Why the 11+ isn’t the form of selection we should be worrying about

Grammar schools are important, but it is selection elsewhere in the education system that has a greater effect on more students’ lives.

Sol Gamsu
4 November 2015


, CC BY-SA 2.0

Last week the grammar school debate was re-opened with the announcement that a new annexe grammar will open in Sevenoaks. For good reasons, there is substantial concern from the left about the possibility of a new splurge of grammar school 'annexes' in local authorities which managed to retain selection. If this begins to spread beyond the 36 authorities that retained some form of selective entry at 11, this would be very worrying indeed. For those living within or next to grammar school areas, the polarising effects of grammar schools are very real. I am not particularly interested in rehearsing the debates around effects on 'social mobility' – there's plenty of research showing the social selectivity of grammars, the effects of tutoring, and the detrimental effects of creaming off for those who don't pass the 11+. The problem, I think, is more about how we view selection in education in general rather than grammar schools per se.

For starters, it is not entirely true that this is the first 'new' grammar school in 50 years. The mid-1990s saw several former grammars reverting to an 11+ entry exam using grant-maintained status and Tory loosening of admissions requirements. Some of these schools have now become incredibly selective as is the case with one of the London schools in my PhD research, rising from 500 students sitting the entrance exam in the mid-1990s to around 2000 in 2014. De-facto selection at 11 was also brought in through the backdoor under Labour, when they allowed schools with particular subject specialisms to select up to 10% on 'aptitude'. Within London some of the schools that do this also combine it with heavily gentrified catchment areas. However, far greater than these examples of selection at 11 are the net effects of internal forms of selection which occur through streaming and setting during secondary school, and the formal academic selection which occurs on entry to A-level at 16. Re-opening grammar schools is real cause for concern, but just as, if not more, fundamental for the left is how we approach these more complex forms of selection.

For those living within or next to grammar school areas, the polarising effects of grammar schools are very real.Within my own research on educational transitions at 16 and 18 in Sheffield and London, students past and present are highly aware of de facto segregation of pathways prior to and on entry to post-16. Students knew where they were positioned within the academic hierarchies of sets and streams that schools sorted them into before post-16. This was true not just for current students but in oral history interviews with students who went through the comprehensive system in the late 1980s and even as far back as the first comprehensives in the 1960s. One woman who had failed her 11+ in 1965 was put in the top band of her newly formed comprehensive. This group was highly competitive, with many of her peers eventually going on to university and was in her words ‘a bit like a grammar school’. After attempts to move towards mixed-ability teaching in the 1970s and 1980s, the 1990s and 2000s has seen the return of setting under both Conservative and Labour governments. These micro-processes of selection happen on a daily basis and students absorb the messages about their likely destination on leaving school. None of this is new: there is a raft of research which backs up the negative consequences of setting and streaming but this form of selection rarely makes headlines.

At the end of the 1980s one prescient researcher talked about how ‘the struggle for less differentiation and greater educational equality might seem to have advanced to a new frontier.’ This new frontier was post-16. In truth, academic selection was not abolished by comprehensive schools, it just shifted upwards. The tradition of the academic sixth form is rooted in a class divide which is just as polarising as the 11+ exam but far more widespread and completely accepted. Schools that retained or created sixth forms after comprehensive reform tended to be far more middle-class than those which did not offer post-16 options. Comprehensive reform never truly challenged the class bias inherent in 6th form study. A-levels remained the most prestigious route, more likely to lead the relative security of university and middle-class employment.

Theoretically, most schools or sixth form colleges operate a minimum requirement of 5 A to C’s to progress to A-level, giving the resemblance of ‘comprehensive’ admissions up to 16. In practice many sixth forms will ask for higher grades, especially to study more ‘traditional’ academic subjects. Within most local authorities post-16 education has a clear local hierarchy, strongly influenced by class as well as attainment. My own research reveals how London’s post-16 system has a binary divide in university access. Around 20% of students attend a sub-set of private and certain ‘super-state’ schools which dominate access to Oxbridge and the Russell Group whilst two thirds of students attend colleges and school sixth forms which primarily lead onto post-1992 universities.

It would now be more accurate to talk about a 16+ in most areas – the divisions are just as sharp but where is our outrage? The same is true for setting and streaming which ensure that by the time many students reach 16 the game is already up. The stigma and exclusion of these forms of selection may not be as early or as stark as they were in the 1950s, but they are just as violent in limiting people’s futures. This gets right to the heart of the contradictory legacy of abolishing grammar schools. Ending selection at 11 was arguably the most radical educational reform of the 20th century. But the left has not truly faced up to its mixed legacy.

Around 20% of students attend a sub-set of private and certain ‘super-state’ schools which dominate access to OxbridgeComprehensive reform did not abolish, or even seriously challenge, the link between academic A-levels and the reproduction of middle-class advantage in accessing university and work. When in the 1980s the possibility of reintroducing selection was mooted in Solihull there was a massive, and successful, campaign of resistance. But this opposition came not from working class parents worried about their children failing the 11+, but from middle class parents who were perfectly happy with a comprehensive system based on affluent catchments.

Access to state schooling has always been manipulated by the middle classes, but it runs deeper than that: the cultural content and forms of learning which garner most prestige are biased towards middle-class cultural tropes and norms. Left educational politics has to begin with a deep cultural critique of how class, race and gender influence forms of learning. Our strategies have to be based on fighting anti-reformist reforms – ones which can gain broad support but which deliberately set out to disrupt existing hierarchies. If the right can sell deeply regressive educational reforms as progressive, the left has to be able to sell potentially revolutionary ones.

The issue for the left is thus really about what school types we propose rather than simply oppose. Of course, the opening of new grammar schools is deeply damaging and regressive. But for too long we have been silent on the forms of selection which dominate our school system right across the country. Corbyn’s election as Labour leader allows the scope for the proper re-consideration of what radical and ‘progressive’ education reform looks like. Without any misconceptions we have to argue for a deepening of comprehensive reform – access to education should be non-selective at every level. From primary to higher education. But we have to go beyond a politics of access, we have to slowly but surely change the content as well as the form of what we teach. It is not only our admissions processes but our culture which is selective. We must not underestimate the extent to which forms of oppression are expressed in the cultures of learning and knowledge that define schooling. But this culture of selection is never completely dominant and now more than ever we have the political space to develop an alternative.


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