Monday, 19 October 2015

The Trouble with Grammars for All

There’s a school of thought that says that the transition from selective to comprehensive secondary education failed because of progressive teaching ideologies and that, had traditional approaches been retained, comprehensives would have been grammars for all. They point to successful comprehensives serving deprived communities like King Solomon Academy (KSA) and Mossbourne Academy to say there’s nothing wrong with the education system, if only those running other schools improved their execution then all schools would enjoy comparable success and the relationship between social class and academic attainment that bedevils our current system would disappear. We would have grammars for all.

I take nothing away from the hard work and good practice behind our most successful secondaries, nor deny that other schools could learn from them, but their success is only possible because other schools fail. Imagine every school achieved the same GCSE pass rate or better than KSA, so the national 5A*-C rate was between 93 and 100%. If that was the case than 5A*-C including English and Maths would no longer be a benchmark of good performance.

This change is already happening as the new GCSE grade 4 is equivalent to a C but the new good pass is grade 5 (C 2/3). As the results of whole cohorts move up the cut off for what is considered a pass moves up too. In other words, our system is designed so that a certain proportion of children fail.

The thorny question is do those failures inevitably have to be made up of the poorest children? The evidence of KSA and Mossbourne seems to suggest not, but there’s a difference between one or two outliers and system wide change (in the form of all comprehensives achieving at KSA levels). To believe in grammars for all as a path to social justice you have to believe that middle class families will react passively to the university places they currently regard as their children’s birthright becoming 50/50 toss-ups. I think that’s incredibly unlikely. If such a challenge was mounted to middle class occupation of the highest grades then they would respond by doing everything they could to ensure their children remain at the top. Being middle class means having the knowledge and the resources to give your children the edge in this competition for place. 

The progressives of the 1970s didn’t have the right prescription for schools, but they did correctly identify a problem common to grammars and comprehensives alike: a system that ranks children on their academic performance requires that some children fail and the failures are likely to be those from the poorest homes. The phrase ‘grammars for all’ implies every child can succeed like children who go to grammars do, but that’s simply not possible in our present system.


  1. Why does the number of university places have to remain constant even if the educational achievement of the whole cohort increases?

    1. If increased exam performance is taken as a signal that academic standards have risen then the logical next step is to expand university provision to capitalise on that. That hasn't been the response to recent GCSE improvements which have been attributed to grade inflation and prompted a re-calibration of the pass mark so that the number of passes falls.

      In any case, an expansion of the number of university places wouldn't solve what is, for me, the pressing social justice issue here. That is that children are taught that their academic achievement determines their place in society. For those at the bottom the poor hand they've been dealt, in the form of relatively weaker cognitive ability, is made infinitely worse by our turning it into a marker of social inferiority.

    2. Are you admitting that your complaint in the blogpost is something you've cooked up to further your wider agenda and not a serious issue at all? Certainly hard to justify your assumption that university places will remain constant, that hasn't been the case even with "improvements" that are down to grade inflation, so I can't see why it would happen if there were genuine improvements.

    3. If you thought my complaint was that not everybody gets to go university then you misunderstood. My point was that it's disingenuous to use a phrase like 'grammars for all' that implies every child can be academically successful when, in a system that ranks children from best to worst, that's impossible.

      As for my wider agenda - equality - I did mean to further that. I think it's wrong to teach the academically weakest that they're the bottom of society. Do you not?