Independent’s editor backs grammar schools

 Behind the turmoil of the current news agenda, something is stirring at  the Independent. The editor Chris Blackhurst, by background a mainly financial journalist, has come out in favour of grammar schools – but without the 11 plus. Mary Anne Sieghart’s column was not a one-off. This is interesting because the Independent positions itself as a freethinking paper outside the party political box. More often it tilts centre leftwards than centre right. Its closest bedfellow among the UK parties is of course the Lib Dems who don’t always find it easy to reconcile their social liberalism with their economic free market liberalism. Here is Blackhurst giving personal testimony in favour of the grammar school experience to promote stalled social mobility.  

 That state-taught conveyor belt has all but ceased. The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has admitted as much, complaining of the dominance of private schools over public life. Nick Clegg has said much the same in a plea for greater social mobility, pointing out that 70 per cent of High Court judges and 54 per cent of FTSE 100 CEOs were educated in the independent sector.

The arguments for and against selection are well rehearsed. On the positive side, grammar schools promoted academic excellence and meritocracy. They gave places to bright pupils from poorer families. Negatively, the entry criteria could be unjust. It was based on performance in a single set of exams and was open to abuse, with the better-off, pushier parents hiring coaches.

While some working-class children made it through, the grammar schools were heavily skewed in favour of those from the wealthier parts of town. Those who didn’t make it saw themselves as failures, not so good, consigned to a different, inferior path, often resorting to apologising later for having gone to an “ordinary secondary mod”.

I would not wish to see a return to the delivery of an envelope that represented terrible finality at the tender age of 11. But new grammar schools for which the cleverest are pared off but with genuine opportunities for entry at 13, 15 and in the sixth form would begin to fill that gaping hole. Accompany them, too, with technical, vocation-based schools for the less academic but practically minded.

The arguments are well rehearsed in Slugger. Selection at 11, bad: choice at 14, good? Is it time to give Craigavon’s Dickson plan another rattle to try to shake the Executive out of its deadlock? Can they be pressurised to turn the lip service of two years ago into any kind of action?

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  • PACE Parent

    Once again Brian you ignore evidence in favour of an ideological/political position on grammar schools and academic selection at 11. You fail to mention the views of a significant number of parents, myself included, who have never had a concern over the use of the 11-plus as an instrument for selection to grammar school.Critics have failed to produce a valid and reliable alternative after a decade and the DENI abandoned their responsibility to thousands of children. The tens of thousands of parents who have supported the “unregulated” but legally unchallenged tests used during the past three years provide ample evidence that educationalists continue to get things wrong while the prime educators get it right. The simple fact remains that if selection is not applied at the “tender” age of 11 then all pupils are subject to comprehensive education until your preferred age of 14. I hardly need to rehearse the shortcomings of this damaging practice.

  • PACE Parent @ 1:23 pm:

    I hardly need to rehearse the shortcomings of this damaging practice.

    You most definitely do. Especially with respect to whom is damaged.

    [Note, in passing, the grammar-school education of a correct dative case for the personal pronoun. Useful stuff, eh?]

    However, once again the argument is going off at a self-congratulatory tangent.

    The great and chronic failure of the selective system is it assumes the priority of the academic, at the expense of everyone else, and so fails to recognise what the Butler Act of 1944 did. Take a look at what Chief Inspector of Schools, David Bell, was saying on the 60th anniversary of Butler:

    The 1944 Act required LEAs to provide state-funded education for pupils, up to the age of 15, that incorporated, to quote, “instruction and training as may be desirable in view of their different ages, abilities and aptitudes”.
    … The act did not define the types of secondary school to be provided; but firm guidance by the Ministry of Education stipulated a tripartite system of grammar, technical and secondary modern schools. However, in practice the system that developed was largely bipartite, since few technical schools were established.
    During the 1960s, the act was reinterpreted and comprehensive education quickly expanded. More recently, further types of school have been developed, such as specialist schools and academies. The changes in school designation have largely catered for pupils’ different ages and abilities, or been focused on raising the overall performance of schools, whilst pupils’ natural propensity for the scientific, the arts, or the practical has received relatively little attention. In part this might be because, even today, we often remain unsure where pupils’ aptitude lies and how to capitalise on it, even though we try to help them understand it through deft careers advice and the work of personal advisers.
    … We have not met Rab Butler’s expectation that compulsory part-time education should be provided for all young people up to the age of 18. We are not even close to achieving this goal because we have not bridged the academic/vocational divide; we have only chipped away at it.

    The rest is as valid, and worth a viewing.

    Until we address the “snob” academic factor, and give parity to technological and vocational training, we are lost. When we previously passed this way, the last contribution (from articles, 23 May, 11:43 pm) pointed to the successes of the German model. Absolutely correct!

    Why is an Oxford First in PPE (“a useless degree in a non-discipline”) applauded, and the only proper qualification for a national leader, to an extent that a Berlin doctorate in quantum chemistry is not? Why does the Harvard School of Public Health make a prestigious award to one whose sole academic qualification is an NVQ in home economics? [We recognised Jamie Oliver with the outstanding honour of … a MBE.]

  • iluvni

    time for a referendum on the issue.

  • caseydog

    The editor of the Independant acknowledges that grammar schools are heavily skewed towards the better off, but then comes down in favour of grammar schools because they would create social mobility. I think Brian must have left something out of his report because, as it stands, this is illogical. Brian obviously favours some form of selection, but does he know about some pearls in the crown of N Ireland education eg St Catherines Armagh, St Killians Carnlough, St Patricks Keady, St Patricks Maghera, St Pauls Bessbrook… what they have in common is that they are all high performing schools with an all ability intake. All ability works and raises the standards of both the most able and the least able. But they are not in Belfast, so journalists are often unaware that they exist. They are few and far between because the selective education dominates the scene here.

  • Reader

    caseydog: The editor of the Independant acknowledges that grammar schools are heavily skewed towards the better off, but then comes down in favour of grammar schools because they would create social mobility. I think Brian must have left something out of his report because, as it stands, this is illogical.
    No, since the current system, across the UK, is largely a mix of public schools and comprehensive schools, and the urban comprehensive schools are also hit by post code selection. Therefore the current system is even *more* skewed towards the better off, and selection would offer an improvement in social mobility.
    Just like it used to.

  • Local hack

    To me the education system is totality out of whack to the needs of society and greatly damages each and every child.

    There should be a comprehensive system that constantly assess children from the very beginning until the age of 14 when their future will be determined on their entire academic history and not on one solitary exam.
    No school should ever be “preferred” over another – they should all provide identical first class all-emcompasing education.
    At age 14 there needs to be a three way split – academic, vocational and military, for the intellectual, physical and out of line

    There needs to be input from industry and academic sources in order to produce the work force and entrepreneurs we need in order.
    And finally when they reach the age of 18, well-rounded and prepared to advance our society, only the very very gifted should be allowed to enter the university education – the idea that all should ever reach territory education should never have been allowed to get past the “brainstorming” exercise Blair’s cronies thought up.

    The longer this farce over selection at 11 goes on the more children are damaged at every level

  • Brian Walker

    I don’t have bloggers’ fever over this. It’s entirely clear that grammar schools will survive until a solution is found to surmount the old arguments for or against selection for school entry at 11.

    In England, the Gove policy (and even its New Labour predecessor) is clearly an attempt to create a grammar school type academic ethos without entry selection (specialism). Pressure to raise standards is growing also because more and more middle class parents in the big cities cannot afford the private school fees which have risen exponentially. (Believe me, I’ve paid them). It’s probably the only viable approach politically viable in England. But it might be adapted for NI to substitute local choice for political deadlock, that’s my point.
    The NI scene is different from England. Grammar schools educate – is it 60%?_-unlike England where they survive in only a few council areas and the name of the game is to create specialist schools and improve teaching standards generally. In NI the grammar school character of many schools has blurred and a kind of reform is happening through inertia. Why not do the thing properly?

    Nothing will happen until the DUP recognise there is a problem and there is general agreement over what the problem actually is. Costello and Bain have not actually been refuted. What the reports didn’t do as far as I can see, is lay out the detailed strategy of reform. In the meantime, quite a few schools will continue to underperform due to the oversupply of places in the existing school structure combined with a shrinking budget over time. Even the best schools will probably feel the strain too.

    I favour transparent area based planning based on collaboration and sharing so that as everyone can see a model of how the entire secondary schools estate throughout the province could be related to an “entitlement framework” i.e. a curriculum for all aptitudes and talents.

    The province is compact enough to allow area planning to be subject to democratic scrutiny. Parental choice based on relating budget to demographics could then be exercised locally to take into account a fairly wide entitlement framework ( ie curriculum ) which would require sharing and whatever degree of integration the public wants locally. How would public opinion be tested? By the number of applications to each school group.

    Integration should continue to be a local option. A comprehensive integration strategy would be a stage too far. But if the gains were clear locally, parental choice could bring it about. I don’t see why a strategy like this couldn’t be politically viable. It doesn’t set out to a Big Bang pipe dream and it keeps everyone involved. Reform cannot be imposed.

  • caseydog

    Brian is right – the anti-selection campaign has hit a brick wall. They have won the argument but there is no immediate prospect of change. But Brian is badly informed if he believes that area based planning can deliver an alternative : there are very few children involved in collaborative arrangements, and even that will decline as the Department withdraw funding over the next few years.

    Catholic education offers the best prospect of change. The leadership of the church is united in favouring a change to all-ability education, but the Bishops are so so spooked by the abuse allegations that they are unwilling to push the moral argument. They are reluctant to act against the defiant catholic grammar schools. However there is a strong education lobby in the church that is pushing the bishops, and creating tension in the catholic education sector.

  • Brian Walker, 26 May 2012, 10:06 pm:

    The NI scene is different from England. Grammar schools educate – is it 60%?

    Err … no. The right-hand column of the Deni spreadsheet for 2011/12 has non-grammar 84,193, grammar 62,554: total 146,747. So that’s 42%, and would not be greatly out-of-line with some areas of England.

    However, that assumes an equal playing-field, that all schools are providing up to age 18 (as grammar school tend to do, but others may not so often). What we should be looking at is 11+ transfer. Alan in Belfast did that for us last September — and it’s a pretty dirty business, proving that:
    (a) many grammar schools (and we High School, Dublin-types always reckoned Campbell were a bit lacking) are not able to recruit from the academic top four deciles, as they might wish, and as they were intended;
    (b) as a result the talent pool for schools looking to provide good vocational education is further diluted.

    So, it’s back to self-interest and moral blindness: you want grammar provision; you’re a dwindling minority; and you refuse to acknowledge it ensures a discriminatory, damaging and inefficient system.

  • PACE Parent

    “We need to act. We can’t carry on with ever-increasing polarisation, causing greater immobility and stagnation. I don’t believe in turning back the clock per se but I do think a grave mistake should be recognised and corrected. Restore the grammar schools, resurrect the honours boards, put state school names in lights.”

    Brian Walker could have included this final paragraph from Chris Blackstone’s editorial to improve the author’s message but to do so would have robbed him of the opportunity to stuff his post with anti-grammar school and anti-academic selection at 11 nonsense gleaned from the likes of Gallagher, Costello and Bain.

    The Pupil Profile is dead Brian.Transfer at 14 would simply mean comprehensive schooling from 11 to 14, unacceptable to those seeking the provision of opportunity for their children. 11-plus testing is alive and well and is about to enter the fourth year free of DENI and political interference. All of the threats of legal actions, Brownshirts in the ETI terrorising teachers and parents have disappeared in the vapour of successive SF Education Minister rants. Get used to it and at least have the good sense to welcome Chris Blackstone’s editorial and perhaps spend more time on fact checking. (60% at grammars).

    The anti-selection lobby haven’t won any arguemnt. The evidence is clear that parents continue to support the 11-plus tests. The fact that most so called educationalists are anti-selection suggests that they are essentially anti-measurement.

  • caseydog

    Pace:just because a large number of middle class parents choose to put their children through the unregulated transfer test, does not mean that the moral argument against selection/rejection has been lost. All it means is that parents realise that in a choice between grammar and secondary, they would rather have their children in a grammar school, which is hardly surprising as the grammar schools achieve better results. However my point is that 55% of children(from mostly poorer families) have no choice, and are required to send their child to a lower performing school. In this largely Christian society, most people are uncomfortable with this educational apartheid and social segregation. Although they want the best for their own child, they are also concerned that this system reinforces social disadvantage. All of the surveys show that the NI population is against selection at 11.

    Grammar education had it’s day, but that day is now over. Every school is required to deliver the same curriculum, and offer the same GCSEs. Every school has a strong academic bias. There is therefore no need to divide children into 2 groups at age 11; particularly as they often meet up again at university.

    Why can’t every child be educated in the same building, wear the same uniform, eat in the same canteen, be taught by the same teachers, and be valued equally? (And I don’t mean in mixed ability classes). So when you see children walk about the town they are not wearing uniforms that socially define them.

    Let’s try bringing people together in this wee country. We’ve had enough division, have we not?

  • Newman

    Pace parent…I think we agree on the need for academic schools. My point is that a proliferation of unregulated testing is not a good thing. The case for one test is a no brainer and the reasons advanced for not seeking agreement are not acceptable to parents of 11 year olds. Neither is the anomaly of certain grammars filling up their numbers with children who are clearly not academic because they are obliged to do so and the Minster is so hidebound ideologically that he cannot prevent same . The result can be de facto comprehensive schools in some areas..either one is in favour of academic schools or one is not..we cannot have our cake. It would help the integrity of the debate if this contradiction was recognised The alternative can look like grammars pulling up the drawbridge and ensuring social as opposed to academic selection.

  • PACE Parent

    Since you raise the issue of integrity please detail your methodology for combining the two unregulated tests, one of which is approximated to level 4 and the other to level 5/6. Since this is a ” no brainer” I am puzzled that it has eluded the combined efforts of the DUP and the PPTC to date.
    Your solution will be enlightening in a number of ways.

  • PACE Parent

    “All of the surveys show that the NI population is against selection at 11.”

    I refer you to the results of the Household Survey of 2002 conducted by Sinn Fein’s then Education Minister Martin McGuinness. He doesn’t talk much about it these days – nor do his colleagues Caitriona Ruane or John O’Dowd

    Every year since the 11-plus was withdrawn by the SF run DENI thousands of parents of primary 7 pupils have demonstrated their distain for the political highjacking of post-primary transfer and entered their children for the private 11-plus tests.

    Parents of pupils transferring at 11 are the voices that count. Educationalists have learned this lesson, some are even prepared to admit their past errors.

  • caseydog

    Pace parent : do you really have no problem with a education system which rejects children at age 11? Are you in denial about the effect that it has on their self confidence and self esteem? Are you not troubled by the fact that it is poorer children who are rejected and better off children who are accepted by grammars? How do you justify separate schooling when all schools offer the same curriculm? Haven’t we had enough division in this society? Why can’t our children be educated together?

    Just wondering!

  • Brian Walker

    Why stay so stuck in the transfer test argument rather than trying to find away round it? Its’ the old NI curse again.

    As we’ve seen from the resistance to ending transfer tests on both sides of the divide, the real power rests with the schools, not the department or the churches. This will not change unless the Executive can agree on a new policy that commands not only bare cross community, but wider consent. There is no sign of that.

    There is quite a lot of agreement that transfer tests are not a good thing.

    Where do we go from here?

    That ‘s the issue,not showing how right and angry we are. .

  • Brian Walker @ 9:59 am:

    As long as sheeping-and-goating takes place (at 11+, 13+, or whenever), there has to be some kind of testing/assessment. And there will be some interested parties defending the process.

    So, what is “tested”, how efficiently … and, ultimately, why? We know that certain “grammar schools” are making entrants jump through 11+ hoops, and then — because of a paucity of “academic” applicants — having to ignore the results of the testing. So, why bother?

    My earlier point stands: if 11+ testing is supposed to identify the “academic”, and almost equal numbers of each gender are “selected” for NI grammar schools, why does the gender bias of 3As at A-level come out severely skewed: around a 57/43% split? If nothing else, and unless one is totally heartless, should we not have some feeling for the one in ten potentially-“academic” girls discarded at 11+ to maintain this farce of 11+ gender equality?

    Testing has not worked, convincingly fails to be predictive, indeed cannot work (because students mature and change in their propensities over KS3 and KS4, while their schools don’t) and the statistics show it hasn’t. Why continue to throw resources at it?

    The answer: (as one educational administrator cynically put it to me) the smallest number of least-bad schools.

  • Newman

    Pace parent

    The last talks between the PPTC and AQE chaired by a former Perm Sec provisionally agreed the outline of a test following liaison between a number of school principals. Ultimate agreement seems to have foundered more on issues such as payment for the test. The point being that devising an agreed test based on the present curriculum is by no means beyond the wit of both organisations.The DUP to date have only indicated a desire to reconvene discussions..they have not sponsored formal talks or recommenced same so it is a little premature to characterise their efforts as being in vain The reality is that parents and especially those who seek to look at a variety of schools are crying out for an agreed test to prevent 4 weekends being taken up with testing each autumn.The question of integrity is linked not to the proliferation of testing which is a byproduct of government inertia, but to the issue of grammar schools filling their pupil numbers by taking each and every child who applies whether or not they “passed” a test if their quota so permits.They are at present legally obliged to do so, but it would help the ‘integrity’ of their argument, if they made it clear that they can see the illogicality of championing academic schools and selection and then filling up their places with less academically gifted children. I would welcome your comments on this

  • All this debate about selection and Grammar schools is still missing a more fundamental point. Parts of the Primary Sector are failing – particularly in deprived parts of Belfast.

    Sure, let us address the gulf between poor and excellent secondary education – but first fix the failing primaries, so that the kids are in a better position whatever secondary school they attend. Ensuring that we send a quota of functionally illiterate kids, failed as they have been by their first school, to (say) Belfast Inst won’t magically solve their educational problems.