News that King Edward VI grammar schools may face a legal challenge – from parents unimpressed by their new policy to lower entrance scores for disadvantaged pupils living nearby – has opened the lid on a murky educational secret.
The Birmingham-based group of schools took the step in order to increase social mobility. Whether they’ve done so as a result of direct political pressure or just social mobility lobbyists, I’ve no idea, but I do know that an entrance exam is about as fundamental a meritocratic tool as anyone can design. As with so much of the educational research I read, it seems that even a school entrance exam now has to be subject to some judicious recalibration.
In the golden days of social mobility, all the children in primary schools were prepared for the 11-plus exam and a minority successfully jumped the admittedly high hurdle to get into grammar schools. Some people would have you believe that primaries only ever entered the cleverest children but that was certainly not my experience. Nor, if the torrent of discussion on Mumsnet is any judge, was it the experience of hundreds of other parents who have benefited from a grammar school education much more recently and would simply like their own children to have the same opportunity. Because today most primary schools don’t appear to be interested in preparing any children for the test.
There are 38 boroughs or local authorities where parents still have an opportunity to enter their children for a selective state school. There is no national consistency about the tests and different authorities run different types, although the range of suppliers is tiny. Some areas are also far more fiercely contested than others. Anyone living in Kingston, for example, knows it’s testing day because parking is banned for miles and there are large numbers of police around to enforce it. In Sutton, about 5,000 children take the test each year.
This will only surprise disapproval choristers because, according to a 2016 YouGov survey, 67 per cent of normal people would send their child to a grammar school if they passed the exam.
Tuition 'gives children an advantage'
Another side effect of their popularity is the exponential growth of something their critics find equally abhorrent: private tutoring. Social mobility charity the Sutton Trust reported with barely suppressed outrage last year that “over a quarter (27 per cent) of secondary school pupils in England and Wales have had private tuition, a figure that rises to 41 per cent for pupils in London”. The trust made it clear that it was not happy about this. “The fact that it’s predominantly used to help children do well in a specific test or exam means that those who can afford it are able to give their children a significant advantage over those that cannot.”
Tutoring has become a new bête noire largely because of its assumed connection with grammar school entrance, even though the trust’s poll found that “just over one in four (27 per cent) said their extra tuition was to help them do well in a school entrance exam”. But the best-kept secret about this whole business is a much more nonsensical reality.
The specific cottage tutoring industry that people are quick to brand unfair is a direct result of the fact that some primary schools in selective areas no longer prepare children for the tests. To extend that criticism to embrace all tutoring is educational nonsense. Tutoring has grown dramatically in recent years partly because it can be so easily done online and partly because more parents, to use a pet word of its critics, “care”.
Some parents care so much they try to prepare their children themselves, which no doubt explains the vastness of the 11-plus section at WH Smith in Kingston. But asking any child to sit a test that will determine the entire nature of their secondary school experience without some preparation, even if all they are being tested on is English and maths, is neither responsible nor educationally sound behaviour – by either a school or a parent.
Climbing the educational ladder
I found one local authority where all children are entered unless they opt out and which runs a short preparation test at each school, so children can become familiar with the real test. A second said the test they set was appropriate for the pupils in their final year of the key stage 2 national curriculum and took account of the fact that children may not have covered all areas.
The simple fact is that schools and parents should prepare their children for these tests.
Because, according to a report by the Higher Education Policy Institute thinktank earlier this year, 39 per cent of pupils in areas with selective school systems progress from state schools to highly selective universities, compared with just 23 per cent in comprehensive areas. Logically, what primary schools in selective areas should be doing is identifying their most economically disadvantaged pupils and actively preparing them for a grammar school test.
The same chameleon behaviour permeates every corner of education that champions social mobility. Dr Lee Elliott Major, former CEO of the Sutton Trust and now professor of social mobility at Exeter University is someone who doesn’t hide what he describes as “my working-class credentials”. Writing in his book Social Mobility and its Enemies, he claims that “all middle-class parents are to some extent enemies of social mobility. This is not just parents sending their children to private schools, but parents buying houses near top state schools, or those paying for private tutoring.” The intergenerational class gymnastics this statement requires takes my breath away. Responsible middle-class parents, demonised and harangued by one of their own.
In sharp contrast, the Bridge Group published a report in February that looked at the significant part geography plays in educational disadvantage in a much more thoughtful, apolitical way. Among a clutch of useful key findings, I’ve chosen this one for teachers interested in social mobility to reflect on. “The prevailing model of social mobility…places too much emphasis on supporting young people to achieve highly in school in order to leave their local area for higher education and training and secure a graduate job. This means that communities in remote areas are depleted of highly talented young people who have a vital part to play in energising local cultures and economies.”
Bridge at least has a vision which does not involve disapproving of middle-class parents who primarily "care" about their own children's prospects.