The evidence is against selection

Written by: Dr Deborah Robinson | Published:
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This article is a very socialistic approach to the issue. Having been a part of the 70's education ...

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England is facing a return to grammar schools and selective education. The prime minister argues this will boost social mobility. Dr Deborah Robinson says the evidence shows that such claims are disingenuous

Education secretary Justine Greening has taken up the remit – set in motion by prime minister Teresa May – to expand selective schools at 11-plus, claiming that this strategy will improve every child’s chances.

A more selective system, it is alleged, will help the education system to develop as a genuine meritocracy. If you work hard and are bright enough you can move up in the world in spite of disadvantages.

To say that such claims are disingenuous is an understatement.

The suggestion that a more selective system improves social mobility is not supported by the facts and, in this area, the evidence is clear.

A selective system entrenches privilege and disadvantage, it doesn’t unsettle it. Research from the Sutton Trust (Poor Grammar, 2013) demonstrates that in the 163 grammar schools in England, less than three per cent of pupils were entitled to free school meals – a proxy for social deprivation. Worse than that, high-achieving children who are entitled to free school meals have a much lesser chance of attending a grammar school than, similarly, high-achieving children. The current system of assessment at 11 does not offer a level playing field for families who can’t afford tutors and prep schools.

In 2012, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reported – in Equity and Quality in Education: Supporting disadvantaged students and schools – that intergenerational social mobility in England had not improved and, in some ways, has got worse. Our preoccupation with sorting and sifting children is identified as part of the cause.

Though we might believe that grouping children by ability makes for a more efficient and bespoke system, the facts reveal the opposite. It limits aspiration, opportunity and equality. It is a highly successful route to maintaining the status quo. The OECD suggests that where classes (and schools) are diverse, containing children of varied abilities and backgrounds, the results for social mobility are better.

That we are heading for a more segregated system in England is clear in recent statistics from the Department for Education (Special Educational Needs in England: January 2016), where it is reported that there are nearly five per cent more children with statements or Education, Health and Care Plans in special schools than there were in 2010.

This is a sign that our schools are becoming less diverse and less inclusive. Given the focus on academic ability, children with SEN are unlikely to gain access to lauded grammar schools. This is not a system of choice, it is a system of segregation endorsed by an unfair system of assessment and the continuing elevation of academic ability above other domains of human development.

Turning to the solution, the OECD and Sutton Trust place emphasis on a more nuanced approach to policy where the route to a fairer education system depends on an alignment between education policy and other government policies such as housing and welfare. It also depends on delaying segregation by ability until upper secondary school.

Schools are also helped when an education system can attract, support and retain high-quality teachers in disadvantaged schools. This most recent policy announcement has the potential to throw the system into further chaos in ways that cannot attract the best and brightest teachers.

A disadvantaged school will seem all the more disadvantaged when the “brighter” children are sent elsewhere – it seems likely that the “brighter” teachers will follow them.

More importantly, in an increasingly segregated system, schools are impoverished when their populations do not include children with disabilities and learning difficulties.

In my opinion we are set to launch structural reforms that tighten the stranglehold of poverty, categorise children and cannot deliver on social mobility.

  • Dr Deborah Robinson is director of the Institute of Education at the University of Derby.

This article is a very socialistic approach to the issue. Having been a part of the 70's education system where I did the 11 plus and subsequently into the "system", I have first hand experience.
I do not think that the issue can be isolated into just education. Ultimately people will end up in a career or job following schooling and I feel the link between education providers and employers are where significant work needs to take place.
Being a member of the STEM network and attending conferences linked to this, a common theme that occurs every time is that employers are not able to fill vacancies, apprenticeships or other "with training" roles they have available and are willing to fund. Having shared dialogue with various different local, national and multinational companies the common theme is that young people are not coming through the system "work prepared", or even with the knowledge that these opportunities exist. There appears to be a total lack of communication or willingness to cooperate between the employers and the education system to address this problem. When I asked about the question of funding (put your money where your mouth is) to the employers almost all said they where prepared to put investment there providing there was a return on it.
Why are the politicians in the Education Department not exploring this further?
Our system has now come to the stage where a University Education is expected with young people starting post education life with a huge debt following tuition fees etc. This is not a great place to be in your early twenties+ when the future will probably be looking to buy property etc. Indeed my experience is often to see post graduates in jobs that they could have done without the degree and associated debt and probably be further progressed in the job.
Look at the Universities, most are now newly built offering various different degree programmes to satisfy every last thing you can think of except what is needed.... we can provide experts in Ant Psychology but cannot supply enough people for lucrative STEM careers or even fill apprenticeships in this area. Is something wrong here?
Looking back to the time when I finished secondary school, everyone had the choice to go into sixth form and beyond, go to apprenticeships (if qualified), jobs with training or just a job. Industries have changed and the world has moved on but opportunities are still there. The current system may strive to produce "rounded individuals", but failing to address post education needs will be to the detriment of all.

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