Grammar school intake – hoovering up pupils at the expense of local secondary schools?

Having posted about and charted the recent GCSE results, my thinking turned to that old chestnut of grammar school intake. While some grammar schools manage to fill their First Form Year 8 places with pupils achieving the top grades/marks in transfer tests, others fill up with local students right the way across the academic spectrum.

The Belfast Telegraph normally splash with them in mid-October when they have been collated (ie, FOIed). The 2011 figures aren’t yet available, so the charts below use the Belfast Telegraph-compiled figures for the NI grammar school intake in 2010.

I’m just using a subset of the grammar schools, mostly ones in Bangor, Belfast, Coleraine, Derry and Lisburn. The chart below shows the number of pupils taken into Year 8 in September 2010 as well as the range of marks for those pupils. AQE test schools are at the top, and GL Assessment at the bottom. Note that AQE and GL Assessment results aren’t simple marks out of 100, and aren’t directly comparable across the different systems.

Chart showing 2010 NI grammar school intake along with the maximum and minimum marks accepted

Some schools like Dalriada in Ballymoney took in pupils within a tight range of high marks. Others like Foyle & Londonderry College and St Mary’s Christian Brothers’ Grammar in Belfast accept students into Year 8 across a very wide range of marks.

The range of intake is even more obvious when you look at the proportion of each grade that the schools accept. The 2010 AQE results published by the Belfast Telegraph were broken down into five quintiles: Q1–Q5. GL Assessment results were graded A, B1, B2, C1, C2 and D – but each grade doesn’t represent a fixed percentage. Note: (1) comparing AQE and GL Assessments results is a bit like comparing apples and oranges; (2) many schools also accepted a number of pupils without test results, or reserved a proportion of their intake for pupils meeting non-transfer based criteria (these are categorised as ‘Other’ in the chart below).

Given that the normal perception is that grammar schools pick up the most academically able children, I’ve over-simplistically used Quintiles 1 and 2 (AQE) along with Grade A results (GL Assessments) as the ‘top grades’ and shown them on the right hand side of the vertical axis in the chart below, and then mapped the remaining quintiles and grades in descending order on the left hand side.

(Click on the chart to expand it.)

Chart showing which how pupils at each grade and quintile that were accepted in by each Grammar school in 2010

What the chart above shows is that relatively few grammar schools completely filled up with children who achieved the top GL Assessment grade or where in the top two quintiles of the AQE exam. Lumen Christi College and Rathmore Grammar were the two notable exceptions in the areas I sampled, both oversubscribed with pupils achieving the top grade. Schools like Ballymena Academy, Methodist College, Friends School, Sullivan Upper and Wallace High School were close to only accepting in pupils with A grades or in the top two quintiles (ie, the top 40% of AQE entrants).

However, grammar schools like Cambridge House, Campbell College, Coleraine Academical Institute and Hunterhouse College were mostly accepting in students in the bottom three quintiles (ie, lower 60%) of AQE intake.

If the Department of Education’s Every School a Good School policy is truly bedding in and creating educationally rich opportunities right across the range of schools and colleges in Northern Ireland, is it fair that some grammar schools are filling up their classrooms to offer a predominantly academic curriculum to students who could have benefited more from a wider range of academic and vocational learning offered by local secondary schools.

What is it that gives grammar schools their magnetic appeal and kudos? Is their academic promise at least partially illusory? Where’s the system’s desire to build the self esteem of pupils instead of just crudely applying academic pressure? The grammar school lure helps to empty local secondary schools of pupils who they were set up to serve well and help thrive. And in turn that destabilises secondary school funding and creates a downward spiral of results, reputation, and intake.

Yet while secondary schools are disadvantaged by their not-so-elitist-after-all grammar school neighbours, few grammar schools seem to have any problem filling their places and avoiding the application of any kind of minimum entry criteria.

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  • The problem is that the media and Sinn Fein pick up on the likes of Campbell College who rely on lower grades to make up the places, because there isn’t much demand from the top grades for their school as proof that the system doesn’t work. Schools which only take the top two grades get overlooked.

    The solution in my opinion is twofold: for schools which might as well be non-selective to stop pretending, and non-selective schools in general to be funded properly so that we can tackle the lowest performing kids and the ones in the middle.

  • Alan, you’ve not mentioned quotas. Doesn’t each secondary school have an upper limit for its annual intake or something akin to that?

    Presumably some parents will select a particular school for social rather than academic reasons.

  • jthree

    Campbell has long been a comp for posh Prod boys – sure a lot of them head to Oxbridge in the end but quite a lot also find their station selling cars on the Boucher Road, working in the lower rungs of a commercial property firm or taking up some bullshit ‘development director’ job in the family firm where they hopefully can’t do too much damage.

  • On Facebook, someone pointed out an interesting fact I was unaware of …

    Probably a fair assessment. Haven’t read the whole piece yet. AFAIK, grammars are legally obliged to fill all their places, thus if there aren’t enough high grades, they go down until all filled. Seconadries don’t have to do same. We’ve also got about 50 thousand empty school places- needs to be fixed.

  • Mick Fealty

    This sounds like an over supply problem. Too many schools chasing too few pupils?

    It’s also worth recalling Pete’s earlier point that Grammars seem to excel in the results they get across the ability range.

    That’s in apparent contrast to the situation in the Republic where, according to the Irish Times yesterday, public sector schools perform equally to private sector schools.

  • Old Mortality

    It’s certainly an over-supply problem and it also raises the anomaly that children who can easily get into a grammar school in some areas wouldn’t have a hope in others.
    One possible solution is for DEL to reduce the intake of grammar schools that are admitting too low down the ability range. Some of them will become unviable and have to merge into comprehensives. This has just happened with Strabane GS which was the smallest grammar but by no means the least succssful. It was also done in Cookstown some years ago.

    I don’t think many Campbell boys go to Oxbridge any more.

  • Charles_Gould

    The charts here are very interesting.
    I realize I am late to comment on this.

    The charts indicate the strengths of the schools. It’s particularly interesting to compare shools in the same area.

  • Barnshee

    ” Some of them will become unviable and have to merge into comprehensives. This has just happened with Strabane GS which was the smallest grammar but by no means the least succssful. It was also done in Cookstown some years ago.”

    Well they do– but they keep/introduce streaming (some nakedly refer to the grammar stream) Even wore tit is alleged that some schools encourage pupils to go elsewhere after GCSE in case they affect A level statistics -surely not?