Over the past week, HEPI has been at the centre of a social media storm about academic selection. Last week, we published a report in our Occasional Paper series which looked at the question of how different school types fare in access to higher education, especially selective higher education, including Oxbridge. Controversially, grammars came out rather well.
Many people have taken strongly against this finding, which is odd as it seems obvious that selective schools are likely to perform well against the entry criteria for selective universities, and – compared to other countries – we have a hyper-selective higher education system. The HEPI paper is based on some wholly new data that needed airing but it doesn’t negate separate pre-existing research showing that grammars may do other things (like offering places to children on free school meals) less well than many other schools. Oddly, we’ve been accused of ignoring the evidence when we’ve actually broadened out a rather narrow, tired and old debate, in part through the use of some previously unpublished data.
The arguments have played out in enormous detail on Twitter, over at Wonkhe and in the specialist press, such as Schools Week. It would be boring to retread them here. There is a little bit of me that hopes I never have to write another word on grammar schools ever again.
But the past few days have got me thinking about one thing in particular. The fuss has shown once more, in case anyone was ever in any doubt, that there are large numbers of academics who fervently believe their research proves academic selection at the age of 11 is morally and educationally wrong. Among the many specific claims are: it’s bad for those in selective areas who don’t pass the test; it’s bad for achievement overall; and it’s bad for social cohesion.
That takes me to the 2016 education green paper, which argued, in contrast, that we should: 1) have more school selection at age 11; and 2) that universities should start sponsoring schools left, right and centre, declaring ‘We believe universities have a greater and more direct role to play in improving school quality and pupil attainment.’
The first half of that has survived to fight another day – despite Theresa May losing her majority at the 2017 general election – via the small Selective Schools Expansion Fund. But the second part never really got off the ground in the first place (notwithstanding rare pre-existing examples, like the two excellent university-sponsored Maths schools, which are discussed in our report alongside grammar schools).
Back when the green paper was published, senior managers at selective universities, most notably perhaps Louise Richardson at Oxford, went out with their guns blazing to oppose the idea that universities have much to offer in the way of school sponsorship.
But isn’t there a disconnect somewhere? If universities are repositories of extensive knowledge about what works before the age of 18, is it completely unreasonable to hope they will put more of that into practice by establishing and running schools? Wouldn’t it enable us to learn even more about what works in pre-university education? There was an inherent contradiction in that old green paper that it could have been illuminating to expose, which was the gap between its support for new selective school provision and its desire to have universities’ education departments help establish new schools despite their common scepticism of selectivity in schooling.
This question is especially live for me, and here I declare a deep personal vested interest, as I live in a selective area with a crying need for more secondary school provision. The clear preference of most of the parents I talk to, as well as my own preference, is to have a new non-selective school in our area.
But when you put together the Government’s Selective Schools Expansion Fund, the bar on new local authority sponsored schools, universities’ general lack of interest in sponsoring new schools and charities’ understandable desire to work in more disadvantaged areas than rural Buckinghamshire, it turns out it is easier for an area like ours to get more selective provision than it is to get more non-selective provision. That doesn’t reflect the desires of parents or educational researchers.
If we in the higher education sector disapprove of this, is it not at least partly in our gift to change it through even deeper.engagement with the secondary school sector? Then, more children would have the benefits of the non-selective education that education specialists believe should be the right of every child while also moving us closer to a non-selective system overall and teaching us more about effective schooling.
If just 10 per cent of the energy spent critiquing our latest paper were now to be spent on creating a new school, it would surely quickly become the best school in the country.