From the Editor - Council that 'did a Ratner' is caught in a bind

Gerard Kelly

Isn't it satisfying when a fact arrives unbidden to support a prejudice? George Galloway's feline TV antics confirmed for many the suspected absurdity lurking beneath his blather, for instance. Athens' confession that it was broke endorsed the widely held suspicion that Greek public accounting might not be the world's finest. And when Jeffrey Archer was done for perjury, well ...

Buckinghamshire council's admission that its 11-plus exam favours pupils from affluent families may not rank highly in the league of predictable revelations. It certainly won't be news to opponents who have long warned that families with money to coach kids through it benefit most. In fact, it shouldn't be news to anyone - the percentage of disadvantaged pupils who attend grammar schools is shockingly low. But it is an astounding acknowledgement that selective education is rigged against the poor (see pages 8-9).

To have suspicions confirmed by the very people running the show is always extraordinary. Asked a decade ago what the target market was for its Topman clothing chain, one of the firm's directors replied: "Hooligans ... Very few of our customers have to wear suits for work. They'll be for his first interview or first court case." The confession from Bucks is probably as near as anyone in education gets to "doing a Ratner".

It gets worse. The local authority's admission was not part of some soul-searching followed by a municipal mea culpa. It was trotted out officially to dissuade a new academy from relying on 11-plus data for its admissions criteria. With breathtaking hypocrisy, the council tried to stop Highcrest Academy using the test data because they were flawed, because "affluence is a factor, probably a stronger factor than ethnicity". Highcrest wanted the data to develop a fairer, banded admissions policy and to become the first comprehensive in the county. This apparently appalled the folk in Bucks. So they highlighted the inherent bias in a test on which they have based their entire school system. Words fail.

Highcrest, unsurprisingly, decided to ditch this dodgy metric and use a non-verbal reasoning test instead. If only Buckinghamshire council were so fastidious. Presumably it has a duty to all pupils, not just the ones whose parents can afford to help them pass its exams.

There is another side to this slightly surreal tale. Last week, Stephen Machin warned that his research on high-performing pre-2010 academies had been hijacked to promote the superiority of all academies, including the latest and unstudied wave. He was right to do so. But exaggeration, spin and the deft use of misleading comparisons are not unknown to academy detractors, either.

A favourite gambit is to measure the performance of academies against all schools, not just those that match their generally more challenging intakes, to imply that improvement is marginal or illusory. Another is to pretend academies are not comprehensives by another name but Trojan horses that will signal the wholesale reintroduction of selective education.

There is not a jot of evidence to support this claim. On the contrary, Highcrest suggests that academies can be used to undermine selective systems not reinforce them. Anti-academy zealots should let go of their hysteria. And Buckinghamshire should reach for its lawyers. Is it legal for a local authority to continue an admissions system that it knows to be socially biased and admits is ethnically unfair? I wonder ...

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Gerard Kelly

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