Love them or hate them, grammar schools are again firmly back on the education agenda. And those seem to be your options; you either love them or hate them. Much of the debate has been fiercely partisan. Repeated nostalgic references abound as though selection is something from the 1960s and 1970s.
With much of this debate also come the assumptions about grammar schools and the secondary moderns, which they inevitably create. There is an assumption that grammar schools are, somehow by definition, better schools.
Equally there are the assumptions that secondary moderns are “second class”, “sink” schools. Even campaigns against selection seem to make these same assumptions, including the Labour Party’s recent petition, which states “grammar schools…provide a privileged education for a few and a second class education for the rest”. Doesn’t it sound like they are actually pro-grammar school but just anti-secondary modern?
The National Association for Secondary Moderns (NASM), established in 2013, is a champion for secondary moderns and the great work that they do (often with little or no recognition). As an organisation we want to speak about the reality of selective education today. We are regularly challenged by those who do not believe we even exist. “There are no secondary moderns today,” we are told.
But with selective schools (grammar schools) you have an unavoidable consequence; non-selective schools (secondary moderns). There are 125 schools officially recognised as having an admission policy of “secondary modern” on the DfE website. This is because schools are able to change this for themselves and over the years many have avoided the term because of the negative connotations it carries, referring to themselves as “comprehensive” instead.
Today there are 163 grammar schools in England. If on average those grammar schools select 25 per cent of the cohort then there will be three times as many non-selective schools in selective areas (we choose to use the term secondary modern as it is easier). This means that today there are around 600 schools impacted by selection; that is 1 in every 5 English secondary schools.
It is astounding therefore, that we have had decades of education policy which is predicated on the idea that academic selection is a thing of the past. The current debate has provided us with a welcome opportunity to contest these misconceptions about secondary moderns but also to speak about the challenges which we face every day.
'12-plus and 13-plus isn't anything new'
Education secretary Justine Greening has referred to the increase in grammar schools nationally as not being a “return to the simplistic, binary choice of the past”. If she visited one of England’s remaining selective authorities she would find exactly that; a binary choice of grammar school or secondary modern, decided by the outcome of the 11-plus.
There has also been the suggestion that access to the nation’s “new-grammars” might not only be made available at the age of 11 but at later ages too, via the 12-plus, 13-plus, etc. This is nothing new. In many selective authorities there are students who failed the 11-plus and started year 7 at a secondary modern and who are making good progress. They are given another bite at the cherry to go to a grammar school.
This is rarely explained as being down to the excellent teaching provided by the secondary modern in that short time but rather it is because the child is a “late developer”. This practice serves to top-up student places at grammar schools with students moving from secondary moderns, with all of the implications that this brings, including the levels of funding for the schools.
For years we have had accountability measures such as the percentage of five good GCSE grades and Expected Progress despite the obvious, inherent lack of fairness of these measures in comparing schools with very different intakes.
We now have the advent of Progress 8. While this would appear at first glance to be a “level playing field”, and it certainly seems fairer, there is still some way to go if it is to be a universal measure of the quality of outcomes for a school (if, indeed, such a thing can exist).
The impact of the 11-plus - added to the unreliable results from this year’s key stage 2 tests - in selective areas means that, as recently documented by the excellent work of the Education Data Lab team: “Progress 8 is too favourable to grammar schools and understates secondary modern achievement”.
'The halo effect'
When it comes to Ofsted inspections, grammar schools are far more likely to be judged outstanding than non-selective schools. When we raised our concerns about what we perceived to be a lack of parity, and a kind of “halo effect” in operation, with the Director for Education, Sean Harford, we received a response. It referred to Ofsted’s view being that these higher Ofsted grades can be explained by the fact that grammar schools have “higher calibre teachers”.
While I would argue that this is not necessarily the case – indeed many of my secondary modern colleagues have expressed outrage at such a suggestion – it does pose an interesting question. If grammar schools find it easier to attract those “higher calibre” teachers, at the cost to local secondary moderns, surely those secondary moderns require higher levels of funding to enable them to be more attractive in terms of recruitment and retention?
Justine Greening has already revealed plans to invest £50 million a year to increase in the number of grammar school places. Can we assume that this money will find its way to where it is sorely needed – in the secondary moderns? We also have the prospect of a national fairer funding formula on the horizon, will secondary moderns finally then be given the funding levels that they need to address the needs of their students and to overcome the apparent challenges in terms of recruitment?
It is now time for an end to the lazy assumptions about schools in selective areas - grammars and secondary moderns and for the constant reference to a dim and distant past. If you want to see what selection looks like and how it impacts on the lives of the young people affected by it why not go to one of the selective local authorities today and find out for yourself?
It is time for decision makers to accept the reality of academic selection. We are not an anomaly which can be ignored. We make up a very significant part of the education landscape and if the Conservatives get their way it will be even more significant. The starting point for any policy decision should be a firm grasp of reality. Some honesty and understanding of what happens in selective authorities today would go a long way to help with this.
Ian Widdows is headteacher of Giles Academy and founder of the National Association of Secondary Moderns