Monday, January 16, 2012

The Sutton Trust, private schools and social mobility

Stephen Tall writes in slightly wary support of the proposal from the Sutton Trust that the government should fund places for poor students at the best private schools:
But those who think Sir Peter is wrong-headed should reflect seriously on what their alternative to the status quo is. 
Sure, everyone on the liberal-left champions the comprehensive ideal that all local state schools should be great schools — but decades later we’re still waiting. And in the meantime thousands of pupils are losing out each and every year, while the intelligentsia which wrings its hands at the thought of selection by merit happily games the system to ensure their own kids don’t suffer.
Like Stephen, I am attracted to this idea but feel a little guilty about it. But the size of the problem with the current system was brought home by the recent two-part BBC4 documentary on the history of grammar schools. It quoted figures showing how the percentage of state schools pupils at Oxbridge has declined since the 1960s.

A Spectator Coffee House article by Peter Hoskin quoted much the same figures in a passage from A Class Act by Andrew Adonis and Stephen Pollard:
Modern mythology has it that the number of privately educated children at Oxbridge is on a steadily declining path. And indeed it was - in the heyday of the state grammar schools in the 1960s. By 1969 only 38 per cent of places at Oxford were awarded to private educated children - a sharp reduction for the private schools even on their 1965 proportion. And yet in the 1990s, thanks to the destruction of the grammar schools and the consequent decamping to the private sector of many of the most able children, the figure now hovers around the 50 per cent mark.


Simon Titley said...

I repeat the question I have posed whenever you get wistful about grammar schools: where is your equivalent enthusiasm for secondary moderns?

One cannot have grammar schools without secondary modern schools (or some equivalent, however it may be renamed).

When the 11-plus system of selection predominated, typically only about 25% of 11-year-olds passed and went to grammar school; the remaining children were sent to secondary modern schools and were effectively written-off.

The proportion of children that passed the 11-plus varied according to the number of grammar school places available; it was never more than 40% and in some local authority areas could be as low as 12%. So a child who came 25th out of 100 might pass the 11-plus in some areas but fail in others.

Nowadays, we expect to send some 40-50% of children to university, a much higher proportion than passed the 11-plus. But then the 11-plus was designed for another age, when only a small minority went on to higher education. For example, I began at grammar school in 1968; only about a third of my year stayed on for the sixth-form and did A-levels, and only about a third of those won a university place.

So anyone who wants to re-establish grammar schools should tell us (a) how pupils will be selected, and (b) what will happen to the children who 'fail'.

And if the answer is that no-one will 'fail' and that the non-grammar schools will be of equivalent esteem to grammar schools, then that renders the term 'grammar school' meaningless.

Anonymous said...

Simon - people that don't want selection based on ability (even if it is deeply flawed) should explain why all the current allowable methods of selection are better, which include selection by financial ability to hop from one catchment area to another, selection by religious affiliation etc etc. A system where the taxpayer funds the undermining of the state system via a tiny number of scholarships is for me the worst possible system - its like trying to use a national lottery to eradicate poverty.

Simon Titley said...

@Anonymous - I agree that many of the systems of de facto selection you list are even worse. But that does not invalidate my original question, which is why enthusiasts for grammar schools are strangely silent about secondary moderns. Anyone who wishes to restore grammar schools must also explain what they propose for the children who do not go to grammar schools, otherwise they are not offering a complete or coherent strategy.