A skewed arithmetic of choice

1st December 1995 at 00:00
Selective admissions can only mean that fewer parents are able to get what they want, argues Peter Newsam

It is reasonable to assume that politicians intend the obvious consequences of their actions. So one has to assume that there is now a view that the best way to improve educational standards in this country requires the creation of lots more secondary modern schools. To this end, the admission of an increasing number of the ablest 11-year-olds to selective fee-paying schools is to be promoted by means of assisted places; a number of other schools will be allowed or encouraged to do a little additional selecting on the side, and so on.

Should ancestral voices be raised against this return to the 1960s, they are to be drowned with cries of "choice, choice, it's all about choices".

But whose choices is it all about? Exactly how does increasing the proportion of children selected at 11-plus affect parental choice of school? The answer to that is largely a matter of arithmetic, but definitions come into it as well. So, as we seem to be heading back towards the 1960s, some of the definitions then used will serve.

Roughly speaking, then:

* a grammar school (or selective, fee-paying one) is a school which ordinarily draws its pupils from the 15 to 25 per cent of the ablest children in any locality. (Henceforth, I assume 20 per cent to keep the sums simple.) * a secondary modern school is one that takes the remaining children in that same area. By definition, it is a school which lacks all but a tiny number of that top 20 per cent.

* a comprehensive school "comprehends", combines in a single institution, something close to the full ability range in any given locality.

Schools have to be defined in this way because the names on their notepaper are such an unreliable guide to what they are. Tadcaster Grammar School, for example, like other similarly-named schools in parts of Yorkshire, has been a highly successful comprehensive school (as defined above) since the 1950s. Conversely, many schools described as "comprehensive" are in practice (again as defined above) secondary modern schools in that only a tiny minority of that ablest 20 per cent of children go to them.

Failure to grasp this problem of nomenclature leads to hand-wringing articles in the press about the "flight from inner-city comprehensives" or even the "failure" of comprehensive schools in general. There is no such flight and no such failure; though, like the rest of us, most schools of any kind could improve on what they do.

There is, however, an understandable resistance from knowledgeable parents to sending their children to schools which are correctly perceived, in their composition, to be secondary modern schools, despite words like "comprehensive" or "community" appearing on their notepaper. Faced with that prospect, some parents indeed "flee" to fee-paying schools; but far more battle to get their children into a school which takes something close to the full ability range. In short, parental "flight" is predominantly towards genuine comprehensive schools, not away from them.

Anyone who supposes that comprehensive schools which manage to remain comprehensive are unpopular obviously has not had to try to get a child into one recently. Such schools tend to be highly popular with all elements in society, and, as their performance as aided, county, grant-maintained or otherwise named schools shows, they are one of this country's few post-war educational successes. It is time that fact was dinned into skulls everywhere, be they never so numb.

But what of the effect of 11-plus selection on choice? Here arithmetic rules. At one end of the scale, if the top 20 per cent of children at 11-plus are deemed fit to go to selective schools and do so, the question of choice simply does not arise. The remaining 80 per cent have to go to secondary modern schools. On that same basis, if 10 per cent of children are selected at 11-plus and 10 per cent remain, 50 per cent of children in that locality can go to a comprehensive school (as defined above) and the remaining 40 per cent have no choice but to go to a secondary modern school.

To put it another way, if balanced-entry comprehensive schools are to be maintained, every child selected away from them means that four others have to go to a secondary modern school. So much for the arithmetic of choice. In practice, life is not so tidy. As the proportion of children selected increases, the messy struggle we have been witnessing recently develops. Schools wishing to remain comprehensive have to compete with others for the share of a diminishing number of able children that will enable them to retain a balanced entry. There is no such competition for the less able, of course.

Now I am aware that some people, including what I have come to think of as the Pipsqueak Tendency in the Fabian Society, choose to believe that this form of competition, essentially to decide which schools can remain comprehensive and which are to be beaten back to secondary modern status, will improve standards. On the contrary, although there may be a more certain way of depressing the educational prospects of many of this country's children, particularly in large cities where the need for improvement is greatest, for the moment it is hard to think of one.

To return to choice: raising the proportion of children selected into fee- paying or other selective schools can only be said to increase choice if the preferences of those who get what they want are regarded as more important than the preferences of others who, as a direct consequence, are required to accept what, as the evidence of "flight" clearly shows, they decidedly do not want. About four times as important, if one wants to be arithmetical about it.

Sir Peter Newsam is a former chief education officer of the Inner London Education Authority

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