'Separating children according to perceived academic talent won't address the inequalities in education'

Comprehensives are not filled with less able or talented children – the only advantage grammar school pupils have is that those around them believe they are special

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In the summer of 1964, psychologists Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson visited a primary school in San Francisco to perform an IQ test on pupils. Teachers and parents were told that the test was designed to identify children who would perform particularly well academically over the coming years – so-called "academic bloomers".

After analysing the results of the test, Professor Rosenthal and Ms Jacobson acknowledged a handful of these "academic bloomers" and went on their way.

In the autumn, the class was assigned a new teacher: one who did not know the pupils personally, but was aware who had been given the academic bloomer label. Professor Rosenthal and Ms Jacobson returned the following summer with another IQ test. As predicted, the academic bloomers had outscored their peers by between 10-15 IQ points.

After it had been established that the academic bloomers had indeed performed better than the rest of the class, Professor Rosenthal and Ms Jacobson revealed they had, in fact, been selected at random.

They hadn’t performed any better or worse than their peers on the first IQ test in 1964. But because of the positive label they had been ascribed, by 1965 they were flourishing.

Great expectations

According to modern day psychologist Adam Alter, the experiment "shook" the education community, forcing them to question long-held beliefs about children’s academic potential being something which could be predicted at an early age.

It should – at least in theory – have served as a fairly definitive response to anyone who believed that the grammar school system genuinely benefits the intellectually gifted.

Yet somehow, more than 40 years later, I found myself at a debate at the London School of Economics, watching Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens hold forth on the virtues of grammar schools, ahead of an election in which the Conservative party have pledged to create more of them.

The event, organised by Tes, Comprehensive Future (CF) and the Fair Education Alliance (FEA), also featured author and research fellow for the Centre for Policy Studies, Harriet Sergeant, and ResPublica’s localism lead, Mark Morrin, proposing the motion "Grammar Schools: schools that work for everyone".

On the opposing bench were campaigner and journalist Melissa Benn, general secretary of ATL (and personal hero) Mary Bousted and Lewis Iwu, director of the Fair Education Alliance.

Despite the clear remit outlined in the motion, each of the speakers for the proposition acknowledged that grammar schools don’t, in fact, represent a system that "works for everyone".

Mr Hitchens’ primary argument was that wealthy parents already cheat the comprehensive system by buying homes in expensive catchment areas, and that "academic ability" was a better yardstick by which to privilege some children than wealth.

Ms Sergeant’s speech was a seven-minute riff of her time "befriending" south London gangs, reaching a crescendo with an anecdote about an Iranian boy who "didn’t strike [her] as particularly academic" but was able to recite the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner by heart (this is, apparently, an indicator of having been fabulously educated).

Mr Morrin, who seemed a little less right-wing than his colleagues, argued it was possible to divide children into those destined for university and those who would fare better at "good-quality technical colleges" at the age of ten.

An unfair edge

Of course, not every child will benefit from a traditional university education. It is important that we recognise a wide range of skills which fall outside those we consider to be "academic".

But as the opposition pointed out, this is not something which can be determined with any accuracy or fairness in the last year of primary school, based solely on a test which, in Ms Benn's words against the motion, "you could pass on Monday and fail on Wednesday". This is especially true when one takes into account the existence of private tutors, who give the wealthy the sort of advantage Mr Hitchens was apparently so opposed to.

While a variety of supporting statistics were offered up by both sides, the figures which no-one disputed were those which showed the impact of grammar schools on other schools in the community. Grammars rob their local state schools of resources and teachers, ultimately impacting their results. Even the top-performing comprehensives fare less well if there is a grammar school nearby.

It was Mr Iwu who made the all-important disclaimer: "No-one denies grammar schools do well". What is disputed is that the way to address the imperfections within the comprehensive system is to revert to a system of grammars and secondary moderns.

Mr Hitchens' argument – parents cheat in the current admissions code anyway, so we might as well formalise it – was rather akin to saying, in the words of a friend of mine who attended the debate: "We’re getting kicked in the f*nny so let’s swap it for a punch in the t*t," (which I thought was particularly eloquent).

A child’s performance under exam conditions on a particular day is subject to any number of factors which have nothing to do with their innate academic ability – or, indeed, the quality of the teaching they have experienced. And in the words of Ms Bousted, "we do profound things when we give children labels."

Comprehensives are not filled with less able or talented children. Nor are they, as was implied numerous times by Ms Sergeant, a place where the teachers are of a substandard quality.

An equal footing

As Rosenthal and Jackson’s experiment in 1964 showed, the advantage grammar school pupils have, quite simply, is that those around them believe they are special (a belief which is then disseminated throughout community and society, ultimately resulting in more funding and resources).

The majority of schools are struggling in today’s political and financial climate, but that doesn’t mean we should write off a system which was designed to give equal opportunity to children who come from poorer backgrounds.

Ms Bousted is a woman who, during her career as a teacher, entered a school in which the majority of the children had English as their second language, did away with streaming and doubled the pass rate for English GSCE. This, if nothing else, makes her an expert on the wisdom of separating children according to perceived academic talent.

She outlined numerous ways in which we could address the current inequalities in comprehensive education (essentially doing away with catchment areas and having a lottery-style entry system): More grammar schools would merely solidify them.

After all, shouldn’t the education system we aspire to be one in which we believe in the potential of all children?

Natasha Devon is the former UK government mental health champion for schools and founder of the Body Gossip Education Programme and the Self-Esteem Team. She tweets as @_NatashaDevon

For more columns by Natasha, visit her back catalogue

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