Time for an honest debate about grammar schools

This blog piece was co-authored with Rebecca Morris (@BeckyM1983). It was originally published on The Conversation (link) (July, 2016)

With Theresa May as the new prime minister at the helm of the Conservatives, speculation is already mounting about whether her support for a new academically selective grammar school in her own constituency will translate into national educational policy. This will be a big question for her newly appointed secretary of state for education, Justine Greening.

The debate between those who support the reintroduction of grammar schools and those who would like them abolished is a longstanding one with no foreseeable end in sight. In 1998 the Labour prime minister Tony Blair attempted to draw a line under the issue by preventing the creation of any new selective schools while allowing for the maintenance of existing grammar schools in England. Before becoming prime minister, David Cameron dismissed Tory MPs angry at his party’s withdrawal of support for grammar schools by calling the debate “entirely pointless”.

This is an issue that continues to resurface and recently became even more pressing with the government’s decision in October 2015 to allow a school in Tonbridge, Kent, to open up an annexe in Sevenoaks, ten miles away. This decision has led to the very real possibility of existing grammar schools applying for similar expansions. Whether or not more will be given permission to do so in the years ahead, many existing grammar schools are currently expanding their intakes.

This latest resurgence of the debate is playing out in an educational landscape which has been radically reformed since 2010. Old arguments about what type of school the government should favour have little traction or meaning in an education system deliberately set up around the principles of autonomy, diversity and choice. Meanwhile, much of the debate continues to ignore and distort the bodies of evidence on crucial issues such as the effectiveness of selection, fair access and social mobility.

It is against this backdrop that we completed a recent review looking at how reforms to the education system affect the grammar school debate and examined the evidence underpinning arguments on both sides.

Old debates, new system

Grammar schools have been re-positioning themselves within the newly-reformed landscape. Notably, 85% of grammar schools have now become academies – giving them more autonomy. Turning a grammar school into an academy is now literally a tick-box exercise. Adopting a legal status that ostensibly keeps the state at arms-length while granting autonomy over curriculum and admissions policies has had a strong appeal for grammar schools.

New potential roles for grammar schools have also opened up. We are seeing the emergence of new structures and forms of collaboration, such as multi-academy trusts, federations and other partnerships. Supporters argue that grammar schools can play a positive role within these new structures, offering leadership within the system. Notable examples include the King Edward VI foundation in Birmingham which in 2010 took over the poorly-performing Sheldon Heath Community Arts College. There are also current proposals for the foundation to become a multi-academy trust.

Construction of the new annexe for a grammar school in Sevenoaks. Gareth Fuller/PA Archive

The Cameron government’s quasi-market approach to making education policy – and that of New Labour before him – has favoured looser and often overlapping structures that allow for a diversity of provision and responsiveness to demand. The central focus is on standards rather than a state-approved blueprint for all schools. This involves intervention where standards are low and expansion where standards are high and there is demand for places.

This policy approach neither supports nor opposes grammar schools – it tries to sidestep the question entirely, leaving many concerns about fair access and the impact of academic selection unanswered.

Fair access

A disproportionately small number of disadvantaged pupils attend grammar schools. Contrary to the claims of grammar school proponents, the evidence shows that these disparities in intake are not entirely accounted for by the fact that grammar schools are located in more affluent areas nor by their high-attaining intake.

Yet grammar schools (and academies) are in a position to use their control over admissions policies and application procedures to seek more balanced intakes and fairer access should they wish to do so. Whether or not they have the ability or inclination remains to be seen.

The issue of school admissions is a good example of where the public debate has failed to keep pace with the realities of the system. Previous research by the Sutton Trust found that some of the most socially selective schools in the country are comprehensive schools, at least in name.

Pitting comprehensive schools against grammar schools, therefore, only loosely grasps the issue of social selectivity. With its emphasis on school types this distracts from the larger issue: the content of the school admissions code and how to ensure compliance with it. If more balanced school intakes are desired, the focus should be on rules around admissions and permissible over-subscription criteria for all schools.

What are grammar schools the answer to?

Much of the current debate is predicated on the superior effectiveness of grammar schools. But the evidence we have reviewed suggests that the academic benefit of attending a grammar school is relatively small. Even these estimates are likely to be inflated by differences in intake that are not taken into account in the statistics.

Evidence on selection, both as part of the education system itself and within schools through setting or streaming, suggest there is little overall benefit to children’s academic achievement. The overall effect is, at best, zero-sum and most likely negative, with higher-attaining pupils benefiting at the expense of lower-attaining pupils, leading to an increase in inequality. The question remains whether that is a price worth paying.


Why new school performance tables tell us very little about school performance

This blog piece was originally published on The Conversation (link) (January, 2017)

The latest performance tables for secondary and primary schools in England have been released – with parents and educators alike looking to the tables to understand and compare schools in their area.

Schools will also be keen to see if they have met a new set of national standards set by the government. These new standards now include “progress” measures, which are a type of “value-added measure”. These compare pupils’ results with other pupils who got the same exam scores as them at the end of primary school.

Previously, secondary schools were rated mainly by raw GCSE results. This was based on the number of pupils getting five A to C GCSEs. But because GCSE results are strongly linked to how well pupils perform in primary school, it tended to be that these previous performance tables told us more about school intakes than actual performance. So under the new measures, schools are judged by how much progress students make compared to other pupils of a similar ability.

This means that it is now easier to identify schools that have good results despite low starting points. As well as schools with very able students who are making relatively little progress compared to able pupils at other schools.

But even with these fairer headline measures, the tables still tell us relatively little about school performance. This is because there are serious problems with the use of these types of “value-added measures” to judge school performance – as my new research shows. I have outlined the main issues below:

Intake biases

Taking pupils’ starting points into account when judging school performance is a step in the right direction, because this means that schools are held accountable for the progress pupils make while at the school. It also focuses schools’ efforts on all pupils making progress rather than just those on the C/D grade borderline which was so crucial for success in the previous measure.

But school intakes differ by more than their prior exam results. My study finds that over a third of the variation in the new secondary school scores can be accounted for by a small number of factors such as the number of disadvantaged pupils at a school, or pupils at the school for whom English is not their first language. This means the new measure is still some way off “levelling the playing field” when comparing school performance.

New measures don’t level the playing field. Shutterstock

In my research, I examined how much school scores would change if these differences in context were taken into account. While schools with a “typical” intake of pupils may be largely unaffected, schools working in the most or least challenging areas could see their scores shifting dramatically. I found this could be by as much as an average of five GCSE grades per pupil across their best eight subjects. And these are just the “biases” we know about and have measures for.

Unstable over time

My research also replicated previous research which found that secondary school performance is only moderately “stable” over time when looking at relative progress. This can be seen in the fact that less than a quarter of the variation in school scores can be accounted for by school performance three years earlier. I also extended this to primary school level where I found stability to be lower still.

The recent “value-added” progress measures are slightly more stable than the former “contextualised” measure – which took many pupil characteristics as well as previous exam results into account. But given “biases” relating to intakes, such as strong links with pupil disadvantage, higher stability is probably not a good thing and most likely reflects differences in school intakes. The real test is whether the measure is stable when these “predictable biases” are removed.

Poorly reflect range of pupils

League tables by their very nature give the scores for a single group in a single year. This means the performance of the year group that left the school last year (as given in the performance tables) reveals very little about the performance of other year groups – and my research supports this. I looked at pupils in years three to nine – ages seven to 14 – to examine the performance of different year groups in the same school at a given point in time.

Even very high or low performing schools tend to have a huge range of pupil scores. Shutterstock

I found that even the performance of consecutive year groups – so years six and five – were only moderately similar. For cohorts separated by two or more years, levels of similarity were also found to be low. This inconsistency can also be seen within a single year – where even very high or low performing schools tend to have a huge range of pupil scores.

This all goes to show that school performance tables are not a true or fair reflection of a school’s performance. While there is certainly room to improve this situation, my research suggests that relative progress measures will never be a fair and accurate guide to school performance on their own.