When it comes to selective schooling, not all discrimination is positive

Selection in secondary education is back. The government’s new policy aims to promote consumer choice, and justifies this on grounds of fairness and merit. But who gets to decide what's fair, and who merits a good education?

Peter Johnson
15 September 2016
 David Jones / PA Archive/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Pupils at Thomas Telford comprehensive school. Photo: David Jones / PA Archive/Press Association Images. All rights reserved. Selection in secondary education is back. In fact, it never really went away. Even now, private schools and the 160-odd grammar schools that survived the comprehensive schools programme of the 1960s and 70s choose their pupils partly or wholly according to their scores in academic tests. Some academies are allowed to select up to 10% of their intake on the basis of their natural aptitude in areas such as music, languages, or sport.

The prime minister now wants to extend academic selection by authorising new grammar schools to be formed and enabling existing schools to introduce it. She portrays this – candidly enough – as a continuation of reforming conservatism, with its strong focus on individualism and personal striving. As a result, we’ve been treated to a re-run of the old debate between those who are in favour of comprehensive schools because they ‘level up’ all students and those who are against them because they hold back the most able. Since this disagreement is about priorities, not facts, it’s a debate that can never be resolved.

The international evidence – see, for example, this recent summary from the IFS – is that outcomes for disadvantaged (i.e. poor) pupils are better in properly comprehensive schools than in schools in which the most able pupils are not present. This is a compelling argument if the priority is ‘closing the gap’ of educational attainment. It was not surprising, therefore, that when interviewed on BBC radio on 9 September, the new Education Secretary Justine Greening was unable to articulate how grammar schools would improve educational outcomes overall, and sadly was not pressed on the point. However, when she’d finished with jargon such as “21st Century”, “turbo charge”, “smart education”, and even suggesting that the demand for grammar schools was a natural consequence of the Brexit vote, she relented and gave us the good old parental choice argument. I’ve argued elsewhere on oD that consumer choice is not a category that can meaningfully be applied to your children’s education, and I won’t go into that again now. The pertinent question here is not how the education system can uphold consumer freedom, but how it plays into patterns of discrimination. This question has come into sharper focus with the announcement of this new policy.

The long-term aim of recent education policy, school governance, and inspection has focused on ‘closing the gap’ in educational attainment – ensuring that less able and less fortunate pupils so far as possible catch up with their more privileged peers. Since 2011, this drive has been supported by 'Pupil Premium' supplements given to schools to support pupils from families with an income of less than £16,000 a year. But in one way or another, the principle has been in place since the introduction of comprehensive schools in the mid-1960s.

The Pupil Premium amounts to roughly 20% of the regular per-pupil grant to secondary schools. Schools are required to explain how they have spent it and what the impact was. The inspection framework supports this agenda by requiring evidence not only that schools’ curriculum and teaching help all children make good progress, but also that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are specifically targeted. Published data on school performance contains vast quantities of analysis to show how well the school serves different groups pupils – segmented not only by poverty markers, but also ethnicity, home language, gender, and special educational needs. This data shows how well schools cater for their pupils’ various gifts and needs, and is meant to ensure that no one and no group is forgotten.

In all-ability schools implementing this kind of system-wide positive discrimination, the progress and attainment of less able pupils is better in schools than in schools where the most able are absent. This why Sir Michael Wilshaw, the soon-to-retire Chief Inspector of Schools, (and a well-informed and clear-headed expert) has with many others argued strongly against reintroducing academic selection into the schools system. Critics have pointed out that this structured, positive discrimination at the heart of the education system can also tempt people or institutions to act unjustly, through a kind of well-meant casual discrimination. At a private, layman’s level, this funding and assessment structure ends up giving less credit to the achievements of children not targeted for assistance, or offering opportunities to children perceived as needy that are not available to others. It could be summarised as “they’ll do alright anyway.” In my experience, good teachers do not do any of this.

But this disagreement over what counts as genuine dsicrimination turns on a disagreement as what counts as moral desert: who deserves more input and the most resources? For Theresa May, as for her recent predecessors as prime minister, consumer choice trumps social solidarity. Her speech is remarkably clear in stating her view of the moral objectives of public education and of society as a whole. Deserving is not about need; so to give according to desert is only partly about helping the weakest, those most in need of compassion. It is characterised as something strictly meritocractic; you desrve something by earning it through hard work and ambition.

This is the message of the first part of May’s speech: those who ‘work hard’, pay tax, and keep quiet – those who in David Cameron’s catchphrase ‘do the right thing’ – are those whom the system should serve. May aimed her remarks at people earning just a little over the benefits level of pay, enough to scrape them out of the category of 'scrounger'. But beyond this, the size and vagueness of this group, (which can only be called working class in sense that everyone who works for a living is working class), means that almost any discretionary favour can be justified as being deserved by somebody. Her version of meritocracy leaves unanswered the question of who decides the merit and who awards the prize.

Theresa May nods in the direction of the kind of positive discrimination that has been baked into school education for the last 40 years, but what she says suggests she is more interested in that alternative casual, ad hoc discrimination. Her proposals – rhetorically linked with Brexit – play on a resentment that the children being failed by the current system are not the least able, but the most able. Here is this thinking at work:

“The truth is that we already have selection in our school system - and it's selection by house price, selection by wealth. That is simply unfair. We are effectively saying to poorer and some of the most disadvantaged children in our country that they can't have the kind of education their richer counterparts can enjoy.”

Though fairness is an uncertain thing, the filtering of school applicants by home address is distorting, and can encourage a sense that disadvantaged children are not welcome in schools in affluent neighbourhoods. That’s a problem. But an effective response could be put in place in weeks: change the admissions code to abolish or limit the right of schools to select according to distance. There’s no reason to think that more selection, with more complexity and greater frictional costs, is the answer. Grammar schools are academically selective, and in the current system typically use a combination of local authority tests (where the LA has retained a significant number of grammar schools) and their own. Children usually sit a couple of exams, and if they’re applying to several schools in different local authority areas, the number of these tests will multiply. This alone is likely to discourage families unused to navigating a complex system and unable to take time off to do so. May said:

“We are going to ask new grammars to demonstrate that they will attract pupils from different backgrounds, for example by taking a proportion of children from lower income households.” 

Here’s the twist on positive discrimination. Of course, the issue is not about attracting, but about admitting and educating, but let’s leave that to one side. What is May saying grammar schools should do? There seem to be three possibilities.

First, the grammar schools could meet their quota of ‘low income’ children whether or not they are at the same academic level as the others. This would be a levelling process based on the assumption there exists some level of income below which no one will enjoy the benefits of a higher economic and social status, including extra tuition and coaching for their children, and above which everyone will. If this assumption is unrealistic (and it obviously is), any such method would respresent the kind of casual, unjust discrimination I described above. In practice it would also reduce the average attainment level of pupils in the school, which schools will resist since their competitive edge will depend on perceptions of quality.

Secondly, they could use tests that can’t be trained for, where tutoring is of no use. Some academies that select a small proportion of their pupils on aptitude (as opposed to learned skill), claim to do this, for example with ear tests in music. But in reality, any test can be practised and so far, there’s little to differentiate this idea from the current position. It would challenge a grammar school’s self-worth not to be testing exactly those intellectual qualities it values, in the way that it wants. And it seems unlikely that this could be imposed on both existing and new grammar schools.

Or thirdly, if the new schools are to keep the academic standards as high as they might wish, setting their own entrance tests, we could simply accept that very few children from the lower socio-economic groups will successfully apply for them. This is what happens today, and the quota system would become largely irrelevant.

None of these approaches seems likely to deliver the stated policy with any measure of justice, or to achieve a useful and acceptable kind of preference for disadvantaged pupils. There are surely better ways of addressing the selection problem. One might be to use only reports from the children’s primary schools to determine whether they should enter the grammar school. It’s not a perfect method – in Germany, which uses this approach to decide entrance to the academic tier Gymnasium schools, there is evidence that the bar is higher for children from lower socio-economic groups, both in terms of teacher assessment and, interestingly, parent expectation. That’s an undesirable social bias that can and should be countered by independent moderation, training, public awareness initiatives, and inspection. Importantly, using primary school assessment removes gameable testing from the equation, takes discretion over admissions away from the grammar schools, and makes the application process cheaper and more accessible to all. It doesn’t in fact require positive discrimination, only a serious assessment by the primary teacher of the pupil’s abilities, character, and potential.

Another method would be to require all selection to happen within fully comprehensive schools. Pupils are typically already set according to ability. The change would be that if all the most able pupils stay in the comprehensive sector, there would probably need to be additional creativity and flexibility around accelerated learning, different curricula, and different exam courses. Maintaining a happy school community may also present a challenge, but one surely an order of magnitude less than doing it for the whole of society.

Both these models call for discrimination in the sense of a careful weighing up of the evidence by experienced school staff. Whether or not you believe that the costs of selective schooling outweigh the benefits, it surely important to insist that this, and neither ad hoc fixing nor positive discrimination with suboptimal outcomes for middle-of-the-road or able pupils, is the way to approach the issue. Unfortunately, there is not much sign of this kind of thoughtful consideration in May’s new policy. She said:

“I want to relax the restrictions ... that deny parents the right to have a new selective school opened where they want one, that stop existing non-selective schools to become selective in the right circumstances and where there is demand.”

It’s sloppy to talk about a right to have a selective school where you want one. Since there is currently no such right, we cannot say it is being denied. A system of rights to 'demand' is not universally accessible: it will discriminate in favour of articulate people with money, time and energy on their hands; those who can best make their demands heard. So even supposing this right were created by law, it could not by itself increase fairness. May stated:

“In fact, 99 per cent of existing selective schools are rated Good or Outstanding – and 80 per cent are Outstanding, compared with just 20 per cent of state schools overall. So we help no one – not least those who can’t afford to move house or pay for a private education – by saying to parents who want a selective education for their child that we won’t let them have it.”

There are so many things wrong with these two sentences. First, she is just playing with statistics. Academic selection per se does not cause good Ofsted ratings. The selective schools, 80% of which are rated Outstanding, have pupils almost entirely from ambitious and comfortable backgrounds. They will have relatively few social problems and pupils are, by definition, all high achievers. This is what drives their Ofsted ratings, and the link with selection is merely a correlation.

Secondly, May hasn’t said what will happen in the remaining comprehensive schools, 80% of which are not rated Outstanding, when their ablest students are hoovered up. Social problems will intensify, there will be fewer role models for pupils, and schools may suffer excessive concentrations of pupils from particular backgrounds and neighbourhoods. As Michael Wilshaw pointedly observed, for every grammar school, the government will have to maintain three secondary modern schools.

Thirdly, most parents don’t ‘want a selective education’ for its own sake. They want their children to receive an education that helps them flourish and achieve their potential in a safe environment. Many perceive selective schools as a means to that end – and for some pupils they currently are. But if we start confusing the admissions process with the quality of teaching and resources we will lose our ability to think rationally about how to improve either. In framing the discussion in terms of needing to meet a public demand , without taking account of the rationality of the demand or the wider consequences of doing so, May’s argument looks like just another example of interest group preference. 

Discrimination in the sense of thoughtful consideration and assessment of the evidence – and the use of that information to guide teaching – must be at the heart of any schools system. If we want to do more, we need to decide what and why. The positive discrimination required by the ‘closing the gap’ agenda has been part of the structure of the system for many years but it may be running on empty and will perhaps eventually cease to be useful. The challenge in removing the ‘positive’ is that in order for the outcomes to remain just and reasonable, we will have to give greater trust and responsibility to teachers and experts. In their pursuit of the parent lobby, it’s something that successive education secretaries, their bosses, and their departments have forgotten how to do.

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