James Turner discusses some of the challenges around widening access to selective state schools.
You could sense the bristling at breakfast tables in leafy suburbs and the sharp intakes of breath around the newsstand in Waitrose.
But the news that the majority of the country’s remaining grammar schools will be giving priority in admission to pupils on free school meals (once they meet the 11-plus pass mark) is good for social mobility. It is an important step in redressing some of the imbalances in intakes highlighted in our research report of late last year, which drew attention to the fact that so few children eligible for free school meals – and so many from fee-paying prep schools – were accessing state grammars.
Of course the allocation of places in grammar schools is just one small part of a complex picture around educational provision for bright students from non-privileged homes. We know this is an issue across the system and that social selection exists in top comprehensives too. The greatest obstacle to students from poorer homes accessing selective schools is the stubborn and shameful link between poverty and attainment – put simply, rich children tend to do better in exams. That is more than one group of 164 schools (the number of remaining state grammars) can hope to tackle on its own.
But that is no reason to throw our hands up in the air and accept that some of the country’s highest performing schools should be out of bounds to all but a few poorer students. There are some concrete steps that can make a difference – albeit around the margins.
Firstly, we need to make sure low income pupils sit the 11-plus exams in the first place. There is great variation in the proportion of pupils that take the entrance exams across different primary schools, even when they are sited equally close to a selective school. And many families, especially those in poorer areas, automatically dismiss these schools as ‘not for the likes of them’.
Second, we need to make sure, when they do, that low and middle income students are familiar with and prepared for the tests. We know that there is a burgeoning market in private tuition, much of which – particularly in grammar school areas – is directed at coaching for 11-plus exams. And private prep schools are more geared towards preparation for entrance exams than your average community primary school. Offering poorer students the chance to at least have seen a few practice tests is never going to compete with the support on offer to middle class pupils; but it will give bright low and middle income pupils a fighting chance.
And third, it is imperative that those tests themselves are as fair as possible. No test will ever be uncoachable, but the more rigorous, evidence-based and socially-unbiased the testing approach is, the better. After all, it is the potential to benefit from a highly academic environment that grammar schools are after, not those with the deepest pockets.
These three issues should very much be the business of grammar schools. Just as universities have recognised that to widen access they need to go beyond their Ivory Towers, to reach out to the community and to review their admissions processes, so grammar schools need to do the same. Of course, many heads have long-recognised this and our recent report highlighted a number of examples of work across these fronts.
The most ambitious attempt to widen access is being trialled in Birmingham, where the King Edward’s Foundation – which runs a number of selective schools in the City – is introducing a system of outreach and familiarisation, to begin to level the playing field. The Sutton Trust is working with the Foundation and Durham University to help target and evaluate this work. As part of this we’re matching 11-plus data with national school performance data to really get to the heart of what is happening – and, most crucially, what can be done about it. I’ll be saying more about the project and some of its initial findings at the Grammar Schools Heads Association conference in June.
It is hard to think of two issues in education which get people’s danders up more than the rights and wrongs of the 11-plus, and so-called ‘social engineering’ in education admissions. This debate touches on both. So the grammar schools are to be congratulated for being bold enough to act and to take the challenge head on. There’s a long way to go, but even the most diehard anti-selectionist must surely acknowledged that as long as these schools exist, they should serve students from the whole community.
As for the (understandably) concerned middle class parents? I think it is safe to say that, whatever the impact of the work we and others are doing, their advantage in the education system is secure for some time to come.