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Why do so many experts want to end academic selection at 11 but strengthen it at 18?

  • 10 January 2020

A little controversy

At HEPI, we never set out to be controversial. But sometimes, inadvertently, we are. And never more so in the last year than with Iain Mansfield’s paper on grammar schools.

When it came out, exactly a year ago on 10 January 2019, we were told the numbers were wrong and the arguments were invalid. After publishing the paper, one well-respected academic told us on Twitter ‘to disband’ – possibly providing unhelpful succour to those who believe universities hamper rather than promote free speech.

As a result of the furore, I am dipping my toe back in the water trepidatiously. I am certainly not plunging back in like an eager New Year’s Day swimmer.

But academic selection plays too big a part in our education system to ignore.

Academic selection

Iain’s report noted above all that those state secondary schools which pick their pupils through academic selection, known as grammar schools, are more successful at getting their pupils into universities that pick their students in the same way.

To me, it was surprising that this was surprising. It is uncontroversial to say the benefits of independent schools, which select by wealth and academic performance, have included improved access to the UK’s most selective universities. But it seemingly remains controversial to say the same about some of our best-performing state schools.

In part, this is because of evidence showing some children in selective areas who do not pass the 11+ exam – and some choose not even to take it – go on to do worse than they would if they lived in non-selective areas. I do not doubt this is true. It may be an inevitable consequence of academic selection and it may be solvable only by eradicating selection. Or it might be fixable by other means, such as giving extra support to non-selective schools in selective areas, perhaps via a higher spend per pupil. Sadly, the debate rarely extends beyond comprehensives:good grammars:bad, so it is hard to know – though we do know that selection is less controversial in some other countries abroad.

Either way, the row over Iain’s paper was yet more proof that few education issues divide people as much as the decades-old debate about grammar schools. Since most of the grammar schools became comprehensives in the 1960s and 1970s, the battles over the last 163 redoubts have been fierce – and most notable for their almost complete lack of success.

In 1998, New Labour even changed the law to help parents end academic selection in their local areas. Two years later, parents in Ripon voted two-to-one in favour of maintaining their grammar school.

On this issue, as on one other, there has been no second referendum – in Ripon or anywhere else.

Selective schools and selective universities

Despite the broad consensus against selective schooling among academics, if not among voters, there is little debate about selective higher education.

This is odd because the question of how many pupils from selective schools make it to our oldest universities matters precisely because those universities are so highly selective. For those who slip from a grammar school into a Russell Group university, advantage begats advantage.

Or, to put it another way, if selection at 18 disappeared overnight, the grammar schools would have their protective comfort blanket swiped away. If the prime reason for attending grammar schools were removed, demand for the schools would fall and any stigma from attending them would rise.

As a result, you might think the hyper-selectivity in university admissions that has safeguarded the remaining grammar schools would cause academics and campaigners who want less selection at 11 to demand less selection at 18 too. They could tackle school selection and the causes of school selection together.

But they generally don’t. Indeed, this is where the whole debate becomes a sorry mess. Instead, they typically call for refinements to university admissions to plug any shortcomings in universities’ hyper-selective entry processes – thereby making their selection procedures even more selective and watertight.

A sorry mess

I thought about all this a great deal over the Christmas break because, in December 2019, the Nuffield Foundation published Mismatch in higher education: prevalence, drivers and outcomes by Stuart Campbell, Lindsey Macmillan and Gill Wyness. This considers the extent to which students attend ‘courses that are less or more selective than might be expected given their academic attainment’.

It concludes that a significant minority of students are undermatched or overmatched to their course and calls for reform to make sure more people attend the sort of university the researchers think they probably should:

Based on the idea of targeted advertising, as used by many popular websites such as Amazon and Facebook, the intervention would offer students course suggestions based on their (predicted, or preferably, actual A level (or equivalent)) subjects and grades.

There are plenty of other examples. For example, we at HEPI have ourselves published pleas for much more robust contextualised admissions so that bright disadvantaged students can enter our most selective universities in greater numbers. 

Such proposals are striking because the higher education sector, in as much as it ever expresses a single view, tends to dislike ‘marketisation’ and ‘commodification’. It also, as we have seen, generally dislikes academic selection for schools. Yet, simultaneously, it is increasingly common to hear the view that we need more market-like approaches – even ‘targeted advertising’ based on the hard-sell tactics of popular US websites – to ensure potential undergraduates reach the most selective university they can.

If this were to happen, it would cement, rather than undermine, the selective hierarchy in UK universities by making it more watertight and harder to criticise. It is the opposite of ending selection, which is what many of the same people say should happen in schooling.

This contradictory attitude of wanting to strengthen selection at age 18 and end the modest selection that happens at 11 is not only to be found among educational researchers. It is also present among campaigners against grammar schools. Some of them even advocate reforming selective schooling in order to increase the proportion of Oxbridge and other Russell Group students who hail from such schools. And many high-profile opponents of grammar schools are extremely proud of their own hyper-selective Oxbridge educations.

This is all quite hard to understand, except perhaps – as I put it in one of my more influential tweets of 2019 – by accepting the common tendency of people to oppose academic selection right up to the point at which they personally benefited from it.

The Comprehensive University

Perhaps the single most controversial sentence in Iain‘s paper was the one claiming academics are influenced not only by evidence but also unwittingly by their own views and experiences. He wrote:

This prevalence of a single viewpoint, combined with social homogeneity, appears likely to have resulted in a degree of unconscious bias driving the research agenda.

If that is not true, then surely we need to develop a better explanation of why it is consistent to concurrently believe i) that a small amount of academic selection in the English school system is awful and ii) that hyper-selection in our university system should be strengthened.

Confidence in one’s own righteousness on one topic should not stop us from considering whether there are inconsistencies in our own approaches towards other topics. After all, the electorate seem to display a particular weariness for policymakers who say one thing about education but act differently when it comes to their own families.

The Comprehensive University

It doesn’t have to be this way. Another controversial HEPI publication, produced around the time Theresa May was trying to deliver a wave of new grammar schools, pushes The Comprehensive University.

In that report, Tim Blackman (now the Vice-Chancellor of the UK’s largest university, the Open University), argues for open-access universities with barely-there entry requirements situated in a system with much less hierarchy. That sounds very radical from a UK viewpoint. But in many other countries, it would look like the status quo.

In the next few weeks, HEPI will be returning to this whole domain, via a new collection of responses to Iain Mansfield’s paper from leading academics at the University of Oxford, Durham University, the University of Bath and UCL’s Institute of Education. Many of the authors will explain why the evidence means they feel they must continue to oppose selection at 11. The paper will also include Professor Blackman’s updated thoughts on introducing a more comprehensive university system.

So watch this space!

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5 comments

  1. Pete says:

    The issues with Ian’s paper were that his conclusions were not supported by his analysis due to the serious methodological flaws caused, ironically, by the large degree of conscious bias driving his research.

    The biggest flaw was his decision to limit his analysis to only young people who successfully complete A-levels in school sixth forms, ignoring two thirds of the cohort including: everyone who doesn’t do A-levels, the vast majority of young people who attend secondary moderns pre-16 (they go to college for A-levels), many young people in every local authority (go to college for A-levels) and every single young person in some non-selective local authorities with an entirely college-based post-16 system. He can’t draw system-wide conclusions from analysis that deliberately cuts the data to exclude the “failures” in his preferred system and to exclude many of the “successes” in the system he criticises.

    That’s aside from the perhaps more forgiveable (though still very high impact) methodological flaws the academics working in this area focused on – that he ignores the cross-border movement of children and the impact of Grammar schools on the local private school market.

    That’s as someone who is sympathetic to parts of his argument – there are winners and losers from Grammar schools and so therefore whether selection is a good or bad thing is a political question about whether the wins (those who get in to Grammar schools on average do a bit better than they would in a comprehensive system, and many parents who would send their kids private in a comprehensive system save on school fees) exceed the losses (those who don’t get in to Grammar schools – disproportionately working-class kids even controlling for ability – do worse than in a comprehensive system and the system as a whole performs worse, at least in terms of academic attainment).

  2. albert wright says:

    Whether selection at any age is good or bad depends on the context and the purpose of the selection.

    What are the objectives of our education system?

    We need to be clear about this before we start the debate.

    You will not gain Gold medals in the Olympics if you fail to select the most likely winners to compete against other teams.

  3. conor king says:

    It is a standard assumption in Australian higher education that discrimination for entry based on previous academic achievement is Good or at least ok.

    It goes with an implied assumption that the more academically skilled you are the more $$ should be invested in you : it may be but I would like to see an analysis of impact of investment in the middle range students and the bottom range v those in the top – what does improve the overall outcome for the cohort?

    If the issue that some courses require a particular level of achievement to start them and there are more than wanted number of applicants with that level: then all who meet that level ought to be in the running. The starting point selection would be a random selection.

    The pressure is less extreme I think in Australia – we have a larger proportion of unis that count as the ‘top’, most of which have big entry cohorts.

  4. Waisang says:

    Achievement is higher in areas where student take 11+, even if hey do not pass it. This is a very predictable outcome for one simple reason. If you enter for the 11+, you are inevitably going to study more than the child who does not even intend to try and take it. This obviously gives them an advantage at the in the next year

  5. Oliver says:

    Interesting article, but I worry that removing selection at Universities would make Grammar Schools *more* important to get into, not less.

    The fewer metrics you can judge someone on, the more important the remaining metrics become; if employers can’t use which-University-you-attended as a proxy for academic ability, they’ll presumably care more about A level results, which grammar schools boost.

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