Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance, c. 1664
To be fair to the mayor, he’d just done his London-is-great spiel at his Education Conference when he was ambushed by a question that caught his attention. What did he think, asked the Press Association, about expanding grammar schools?
To be fair to the mayor, he didn’t answer that, but he did think out loud. What do you think of academic selection, he asked the room? What’s wrong with it? It never did any harm to the chap who was always at the bottom of the Mayor’s year group at Eton. He asked for a show of hands: did we use academic selection? He was interested that we did. The crowd started to rustle a bit and someone shouted ‘we do it all the time’.
To be fair to the Mayor, he spotted that the temperature had dropped. ‘I’ve lost my audience!’ he wailed. People got a bit cross, in a teacherly way, with muttering and tutting. We’re always irritated at suggestions that we don’t measure achievement or progress, or arrange our schools in order to support them.
To be fair to the Mayor (and I may only be saying this because it rhymes) he didn’t say he was proposing grammar schools or the 11+. He was concerned that we should support those who would lose out but he believed academic competition is key to success. Why does it work in the public and independent schools, he asked? I have several answers to this and muttered some of them to myself in a huffy sort of way. I may have said ‘follow the money’ out loud at one point in a noisier part of the discussion.
Like other schools we are discussing life after levels now that the extraordinary decision has been taken that every school will invent its own system. What do we want to measure? What do we need? What do parents want to know? What will scrutineers want to see? What will partner schools do? What is the relationship between attitudes and work habits and subject knowledge? How can you judge progress in a subject that’s new at year 7, or at GCSE ? Can we measure progress in the arts and PE in the same way as in maths or history? What will work with the well-motivated, the reluctant, the struggler, the lazy, the misunderstood?
Politicians love to talk about their own schooling. Some – like Johnson and Tristram Hunt – admit that it was private and privileged. There is a gap in their understanding of other types of schools, which is then compounded by media storms designed to sell news and dominated by those of a similarly narrow background. We are trapped in misunderstandings which have their roots in the deep inequalities of British society, some of which were helpfully uncovered last week by the 1970 British Cohort Survey comprehensively exploding some grammar school myths.
May I offer some facts? Most schools use some form of academic selection in their setting processes. Setting is not streaming, but is done by assessing ability in a particular subject (this seems impossibly hard for politicians to grasp; they may be in the wrong set). However, there is no outcomes evidence to distinguish setting from mixed ability teaching: teacher quality is the key. Assessment measures progress and helps design subsequent teaching to accelerate it, which is standard good practice. Attending a grammar school does not confer lasting benefits in terms of university entrance or success as children from comprehensive schools achieve more highly at university than those from other types of schools. However, private schooling is powerfully predictive of gaining a university degree and especially a degree from an elite institution. This is probably because of the double advantage of close links with Oxbridge colleges and a prevalence of graduate parents, the strongest predictor for university success.
In 2007 David Willetts – supported by David Cameron - courted lasting unpopularity from the Conservative party by saying:
We must break free from the belief that academic selection is any longer the way to transform the life chances of bright poor kids. This is a widespread belief but we just have to recognise that there is overwhelming evidence that such academic selection entrenches advantage, it does not spread it.
The comprehensive dream can transform lives for all its children. That’s where we’ll get a return on our belief.
Christmas approaches and we’ve bought the red tags and the trees. Perhaps the hope I’ll write on my tag is that education debate might be embellished with facts and evidence in the General Election. Perhaps I’ll tie one to the door of Sanctuary Buildings, SW1.