My MP supports new grammar schools, but there has to be a better way

Yesterday I visited my MP’s surgery to discuss problems with the grammar school system in Kent. He told me he supports the government’s plan to build new grammar schools,  so I knew the conversation wasn’t going to go the way I planned…

My daughter failed the eleven-plus and she had a troubled time in  two secondary schools (one closed down.) Her schools did their best, but they were greatly troubled by teacher shortages. She would get home from Chaucer Tech and I’d ask, “How many supply teachers did you have today?” I was disappointed she was rarely set homework, because supply teachers don’t bother with that. In a couple of subjects it was clear that there were no specialist teachers. So one of my questions for my MP was, “What is the government doing about the evidence that non-selective schools in grammar school areas recruit less experienced teachers?” He didn’t accept that point, and although he made a few scribbled notes throughout our discussion that one didn’t make the notebook.

My daughter worked hard in school, and out of school too. She taught me that YouTube is great for computer science and maths lessons, and not just funny cat videos. She proved the eleven-plus test was wrong by getting straight As in her GCSEs. So I asked my MP why he supported expanding the use of a test that is so regularly wrong? He accepted that the eleven-plus wasn’t very accurate, but said a new wave of grammar schools could involve head teacher’s nominating pupils too.

When pressed he did suggest it was more likely that the eleven-plus would be part of any new grammar school expansion plan. This disappointed me. It seems tricky to judge a ten year old’s ability in a two hour multiple-choice quiz. It seems impossible to do this fairly when some children have years of tutoring, while some have no preparation at all. It also bothers me  that the eleven-plus doesn’t measure hard work or attitude. My daughter worked for her GCSE grades with a revision plan that began in year 10, and with a dedication to work that made me much prouder than her eventual grades did. I am convinced her attitude to work matters immensely, but it is irrelevant to grammar school entry because it can’t be measured in a computer-marked check-box.

Grammar school selection tests judge cognitive ability, genetic cleverness,  or some special-sauce of natural-smartness no one properly defines. We exclude children from schools based on this test, which doesn’t seem like a scientific or well thought out test at all. Every scientist must know that tests have confidence limits, but try looking at that with the eleven plus and you’ll find thousands of children are impossible to define accurately as ‘grammar school ability’ or ‘not grammar school ability.’ I get hugely frustrated by badly designed systems, and the logic of grammar school selection is hugely flawed.

Of course it was impossible to convince my MP that building more grammar schools was a bad idea. Instead I decided to ask exactly why he wanted more selective schools.

He pointed out the record of one Kent grammar school which produces 1% of all Physics graduates in the country. He stressed the need to challenge academically able children. His focus was to ensure our country  produced the best graduates in the world, particularly in science and maths.

So the problem he wanted to fix was a simple one, he wanted to be sure that high ability children were challenged and reaching the top universities.

That was a fine aim and no one could disagree with the sense of it, but are grammar schools really the best way to achieve this aim? I was also confused because the MPs supporting new grammar schools are so muddled with their suggestions for the new schools.

If the goal of these new grammar schools is to challenge the very cleverest children then they would need to be a certain sort of grammar school. In Kent we have regular grammar schools (entry based on an eleven-plus pass and catchment area) and we have super-selective grammar schools (the highest eleven-plus scores win a place.) The school with the Physics record needs more points than a simple pass, it is a super-selective school. The grammar schools with the highest score requirements always produce the best results, as you’d expect. So if the goal is to challenge the brightest pupils then surely this should be the plan..?

But the problem is that these schools are loathed by parents. Super-selective grammar schools cause a frenzy of tutoring because every point counts. Many children travel miles to be educated in these schools, and some Kent super-selectives offer a third of places to independent school pupils. This is a long way from the other suggestions for the new grammar schools, with plan that they will educate disadvantaged children and boost social mobility.

The alternative sort of grammar schools, the parent-pleasing ones, only need a test pass to gain entry. Realistically these schools educate the vast majority of middle class children who’ve had tutoring for a year and got to grips with alegbra. These are popular schools that are quite likely to produce happy children who end up with average Sociology degrees. This is all quite lovely and parents are thrilled they exist, the problem is that most children can achieve an average Sociology degree with a regular comprehensive school and average A levels. The parents that tutor children to enter these schools are cheerleading their kids to be teachers or lawyers, and that is great. However I am convinced they would ensure their children achieved such careers whichever school educated them.

If the grammar school goal is to produce world class scientists and  top mathematicians then the plan should be to create a system selecting the very smartest children. It should also be aware that there are not many of these children. I’ve looked at Kent Test scores and there are a mass of children around the pass mark, and there are just a few super-bright kids with outlier scores. If you create a system like Kent’s average grammar schools then they will please voters and get quite nice results, but it won’t actually change education very much. These schools teach a regular GCSE curriculum, the one you find everywhere else. Their pupils get the same GCSE results as high achieving pupils in any half-decent school. There is no extra bonus-special-learning plan with these schools, they do exactly what a good comprehensive school does, so what’s the actual point of building more of them?

There seems to be a muddle of ideas from people with one goal and a flawed route to achieving it. If the problem is ‘high ability children are underachieving in our schools’ then why not attempt to fix that problem using the education system we have now? No one seems to have made any effort to do this. There is not one answer to this problem involving segregated schools at eleven. There are numerous solutions, there are ideas that no one has tried before, there are ideas that really will make a difference.

My idea is below. There is no one right plan, the more ideas proposed then the more likely we are to find an answer that doesn’t involve an eleven plus. My suggestion involves some effort from high achieving pupils in attending additional classes out of school. I like this idea because the brightest children need application to get anywhere, and a love of learning matters. I know my daughter would have headed to an out-of school centre to get stretched with extra Computer Science lessons. She loves the subject and wants to excel, and the alternative involved her watching computer stuff on YouTube.

THE PLAN...

It’s ironic that my MP spoke of cutting edge cleverness,  innovation, and fostering genius, yet his grand plan for education is neither cutting edge nor innovative. I’m sure any maths whizz-kid could calculate exactly how many holes there are in the new grammar school plan. It must waste the potential of thousands of bright children by simply failing to spot them at each step of its tortuous selection process.

If our government bring back grammar schools our government is effectively giving up on mixed-ability schools as a way to educate bright children. Clearly many comprehensive schools do get great results for their high achievers, but many could  certainly do better. So what to do? Can’t we talk about this, debate, think a while..? Or will  our parliamentary representatives, all opinion and no expertise, simply rush to propose a return to the olden-days and bring back the eleven-plus. They have no vision if they let such a plan go ahead.  Isn’t it better to let education experts look at this problem and find a new,  forward thinking, solution?

My daughter will go to a grammar school sixth form and study Computer Science at university.  Two years of solid GCSE work showed her potential when a short test at ten years old could not. I think we need to keep school options flexible before sixteen, it encourages all children to work hard to try to reach the top set. No grammar school fan wants to admit this, but when you take highly able children out of schools it changes them. The comprehensive school I went to worked so much better than the secondary moderns my daughter attended.

The achievement of highly able children is of course one small part of it all. I challenged my MP with the point Kent’s system is wrong to value bright children more highly than those who do not pass the eleven-plus. He said it was all about the economy and our country being the best. Yet it feels so wrong to base our entire school system on academic success alone. It is clear that creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship are nothing to do with reasoning tests at ten, or grades at GCSE, yet are obviously just as vital for our economy. A narrow view of success will only waste our children’s talents.

I came away from the meeting feeling sad about the future. How can we be ever be the best in the world when our government has a narrow, backwards, plan for education?

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