The Great Grammar School Debate: See the experts’ arguments for and against selective education

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In this in-depth feature, we ask grammar heads and campaigners the key questions on Bucks’s grammar school system, including whether it increases social mobility and why the Vale’s pass rate is so low.

You can also watch our video interview above where we grill the grammar headteachers.

Grammar school headteachers, from left to right, Andy Gillespie (Burnham), Philip Wayne (Chesham) and Alan Rosen (Aylesbury High)

Grammar school headteachers, from left to right, Andy Gillespie (Burnham), Philip Wayne (Chesham) and Alan Rosen (Aylesbury High)

WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF THE 11-PLUS AND GRAMMAR SCHOOL SYSTEM?

Alan Rosen, Aylesbury High School: It’s a local decision of course as what sort of make-up of schools there are. Bucks has demonstrated over many years that the grammar school and upper school system has worked well. The results for Bucks are very strong. There are areas of concern as well within there but overall it has benefited Bucks for many years.

Katy Simmons, Local Equal Excellent campaign group: The great majority of children who attend state schools locally get no benefit at all from this system. In a number of local primary schools, no children at all qualify for grammar schools. Instead, they are more likely to attend an upper school that. despite the school’s commitment and hard work, OFSTED has rated ‘ requires improvement’. How much better it would be if all local schools were rated ‘good’ and children could simply go to the one nearest their home.

DO GRAMMAR SCHOOLS INCREASE SOCIAL MOBILITY?

Alan Rosen: I have worked in an authority which didn’t have selection, except that it had selection by postcode. Obviously if you lived in a house which is expensive then you would get access to a certain school and if you lived in a poorer house you didn’t. The Bucks grammar school system allows that movement.

Rebecca Hickman, Local Equal Excellent: This is one of the most enduring myths about grammar schools – and one of the most misleading. To aid social mobility grammars would need to admit children from less advantaged backgrounds in the first place. Instead they turn them away in disproportionate numbers. Several recent studies have also shown how grammars do not aid social mobility any more than comprehensives for the disadvantaged children who do get in.

WHY DID ONLY 16% OF CHILDREN FROM AYLESBURY VALE PASS FOR THE 2014 INTAKE COMPARED TO 37% IN THE CHILTERNS? (THE PROVISIONAL FIGURE FOR 2015 INTAKE IS 17% FOR THE VALE AND 42% FOR THE CHILTERNS)

Philip Wayne, head of Chesham Grammar School and chairman of Bucks Grammar Schools: You need to have a look at attainment at key stage 2, A-level and GCSE and you will probably find stories there as well. The 11-plus itself will not change what is a national picture of attainment. The 11-plus is simply a mirror on what is going on nationally.

Derek Berry, Local Equal Excellent: Aylesbury Vale includes some of the most disadvantaged areas of Bucks, Chilterns includes some of the most wealthy. The deep gulf in pass rates reflects first and foremost children’s different social and economic backgrounds. The gap also holds true if you look at state primary schools only – for these schools in Aylesbury Vale, only 14% of children passed in 2014, compared to 29% in South Bucks and Chiltern districts’ state schools.

IS IT FAIR THAT THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PASSING AND FAILING THE 11-PLUS CAN BE THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN GOING TO AN OUTSTANDING SCHOOL OR A FAILING ONE?

Andy Gillespie, head of Burnham Grammar School : One of the things we have done for the new test is looking at the review process. There is a more structured review process which asks for very, very clear key information which allows us to address two key questions. The first thing is were there extenuating circumstances that affected that child on the day of the test which explains the lower score and if they hadn’t been there would that have meant the child passed the test. The other one is is there evidence that the test for some reason just didn’t reflect the true academic potential of that child. That process is further being refined in the second year. The changes have been really welcomed by primary colleagues and I think it’s a much fairer process. The invigilators for these tests have been trained very, very carefully so anything at all that happens is noted down and that forms part of the review process.

Philip Wayne: The 11-plus is not the end of the road. My school for example takes children at 12-plus and 13-plus and sixth form, if there spaces. The 11-plus is absolutely not just one opportunity.

Katy Simmons: Upper schools in Bucks have the odds stacked against them and do their best in very challenging circumstances. When you remove the top 30% most able (or more accurately, most intensively schooled) children from any school it has a huge impact on teaching and learning for the remaining children. Pretending that grammar schools and upper schools are equal but different is patronising nonsense. A report earlier this year found that Bucks has one of the biggest attainment gaps in the country - and that it gets worse as children go through secondary school.

GIVEN THE AMOUNT OF OUT OF COUNTY CHILDREN THAT MAKE UP THE COHORT, WHY NOT LOWER THE PASS MARK SO MORE BUCKS CHILDREN CAN GET IN?

Philip Wayne: Lowering the qualification rate would not result necessarily in more Bucks children passing.

Alan Rosen: It might, but you also need to look at the shape of Buckinghamshire and the nature of the catchment area. Even in Aylesbury a place like Tring is only five miles away. That is out of catchment but there are some places within catchment that are 10 miles away. If we want to be a more local school we ought to be including Tring children.

Philip Wayne: Of course years ago when the local education authority was responsible (for the schools) it probably was a situation where only Bucks children went to the schools. Schools have moved on since then and are now their own admission authorities. Parents are more mobile and more willing to send their children from one place to the next. It is just a different market and schools have had to respond to that.

Rebecca Hickman: One of the grave injustices in the 11+ is how the pass threshold changes from year to year because of the standardisation process. What this means in reality is that two children might receive identical ‘raw’ scores in different years, but one would pass and the other would fail. This is clearly unfair. Fixing the pass mark would help to ensure grammar schools remain local schools for local children.

DOES THE 11-PLUS TEST FAVOUR CHILDREN FROM WEALTHIER BACKGROUNDS?

Philip Wayne: The test itself does not favour them.

Alan Rosen: There’s some effect of practice, if you practice and practice you will ultimately do better. The effect of that practice goers down very quickly after the first session or two. So there’s a limit as to how much you should have. We provide a familiarisation and practice set of materials so all children will have the basic introduction to the format of the test and the type of questions.

Derek Berry: This is undeniable. All the evidence points to the fact that the 11+ selects on the basis of social background, dedicated coaching and prior opportunity, rather than on innate ability. Children who receive free school meals are some of the poorest children in our schools. In 2014 in Bucks, only 4% of these children passed the 11+, compared to the county average of 25%. In the meantime, better-off parents are able to purchase tutoring for their child or send them to a private school that specialises in 11+ preparation.

IS THE 11-PLUS EXAM COACH-PROOF?

Philip Wayne: There’s no such thing as a tutor-proof test. No-one has ever said that. The current test is based on materials students are learning in primary schools - maths and English and there’s also a non-verbal reasoning which is there for different reasons. Of course you cannot stop people sending their children for tutoring or coaching. People do it for GCSEs and A-levels. What we can do is provide a test which is a level playing field that every child in the county is studying for at primary school. The impact of coaching is therefore reduced.

Rebecca Hickman: The grammar schools still have not produced a shred of evidence to support their claim that the new 11+ exam reduces the effect of coaching. The organisation that designs the exam (CEM) makes the modest claim that the new test ‘may be more resistant to coaching’, but again refuses to release any data to back it up. Citing the support of a handful of primary school heads is not evidence. The onus is on the grammar schools to produce facts and figures that show precisely how the 11+ exam reduces the impact of coaching. They won’t because they can’t.

WILL GRAMMAR SCHOOLS PROVIDE MORE DATA ON THE ECONOMIC BACKGROUND/ ETHNICITY OF STUDENTS WHO PASS?

Philip Wayne: It’s in everybody’s best interests that grammar schools are transparent about what we are doing and we will do our best to try and work with the scrutiny committee and county councillors and with the community to ensure that people understand this is a very credible test and an important part of the fabric of the county’s education profile.

Derek Berry: The test designer, CEM, could produce this data in full from their pilot study – but they refuse. The grammar schools have been in possession of extensive ethnicity data for the 2014 exam for a year but have not undertaken any analysis of it. It was not until the Information Commissioner intervened that the grammar schools were finally forced to release the data that they did have. The lack of accountability and transparency of The Buckinghamshire Grammar Schools (which is the name of the company that oversees the 11+) is a cause of real concern for local parents and for all local people who think a public service, like education, should be run openly and transparently.

WHY IS THE SELECTIVE SYSTEM CONTROVERSIAL?

Philip Wayne: Education is controversial from top to bottom, whatever the system. You might argue that selection by house price which is what might replace academic selection would a good deal more controversial.

Alan Rosen: Any testing system is never going to be perfect. But for example there are more checks and balances on the 11-plus than there are for A-levels which are very black and white.

Katy Simmons: Most areas in the UK made the move away from this system many years ago. It only remains controversial in areas like Bucks where there has been no change for many years and where local residents have, until now, not had a chance to look at the real facts about who benefits from a system that we all pay for. The struggle we have had to get data about the test raises the question ‘Is there something to hide?’.