Monday, October 08, 2007

Electing to end selection

The process by which parents can vote on academic selection by grammar schools simply doesn't work. Yes, we need a review: justice demands it - this is the theme of my latest article for the Guardian's CiF website.

Jim Knight's decision to review the complex system by which parents can vote to end academic selection is to be welcomed. Why? Because, after 10 years of Labour government, more children face the 11 plus or selective entry tests for secondary education than ever before.

The policy that Jim Knight wants to review allows selective entry into grammar schools to remain unless a majority of local eligible parents vote for it to change or grammar school governing bodies decide to change their admission policies to admit children of all abilities. To date, no governing bodies have done this. Before a ballot can be held, 20% of eligible parents in the areas concerned must sign a petition calling for a ballot. To require all of the 164 grammar schools in England to take children of all abilities would need 48 petitions and ballots.

Crucial to the present legislation is the definition of an eligible parent. This differs depending on whether the ballot would be an area or feeder ballot. Area ballots would be needed to end selection in the 10 local authorities defined by the regulations as fully selective (Bexley, Buckinghamshire, Kent, Lincolnshire, Medway, Slough, Southend, Sutton, Torbay, Trafford). Here, all parents living in the area are eligible to sign a petition and ballot, including those with children below school age or those living outside the area but with children in the schools within the local authority.

For the 38 ballots in the other 26 English local authorities with grammar schools, only parents who have children in the feeder schools to the grammar schools would be eligible. Feeder schools are those that have sent a total of five or more pupils to the grammar schools in question in the year the signatures are being gathered and the preceding two years.

The only ballot to be held was in Ripon in 2000, where two thirds of eligible parents who took part voted to keep the status quo. This was a feeder ballot. One success was that it showed up the bizarre effect of the feeder school ballot regulations. Private school parents are over-represented in feeder ballots, as many private schools exist to coach pupils to pass the entry tests to grammar schools. In Ripon, private school parents made up a quarter of the electorate, although a parliamentary question at the time revealed that only 4.6% of primary children in North Yorkshire were in private education (Hansard 2000).

In feeder school areas, many local parents, even those sending their children to schools near the grammar schools in question, are ineligible to sign petitions and vote. In Barnet, campaigners trying to collect signatures found that parents of children at a primary school next door to a grammar school were not eligible to sign the petition, as not enough of the children at their school had passed the entry test.

The second largest group of the Ripon electorate after private-school parents were parents of children in a school 10 miles away, while some Ripon parents were ineligible. So the promise in the 1997 manifesto - "Any changes in the admission policies of grammar schools will be decided by local parents" - has not been fulfilled.

What can be done? There are several options that the government might pursue in order to make the present system fairer and more transparent. If ballots have to remain:

• Make all ballots area ballots (remove the option for feeder ballots).• Reduce the 20% threshold figure to 10%• Allow people to sign up for petitions electronically (similar to the ePetitions on the Downing Street website)
• Reduce the time period for the collection of signatures for petitions.
Other options that the government might consider include:
• A requirement for governors of selective schools to vote regularly on proposals to end academic selection as a criterion for admission to the school. • The extension of Para 3.17 of the 2003 school admissions code of practice (pdf) ("Academic selection should never be used to decide entry into primary education"). to include entry into secondary education.
• Commission a report that looks into the impact of academic selection on standards and social inclusion.

The time is now right to review the arrangements to allow local people a greater say in the shape of secondary-school provision in their area. One would hope that Jim Knight's review will be pushing at an open door; after all, there is cross-party agreement that academic selection is a bad thing, isn't there?


georgesdelatour said...

"The time is now right to review the arrangements to allow local people a greater say in the shape of secondary-school provision in their area."

Would you support ballots to close sectarian faith schools? Or is that a form of selection - by accident of parents' religion - that you approve of?

You say "there is cross-party agreement that academic selection is a bad thing" (presumably not at University and Postgraduate level).

Really this is just a way of admitting you don't know how to make the anti-selection argument, so you'll fall back on consensus as a lazy substitute for coherent argument.

Please enlighten me. We currently have selection by house price (houses in the catchment areas of "good" comprehensives are around one third more expensive than they would be otherwise). Academic selection is one of the few ways of undercutting this form of plutocratic selection - which it would appear you're wholeheartedly in favour of. I put it to you that you're obviously rich enough to buy yourself a house in a "good" catchment area, and you oppose academic selection because you want to keep the working class riff raff away from your kids.

Mike Ion said...

In defence of the Tory party’s new position on selection David Willets, the shadow Education Secretary, cited the 2004 study by Professor Jesson when he compared the GCSE and GNVQ results of all grammar school pupils with those of the top 25% of pupils in comprehensive schools. Jesson’s study indicated that pupils in the comprehensive schools did no worse than their counterparts in grammar schools, indeed the evidence pointed to them doing slightly better overall. What Willets and others now accept is that the familiar claim that grammar schools offer an 'escape from poverty' to bright working class children otherwise denied real educational opportunity, relied heavily on highlighting individual successes without establishing how representative they actually were. The surviving grammar schools are in the main schools for the middle-classes. In England in 2005, the proportion of children eligible for free school meals (an imperfect but commonly used indicator of social disadvantage) was much lower in selective than in non-selective schools in every one of the 36 Local Authorities which retain at least some grammar schools. In the 15 LEAs with around 20% or more of their pupils in grammar schools, the average percentage of children eligible for free school meals in those schools was 1.8% compared with an English average of 18.1%.
In 2006 over half of all 15-16 year olds in maintained schools achieved five or more 'higher passes' at the end of compulsory schooling. This is the hurdle set in the past for only those attending grammar schools, one which many, even of that selected minority, failed to surmount. In 1970, 47% of pupils left secondary school with no qualifications; in 2005 that figure was down to 4%. Between 1989 and 2005 the percentage of 16-18 year olds in full time education rose from 37.6 to 80.3. In 1971-72 14% of under-21 year olds entered higher education, in 2004-2005 42% entered. Over a third of the age group entering higher education is an aim which would have seemed impossibly ambitious a generation ago. Given that expenditure on education did not increase in real terms between the mid-1970s and the late-1990s this remarkable increase in productivity as measured by qualifications is attributable, in large part, to the removal of the barrier of the 11-plus for some four-fifths of the population.
Since comprehensive education was introduced, barriers to achievement for many young people have been removed. The annual government statistics of school attainment, examination results, and participation in further and higher education offer clear evidence of a 'levelling-up' over the last 25 years. In some areas of England it is reasonable to regard comprehensive schooling not as a 'failed experiment' but as an experiment which has not yet been tried. However it is important to emphasise that it is selection that needs to be got rid of, no one is suggesting that particular schools should be closed. There is no reason why the remaining 164 grammar schools themselves should not remain pretty much as they are now. They would have the same buildings, the same governors, the same headteachers and staff, the same resources, the same curriculum, uniform and largely the same funding. The only real change will be in the academic profile of the pupils attending the school.
The idea of ‘choice’ in education is all too often ill-defined. Parents can exercise a preference in terms of schools: few can exercise any real choice. A selective system of schooling does not lead to diversity of provision it simply leads to division. Selection is not the creation of choice rather it is the denial of choice for the many. A selective system (be it based on ability or aptitude) does not help promote a diverse system of schooling; it simply helps perpetuate division in society as a whole. Selective schools are not escape routes from poverty, they do not offer good value for money and they do not help raise standards overall? The Tories do not want a return to selection and the Lib Dems are opposed in principle. This is why a Brown led Government should seek to end selection in the state sector once and for all. Who knows, perhaps it will be a case of ‘third term’ lucky!

RobShorrock said...

Here in Lincolnshire, the education authority should arrange a wider referendum of all citizens in a given area. People have never been given the chance to try out a non-selective system. Local Education policy should be decided democratically. This anomoly is something that needs to be dealt with once and for all.



georgesdelatour said...

The "top 25% of pupils in comprehensive schools" consists principally of middle class kids whose parents got them selected into a "good" comprehensive by buying a house in a de luxe catchment area or by feigning Christian belief. They are proof that selection works.

However they measure class, statisticians have found that the huge university expansion of the past 20 years has disproportionately benefited the children of the well-off.

The UK is indisputably becoming a more unequal society. Surely education has something to do with it.

You have failed to answer my main point. What about selection based on parents' religion? Are you for it or against it?

Mike Ion said...

You are clearly are not in favour of faith schools - I respect your position. The reality is that faith schools exist and I think any proposal to 'abolish' them is just unrealistic. I personally welcome the proposed Lord's amendment to the Education and Inspection Bill on admissions to schools with a religious character, along with other possible changes to the government's code on admissions. I would argue that such a proposal is a positive move towards greater social and educational inclusion. A truly "Christian school" would be one that seeks to be open to all - and which pays particular attention to the needs of marginalised and poorer communities.

What is needed is a mature, open and honest debate about the type of educational system various faith groups would be happy to support and indeed help shape in the twenty-first century. Should it be an inclusive, comprehensive system that intrinsically values and caters for all pupils regardless of their spiritual, economic or social capital? Or should it be a two tier, elitist system that perpetuates privilege, does not help promote the common good and is contrary to the message of the gospel?

georgesdelatour - I am happy to continue this debate but would welcome some practical and realistic suggestions from you as to how we make the system of admissions fairer.

georgesdelatour said...

My own experience as a parent has convinced me there is a massive gap between how a comprehensive system might work in an ideal world and how it actually works in practice. In practice it is a VERY selective system. It's just that the selection criteria are not the child's ability but parental wealth and parental cunning.

When my eldest son turned five I found that the nearest school to our home had a 78% muslim intake. I have no problem with my son learning about Islam - in a context of learning properly about all faiths and none - but this felt simply like a different kind of mono-culture. I asked the head why the school was so overwhelmingly filled with children of muslims. She explained that the "white" parents put their kids into the local Catholic and C of E schools. Most were probably not religious, but wanted to separate themselves from the non-whites. Inevitably this concentrated the remainder in her school.

I found a state primary with a good secular ethos which I loved. There was just one problem. It's in St John's Wood, London - the place which officially has the highest property prices in the UK. I knew we did not live close enough to the catchment area. I met a friend who had got his daughter into the school by renting a two-bedroom flat on the same street as the school. Once she was safely enrolled he had quietly moved back to Kilburn. I didn't feel I could pull off this kind of subterfuge. I did the sums, and found out it would be cheaper to send our son to private school than pay a mortgage in St Johns Wood.

Eventually we settled on a C of E school as the best of the remainder. To get my son in I and my Jewish friend started turning up at church with our kids. The priest knew we were playing a game, and that the second he signed the form for the school we'd never come back to his church. But that's the game the state insists we play...

I am one of the 92% of Britons who never attend any religious service. I am curious why you think the other 8% will always outvote us. I did not start out militantly anti-clerical, but I hate the way things are going. At the last election I wrote to all three candidates, and simply explained that I would only vote for a candidate who opposed faith schools in the state sector. The Labour and Tory candidates supported faith selection, but the Liberal Democrat - himself an Indian of Hindu origin - opposed faith schools. So he got my vote. At the next election I will adopt the same voting policy.

Sarfraz Manzoor did an excellent radio programme, examining the role of faith schools in entrenching sectarianism in Northern Ireland, and explaining why he, as a muslim, opposes muslim schools. Of course it's possible that I'm just talking to people who agree with me, but I find many people who see the worrying potential for a kind of de facto apartheid. If we have state-funded Christian and Jewish schools, we have to have Muslim schools too. But even if you insist the Muslim schools take a proportion of non-Muslims, the reality is that whites will do almost anything to avoid sending their kids to such schools. We may wish that they were more pro-Islamic, but they will do anything to avoid that, moving house, defending their children by sheer distance if necessary. There is clear evidence that such separation is underway in Bradford, for instance. Can you show me any opinion poll evidence that the UK electorate as a whole wants more faith schools?

georgesdelatour said...


I found this opinion poll from 2005, which shows that two thirds of the electorate oppose state funded faith schools:,,1554593,00.html

fake consultant said...

in the us we do not (theoretically) support religious education with taxpayer dollars...and the discussion here presents two reasons why this is a good policy:

--how do you create educational opportunity for every religious preference?

education for middle eastern immigrants is a prefect example, judiasm another.

shall schools be set up for sunni, shi'a, sufi, copt, reform, conservative, and orthodox? how small a subdivsion need be accomodated?

--if the answer is no, doesn't that require members of the denied groups to pay for the religious education of others that is unavailable to them?

viewing the situation from outside, it would seem logical that as the uk grows more politically and culturally diverse this problem would be exacerbated.