 2010, have failed to improve results compared with the comprehensives they replaced, according to a report. The study, by a senior academic at Edinburgh University, found the number of pupils getting five GCSE A*-C grades including English and maths has increased by 0.2% - equivalent to three pupils - across the first 11 academies."

That and other evidence supports a worrying empirical hypothesis that neighbourhood cultures can and do have a powerful and enduring influence on standards of attainment in local schools. I've posted before that illuminating quote from George Orwell: The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), chp.7:

"Working people often have a vague reverence for learning in others, but where 'education' touches their own lives they see through it and reject it by a healthy instinct. . . To the working class, the notion of staying at school till you are nearly grown-up seems merely contemptible and unmanly."

In places, that culture is still recognisable. I don't know about Roy Hattersley but I've certainly canvassed council estates to encounter residents who wanted to retain 11+ selection precisely because they knew that was the only way their children could escape entrapment in neighbourhood cultures. Indeed, it was for that reason some Labour-controlled councils - such as Birmingham and Leicester - retained maintained selective grammar schools for as long as possible. Distinguished grammar schools have survived in Birmingham. In the case of Leicester, the maintained grammar schools went with the reform of local government in 1974 - curiously, the Tory-controlled Leicestershire County Council opted for a policy for comprehensive education back in 1957 (true). I think Mrs Thatcher still retains the record as education secretary in the Heath government 1970-4 for approving the conversion of more grammar schools to comprehensives than any other education secretary before or since.

What the report in today's Guardian shows is that the new City academies have a challenging problem overcoming the low education standards that prevailed in the schools that the academies replaced. Evidently, the influence of neighbourhood cultures endures. Powerful evidence showing the persistence of the same anti-education culture that Orwell had noticed in the 1930s is this:

"Ministers today appealed to pupils who are getting their GCSE results tomorrow not to drop out of education. The schools minister Jacqui Smith admitted that the number of 16 year olds who stay on in education in the UK is lower than in other countries and asked them to consider studying A-levels or taking an apprenticeship."

As David Miliband put it a few years back when he was minister for schools standards:

"It must be one of the most stunning statistics that we are 20th out of 24 OECD countries for staying-on rates [in education] at 17"

Btw look where Leicester city now ranks in the LEA league table based on Level 2 (GCSE) results having abolished all its maintained grammar schools:

Posted by: Bob B | May 22, 2006 12:32:20 PM

Bob B

Your comment is well put and I agree but you and I are going nowhere with this. The anti-selection brigade will never accept the evidence (both statistical and anecdotal http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,6-2191023,00.html ) of the decline in educational attainment since the 1960s. The problem is that once they accept the evidence on this front they then start questioning everything (cf Melanie Phillips). This is very uncomfortable particularly for those who've made their careers by kicking the ladder out from under those trying to come after them.

Posted by: Umbongo | May 22, 2006 5:05:47 PM

Isn't the problem with comprehensive education the fact that it applies a "one size fits none" model to all the kids?

Now since no one but the most deluded egalitarian thinks that all children are exactly the same, surely logic dictates that to get the best from the limited resources of the state you have to assess the kids and try and direct them to the teaching method best suited to their abilities.

Of course the ideal would be for each child to have his or her own personal tutor, but that is clearly impossible. The next best method is some sort of streaming system. Whether this is done within the school (my own experience) or bewteen schools is the big debate.

The one advantage of vouchers is that we would break the mold of a single state system dictated to the populus by a group of anonymous "experts" in the Dept of Ed. In fact, freed from state shackles except for the examinations, there could be several, parallel systems and parents would be able to choose the one they felt best suited their children. A kind of a state funded private system, in fact.

Personally, if the government had the cojones to implement such a system I'd be willing to bet a sizable chunk that academic results would improve for all pupils; brilliant little swots and thickies alike.

The rsults that I have read from Sweden and those parts of the US that have implemented vouchers seem to indicate that results do improve, even if marginally (in the US where the system is not universally applied even within school districts).


Posted by: The Remittance Man | May 22, 2006 7:10:04 PM

The sad truth is that experience elsewhere with schooling has limited applicability to England - Scotland has its own, different traditions relating to the status of education: remember that by 1800, Scotland had four ancient universities while England had only two despite its much greater population. Moreover, the two English universities were tied into the established church - John Stuart Mill (1806-73) couldn't go to university because he was a dissenter by personal conviction.

I've to hand excellent academic citations to support claims that England compared with its European peers has persisted in under-investing in schooling for about the last 240 years. We could take national comfort from the undeniable fact that despite low investment in education, Britain pioneered first an agrarian and then an industrial revolution. Somehow schooling didn't seem to matter much - many did well enough without it. [see eg: Michael Sanderson: Education, economic change and society in England 1780-1870 (CUP, 2nd. ed. 1991) and, Education and economic decline in Britain, 1870s to the 1990s (CUP, 1999), monographs for the Economic History Society] As Davies Giddy MP put it in Parliament: " . . giving education to the labouring classes of the poor ... would teach them to despise their lot in life, instead of making them good servants in agriculture and other laborious employments to which their rank in society has destined them; instead of teaching them the virtue of subordination, it would render them factious and refactory ... it would enable them to read seditious pamphlets, vicious books and publications against Christianity." [Hansard, House of Commons, Vol 9, 13 July 1807]. Thirty years ago, half the adult population in Britain had no education qualifications at all - and that was when the Conservatives and Labour had spent almost equal time in government since WW2.

The persistence of that long tradition in under-education probably explains why stay-on rates in schooling at the age of 16 are so low in Britain compared with most other OECD countries. On the basis of per capita GDP at purchasing power parity exchange rates, we rank up there in the top six or seven countries or so compared with the rest of Europe according to Eurostat. And with our famously flexible labour markets, we have maintained high employment rates by comparison with the other major European economies. But what have the gaps in the distribution of education attainment done to social cohesion and income distribution in Britain? How well will business here withstand competition in globalised markets when, for example, India alone produces 400,000 technical graduates a year? Does that explain why the government here seems to be looking to a flourishing gambling industry and the relaxation of pub licensing restrictions to generate jobs for the under-educated?

Posted by: Bob B | May 22, 2006 8:48:07 PM

RM is right. People here are arguing about which 'system' should be imposed on everybody else from above.

If I believe that a mixed abilty school is best, why should I have a selective system imposed on me? Similarly, if I believe in a selective system, why should anyone impose a non-selective system on me?

The solution is to have no 'system' - just schools competing to satisfy their customers as they see fit.

Posted by: HJHJ | May 22, 2006 8:52:52 PM