Wednesday, 28 March 2018

What does Daddy Earn Me? Places at University.

Grammar schools perform no better than non-selective state schools, once their pupils' higher ability and wealth is taken into account, a recent study suggests, despite grammars having a reputation of academic achievement, usually dominating the top of the league tables.

Academics at Durham University found the success of wholly selective schools was down to their more advantaged pupils. They say increasing the number of schools that select pupils by ability would be dangerous for equality, despite recent attempts by the government to lift the ban on grammar schools in the UK and a policy of wanting to widen access to grammar schools.

Based on the detailed results of nearly 550,000 pupils, the research suggests once the ability and social background of pupils is taken into account, grammar schools are no more or less effective than other schools. What this entails is the notion that is currently held by the government that we ought to be getting more children into grammar schools as they are better is patently false; if comprehensive schools had a higher proportion of higher wealth and ability (that are currently being drained by grammar schools), those students would perform just as well as if they went to a comprehensive, and a comprehensive would, on average, do just as well at teaching them.

Does this mean the school should target its massive amounts of advertising at middle class and affluent students in an attempt to compete with grammar schools in the league tables? Of course not. What the study shows is what we have been saying for a long time: the league tables have nothing to do with student achievement. Hampstead is non-selective, and so has no choice over the mix of students it gets, so its ranking in terms of academic achievement is purely down to the cohort of students they get coming through the school. That said, the school should instead not abandon its duty to provide a good education to students, as whilst a school's ability to educate is less of a factor than once thought, it is still a necessary foundation of a student's ability to achieve.

Arguably, the best change to make in the light of this study is out of the hands of the schools themselves; an ideological shift has to take place at the highest level of government. Grammar schools have only been given the treatment they have in the past few years because most of the front bench at the moment have rose-tinted memories of going to their own grammar schools, and are basing public policy accordingly. Instead, the best thing to do may be to abolish grammar schools altogether, relinquish the notion that one school ought to be competing with others, and work on the belief that all schools should be jointly improved. If what sets schools apart are the students, then democratising their intake rather than meritocratising it will in turn democratise the school system, meaning all students will get the same standard of education, wherever they may be. Then, perhaps, comprehensive schools may get the funds they desperately need (see Trash passim) to teach children from all walks of life to an equal standard.

There is a larger debate to be had about social equality, but the issue that we have with the current inequalities in the school system seem to have very little to do with schools themselves, meaning the solution must come from beyond the education system. It's unsurprising that grammar schools are inherently affluent; in 2016, only 3% of students in grammar schools were on free school meals, whereas the national average was 14%. What can be seen is that there are some poor students at grammar schools, but they face an uphill struggle to achieve as much compared to middle class students who have access to private tutors, funds for extra-curricular activities and likely better educated and more informed parents. This is reflected in university admissions: a disproportionate amount of Oxbridge students (20% of all those from 'state' schools) come from grammar schools, when they only make up 5% of school pupils nationally.

It appears that the middle-class students are the ones allowing their schools to pull ahead of other state schools, rather than the standard of school itself. There’s evidence that children do well if they come from an affluent household, whatever their school type. Even in the same school, a child from a poor household will likely be outperformed by a fellow pupil from a more affluent background. Taking schools out of the equation - as the study suggests we should do - the best way to provide an equality of opportunity for students is for the state to try to best replicate the advantages more affluent students get from their parents for students from less affluent backgrounds. Whilst suddenly producing better educated parents may be an impossible task, it is not beyond the realms of possibility (nor has it been beyond previous governments) to provide free private tutoring, music lessons and subsidised extra-curricular activities.

DISCLAIMER: This is a critical article. The views of the author are their own.

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