A fudge with no teeth

Today’s political announcements about the shape of new school places in England might mark a turning point. Conversely, it might just be a neat solution to two problems that needed a resolution. First on grammar schools, and the £50 million funding for the expansion of places. Let me state at the outset that I am opposed to selective education, especially at age eleven. I believe that the Liberal Democrats should campaign to remove these schools even though the Lib Dems run councils in Sutton and now Kingston upon Thames in London that have such schools within the council boundaries.

The BBC has an interesting chart showing what has happened to the size of grammar schools between 2009-10 and 2015-16. Of the 20 such schools shown, all have expanded. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-44067719 Whether this means that the remaining 140 or so grammar schools haven’t changed their intakes isn’t mentioned. As I have remarked before, the government faced a dilemma. With pupil numbers rising sharply in many of the areas in the Home Counties and outer London where a disproportionate percentage of grammar schools are to be found, doing nothing would effectively decrease the percentage of pupils in these areas able to attend a selective school. Such a policy risked creating the worst of all worlds; not pleasing those that want the abolition of grammar schools, but also upsetting parents who would find it difficult to secure a place for their offspring in an increasingly competitive application process. Today’s announcement will, the Secretary of State no doubt hopes, placate the latter while doing no more than enrage the former, but without lasting political damage, and be seen as the best compromise on offer.

Liberal Democrat Education Spokesperson Layla Moran has said in a press statement: “Grammar schools are the wrong answer to the wrong question. This money should be spent on local schools so that every young person across the country can get the education they need to prepare for the future.” But has stopped short of calling for the removal of these schools. Perhaps this is because such a policy is already implicit in the Lib Dems approach to education. I summed much of that approach as I see it in a recent chapter in a book by the Social Liberal Forum that I co-authored with Helen Flynn. A review of the book can be seen at https://www.libdemvoice.org/a-21st-century-liberal-approach-to-education-57473.html albeit written by a committed Liberal Democrat.

How the government will enforce the rules on selection, offered as a sop to opponents of selective schools and a fig leaf to make the policy more attractive overall, is an interesting question. I assume it is to be just a fig leaf. After all, will any new rules apply to applications for all the places at the schools that take the money or only to applicants for the additional places funded through the new cash for the extra places? This would potentially create two admission rounds: one for existing places and the other for the new Hinds’ places. The latter might perhaps only be open to pupils from certain primary schools with, say, a history of not sending any pupils or only very small numbers to the selective school sector. Alternatively, the rules might stipulate only pupils on Free School Meals in the year they apply for a place. One might envisage some other such permutations. All would need monitoring, plus a clear set of sanctions, especially where the selective schools are not co-educational schools, but the primary schools in the area are co-educational.

The other announcement today, about faith schools, is potentially more momentous and deserves a blog post of its own.

 

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Selection doesn’t help social mobility

The latest Report from the Education Policy Institute, headed by former Lib Dem Education Minister, David Laws states at the end of the summary:

‘Overall, our analysis supports the conclusions reached by the OECD for school systems across the world – there is no evidence that an increase in selection would have any positive impact on social mobility.’  http://epi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Grammar_schools_and_social_mobility_policy_options-3.pdf Page 5

That just about says it all. The rest is an interesting read and shows the strength of feeling in some areas about the issue of re-introducing selection, mostly, however, areas where there are already low levels of disadvantage. The authors conclude that;

We therefore conclude that it will be difficult for the government to identify areas for grammar school expansion that will:

  • avoid damage to pupils who do not access the new selective places; and
  • have public demand for new selective places. Those locations that do remain are unlikely to be areas of high disadvantage. A more promising approach in the most disadvantaged and low attaining areas may therefore be to focus more effort on increasing the quality of existing non selective school places, as has been successfully achieved in areas such as London over the last 20 years

The message seems to be, find out what worked in London and decide how it can be transferred to the rest of the country rather than create more selective schools. This is a rational and evidence based suggestion. However, this isn’t an issue where the government is probably very interested in the evidence. The aim of introducing more grammar schools was political; to shore up the right wing of the Conservative Party and attract back into the fold UKIP voters that were enticed towards voting for that Party because it offered them the notion of re-introducing grammar schools.

However, the question remains, in a national education service, such as we now have in England, what are the rules regarding who decides the shape of the education system? Is there to be any local consultation or can someone with no local ties to an area submit a bid to the DfE to open a selective school regardless of the consequences on the other schools in the area? Some clarify would be helpful. Can this type of decision create extra costs for council-tax payers through additional transport costs? If so, it would seem unfair if there was no local say in the matter. And what of the fact that many selective schools are single-sex schools. Does it matter if new selective schools impact upon the gender balance of other schools in the area?

Nick Gibb, the current Minister recently told the Education Select Committee that new selective schools would be established in response to parent demand. We don’t know how that demand is to be measured or the cost of collecting the information. What we do know is that time spent on the grammar school project at the DfE could have been better spent on other more urgent issues.

 

Witney’s voters can decide the fate of grammar schools

The Education Policy Institute, of which David Laws is the Executive director, have lent their expertise to the debate about grammar schools with a new report about grammar schools and social mobility.  http://epi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Grammar-schools-and-social-mobility_.pdf

The EPI Report’s executive summary starts with the following:

International evidence (PISA 2012) shows that academic selection in school systems is associated negatively with equity; and students in highly stratified systems tend to be less motivated than those in less stratified systems. This international evidence suggests that schools which select students on academic performance tend to show better school average performance, even accounting for the socio-economic status and demographic background of students and schools, on average, across OECD countries. However, a school system’s performance overall is not better if it has a greater proportion of academically selective schools. And in systems with more academic selection, the impact of socio-economic status on student performance is greater.

The Report backs up what you have already read on this blog since the government started down the road of turning the education clock back to sometime in the late nineteenth Century. Hopefully, the consultation period between now and December will provide the government with time for reflection.

The good voters of Witney can help that process by trouncing the Conservative candidate in the by-election, making it clear, as the Oxfordshire’s county councillors did when discussing the issue last week that they don’t want a return to a selective secondary school system.

Nick Gibb, the junior DfE Minister, as might be expected, when speaking recently at the Academy Ambassador’s Trust event extolled the growth of selective schools saying; ‘Your trust may consider establishing a new selective free school or you may look to expand using the routes that are already available.’ He didn’t say what happens to the other children educated by the Trust. He also ignored the importance of vocational qualifications whilst lauding the EBacc.

The DfE’s lack of understanding about system-wide planning, for which presumably Mr Gibb has responsibility, is alarming in this time of growing pupil numbers across much of the country. The lack of co-ordination between the Free School programme and the remaining place planning function retained by local authorities is unhelpful, to put it at its mildest. Local authorities will be blamed when there are not enough school places for parents to obtain their first choice of school. In the end this will mean councillors losing their seats as parents express their annoyance through the ballot box. No doubt if this happens to any significant degree in the county council elections next May there will be repercussions for Mrs May and her education team at the DfE.

However, should the voters of Witney decide to send the Conservatives a message next month, they can do worse than wrap it in a bottle marked education and schools. The north of the constituency was especially upset about the changes to free home to school transport and the restrictions on choice of school they imposed, so those parents will have found Mr Gibb’s mention of parental choice ironic. Perhaps the DfE still isn’t aware that parents outside London don’t enjoy the same free home to school travel TfL them offers in London.

The economic cost of grammar schools

Much of the Tory argument in favour or a return to a selective school system, with both grammar schools and secondary modern schools – whatever name you give them –  has centred on the  possible social mobility benefits of allowing children good at academic subjects to be socially segregated from their peers at age eleven. Those parents with the money have always been able to achieve this result by opting for private schools.

Now, I cannot oppose private schools, because how you spend your cash is up to you. How the government taxes it is up to the government. But, I do wonder what will be the fate of private day schools under a revamped selective system? Unless the Tories can come up with a regime that allows children from dis-advantaged backgrounds to be selected for grammar schools places the selective schools will become havens for parents that can afford to pay for testing to pass the entrance exams, as happens at present. Using the test of Free School Meals, existing grammar school almost universally do not admit children on free school meals, even allowing for the fact that many selective schools are in areas of relatively low unemployment.

So what happens if parents decide to switch from paying for secondary education to taking advantage of free schooling in grammar schools provided by the state? Well, someone has to pay for the cost of these extra pupils. Might the cost be as much as a billion pounds extra on the education budget once the legislation permitting grammar schools is enacted? After all, I am sure parents will see the economic benefits of not having to pay out school fees and will be pushing for such schools everywhere. It would surely be difficult for the government to win a court case that schooling was still a local service when so many decisions are taken nationally, including who has the right to open a new school and thus to try to deny a demand from a group of parents for a selective school whatever the local community as a whole wants.

Transferring the cost of educating a group of secondary pupils from the private sector to the state might be balanced by an increase in private primary schools just concerned with coaching pupils for entry to grammar schools. I have already alluded to the possible effects on recruitment to teaching in the secondary sector of re-creating a selective system, but it might also affect recruitment to primary school teaching.

There are poor schools in the present system, but the answer is to strive to improve them, as has happened in parts of London and not to turn back the clock to a system that clearly doesn’t work for the benefit of all children.

Perhaps Mrs May sees grammar schools in the same light that Mrs Thatcher saw the sale of council houses, a vote winner for the Tories and hang the consequences for society as a whole. If so, she should test the support through a general election sooner rather than later.

Grammar Schools -percentage of pupils on Free School Meals in rank order from highest % to lowest (from Edubase January 2016)

FSM %
12.4
9.6
8.5
7
6.8
6.3
6
5.8
5.4
5.4
5.4
5.2
5.2
5
5
4.9
4.8
4.5
4.5
4.4
4.3
4.3
4.3
4.3
4.3
4.2
4.2
4.2
4.1
4.1
4
4
4
3.8
3.7
3.7
3.7
3.7
3.6
3.5
3.5
3.5
3.4
3.4
3.2
3.2
3.1
3.1
3
3
2.9
2.9
2.9
2.9
2.9
2.9
2.9
2.9
2.9
2.9
2.8
2.8
2.8
2.8
2.6
2.6
2.6
2.6
2.6
2.5
2.5
2.4
2.4
2.4
2.3
2.3
2.3
2.3
2.3
2.3
2.2
2.2
2.2
2.2
2.1
2.1
2.1
2.1
2.1
2.1
2.1
2.1
2.1
2.1
2.1
2
2
2
2
2
2
1.9
1.9
1.9
1.9
1.9
1.9
1.8
1.8
1.8
1.8
1.8
1.8
1.8
1.7
1.7
1.7
1.7
1.7
1.7
1.6
1.6
1.5
1.5
1.5
1.5
1.4
1.4
1.4
1.4
1.4
1.4
1.4
1.4
1.3
1.3
1.3
1.2
1.2
1.2
1.1
1.1
1.1
1
1
1
0.8
0.8
0.8
0.8
0.8
0.8
0.8
0.8
0.7
0.6
0.6
0.5
0.5
0.3
0.3
0.2
0

 

The responsibility of government

In a previous post on this blog, I argued that what matters in education is the contract between parents and the State for those families that take up the offer of free schooling. This makes the present debate about selective education very important. I have yet to hear either a Minister or indeed any Tory MP talk about anything other than grammar schools. What is the likely effect of creating more grammar schools for the system as a whole?

Here are some questions to ask supporters of more grammar schools

Which other school systems across the world select at age 11 and are any in the top 10 PISA rankings?

What percentage of pupils should go to grammar schools in any area and is this fixed by pupil numbers or pupil places? This matters in a period of rapidly rising pupil numbers such as we will see over the next decade.

There are a higher proportion of single sex schools amongst grammar schools than secondary schools as a whole. This may be because otherwise girls might take a large proportion of the places available. How would you address this issue?

Until recently, grammar schools received more funding than secondary moderns in many authorities. Age weighted pupil funding and Pupil Premium altered that. Will new grammar schools be funded in the same way as existing schools?

What appends to schools that currently select by aptitude?

Who pays the transport costs in rural areas for pupils going to grammar schools?

With the county council elections along with some other urban areas in 2017 should parental appetite for grammar schools be tested at the ballot box?

Where do UTCs and Studio Schools fit into the new scheme of schools? Isn’t it better to provide specialisms from 14 onwards rather than at age 11?

What responsibility does the government have to all pupils it educates?

How does the government intend to ensure disadvantaged pupils, late developers and pupils with SEN will be able to gain a place at the new selective schools?

Who will bear the cost of setting up any new system?

What will be the effect on teacher supply if some teachers are excluded from teaching a section of the school population?

Why wait until 11 to select, why not do so at the primary school level based on potential?

It goes without saying that this muddled approach to our school system serves nobody very well. What is must not do is put off potential teachers wondering whether to sign-up for a teacher preparation courses starting next year. Indications are that my post of 25th August worrying about 2016 recruitment may have been close to the mark in some subjects and I don’t want 2017 to be even worse.

The government must declare how far we have a national system and how far local areas can still decide their own style of education. Our economy in the 21st century needs an education system fit for purpose note one just for vote winning.

 

 

 

Children on Free School Meals don’t go to selective schools

The following piece appeared in today’s Oxford Mail comment column.

What is the nature of the contract between the State and those parents who entrust their children’s education to the government? As we approach the 150th anniversary of the State’s offer of free education, a right that was originally introduced by the Liberal government after 1870, this question is as real today as it was then.

Indeed, with the local Tory enthusiasm for the re-introduction of grammar schools, as outlined by Oxfordshire’s Cabinet member with responsibility for education in this paper last week, the issue is of real concern to many parents locally. I did wonder whether the enthusiasm with which the local Tories have embraced grammar schools is just a diversionary tactic to draw attention away from other cuts in the education funding and early years’ budgets, including the removal of much of the Children’s Centre work from rural areas and my own division in north Oxford rather than a genuine desire to turn back the clock.

Grammar schools became a core part of Tory Party policy after the passing of the 1944 Education Act, although it was the Labour government of the late 1940s that laid down the basis for the transformation into the system of grammar and secondary modern schools. With many school leavers at that time still destined for field, factory or, for many girls, family life, grammar schools satisfied the needs of a largely muscle-powered economy for a small number of more educated individuals.

Now, fast forward seventy years and we have an entirely different economy; young people are staying in education longer and our economy requires a much better educated workforce. The market porter of yesterday, pushing a barrow, has been replaced by the fork-lift truck driver and even they are increasingly being replaced by computer operatives running automated warehouses staffed by robots such as those seen in the recent BBC TV series on how modern factories operate. Less muscle, more brain power is the key to the modern economy.

In Oxfordshire, the demand for educated individuals to staff the wealth-creating and knowledge generating industries cannot be satisfied by selecting a fraction of the school population at age eleven. There is a case for recognising that between 14-16 pupils can make judgements about their future intentions, but even then closing doors too firmly, as grammar schools so often do, isn’t a good idea.

There are far more important ways to spend limited funds on education than introducing grammar schools: better careers advice, ensuring enough teachers for all children to be taught by a properly qualified teacher and creating a curriculum designed for the twenty-first century are just three of the more important uses for education funding.

However, the most important reason many supporters of grammar schools put forward for their re-introduction is the desire to improve social mobility. Too often there is no evidence to support their argument other than anecdotal recollections of individuals who prospered in the so-called golden age of grammar schools. To test the current picture I looked at the percentage of pupils with free school meals in the 163 grammar schools across England in January as a possible proxy measure for social mobility.

Nationally, 14.1% of secondary pupils were eligible for free school meals. No grammar school reached that figure; indeed only six grammar schools had more than 6% of their pupils eligible for free school meals; 66 grammar schools had less than 2% of pupils on Free School Meals.

It is time for us to work together to create an education system that works for the benefit of all, not the advantage of the few: that means a fully comprehensive system with opportunities for all from primary school to post-16 provision.

 

Do you want to work in a grammar school?

Grammar schools were a product of the nineteenth century that lingered overlong into the twentieth and have no place in the modern world. We should not ensure the effective education of those gifted and talented in some areas by separating them from the rest of society at an early age. Even where their education is fundamentally different, whether for future ballet dancers, musicians, footballers or choristers, some degree of integration with others less skilled in these areas should be the norm.

Since intellectual ability isn’t fully developed at eleven, the grounds for grammar schools seem more social than educational, even when cloaked in the guise of meritocracy. Scare resources are best employed developing better education for all, not in keeping a few Tory voters in the fold.

Before any decision is taken, and this wasn’t a manifesto pledge, the government should undertake some polling on the effect of the introduction of new selective schools across the country on both the current teacher workforce as well as the views of those that might want to become a teacher.

For existing secondary school teachers, the question is simple: If your school were to lose 30% of its most able pupils, would you continue to teach here?

For potential teachers the question is: would you be willing to teach in a school where 30% of the age range didn’t attend?

For primary school teachers, the question has to be whether they would prepare children for the selection process?

Making a teacher supply crisis worse won’t help the education of those not selected form a grammar school place.

To introduce grammar schools without a comprehensive education plan for every child the State has been entrusted with educating is unbelievably short-sighted: something only a narrow-minded government would contemplate. To cloak the introduction of grammar schools in the social mobility agenda without offering any evidence that such schools create more mobility than the alternative is to pander to the views of the few and to disregard the needs of the many.

What plans do the government have for those left out of a grammar school in a bulge year because grammar school places cannot be turned on an off? Will the government create a system to cope with 30% of the peak pupil numbers in the mid-2020s and allow either a less rigorous selection procedure until then or will it leave places empty? The alternative seems to me to be that it will set the limit on places now and see more parents denied places as pupil numbers increase?

What is certain is that the present per pupil funding formula cannot work within a two-tier system as the redundancies in Kent have already shown. Perhaps this is the real reason why the National Funding Formula consultation has been delayed, to allow for the incorporation of a different method of funding of grammar schools to non-selective schools within the new system?

Will Council taxpayers in areas that don’t want selective education be forced to pay the transport costs of pupils attending such schools and will the government reimburse them or expect them to take the cash away from other hard pressed services?

I am all in favour of local democracy in education, but not in a government sponsored free-for-all.