Education Sep 14 2010

Fairer admissions for poor children? Let’s start by ending selection

So Michael Gove wants the admissions system to benefit poor children. Excellent. But rather than given a few schools the option of prioritising children on free school meals, he should start by ending academic selection, and all the other covert methods many schools use to hand pick the affluent children most likely to succeed.

And if he wants to know why, he should watch the BBC’s Big School Lottery series, which has been following a group of children through their secondary transfer in Birmingham and is a chilling and accurate portrayal of the modern day urban schools market.

The issue of parent choice has been such a media fetish in the past few years that we should be immune to the emotions these programmes elicit. I made one myself some years ago and was slated for allowing one of my interviewees to break down in tears as she recalled the hell of putting her children, or her ‘crown jewels’ as she described them, through a carousel of selective entry tests, with varying degrees of success.

To be fair I think it was her angst rather than my line of questioning that caused it but clearly I wasn’t quick enough to rush in with the tissues. That was six years ago and not much seems to have changed.

In Birmingham, still dominated by the existing grammar schools, the better off children still manage to get into the most sought after schools and thousands of lives are affected by a system that means selection for a few and rejection for the majority. I found myself quietly seething about a number of aspects of last Wednesday’s episode in this gripping series, but most of all at the pervasive and divisive nature of the 11 plus test

If you don’t live in, or near, to an area that still uses the test, it is easy to exist in blissful ignorance of its damaging effects. Many people think it was abolished years ago but a quarter of education authorities still use academic selection and fifteen are fully selective.

It leads to the sort of social segregation all politicians now profess to loathe. As David Willetts pointed out before he was relieved of his duties as Shadow Education Secretary for saying so, poor children fall behind before they even start school and the gaps are too wide by the time they get to 11 for them to get into the most selective schools.

Fuelled by an expensive private tuition industry, selective schools routinely take far fewer children on free school meals, with special needs and from some minority ethnic groups than others in their surrounding communities. Giving those children priority in the admissions system will make no difference at all if they can’t pass the test

Other schools can’t compete, at least in terms of exam results, because they are automatically denied the more able pupils they need to do well. In  fully selective areas, most children are educated in secondary moderns, many of which do outstanding work but are inevitably full of children who start their secondary careers having failed  and, as one secondary modern head told me for this pamphlet published last year, carrying a ‘life-long scar’.

Many of these schools were in the last government’s ‘National Challenge’. They were indeed converted to academies and given a new ‘badge’ but that failed to address the underlying problem, which is that they are part of an institutionally divided system.

Becky Matthews, a veteran parent campaigner against the 11-plus in Kent, has lobbied successive Prime Ministers on this issue. She says: “If you are a child in Kent, you will be labelled by a test at 10-years-old, you will be educated in a school exclusively populated by middle-class prosperous children or you will be educated in a school populated by children who have failed, probably with a disproportionate number of Special Educational Needs students and emotional and behavioural difficulties, with little or no sixth form and second-rate facilities. These outcomes are largely determined by social class.”

Successive governments have shirked from the job of ensuring the 11 plus is outlawed for good and, over the years, I have heard all the feeble reasons why: “We can’t destroy good schools / it’s only a few schools/ we will get rid of it when all schools are as good as grammar schools”.

I have also witnessed the bigotry of the pro-grammar school  lobby, the pretence that selective systems are more successful than comprehensive systems – most international comparisons like PISA makes clear they are not– and the suggestion that failing a high stakes test at 10 or 11 is “character forming” and sets you up for life. An argument that usually comes from people who are happy to see other people’s children failing, but not their own.

No doubt we will see the same lack of courage on this issue from the Coalition as from Labour, in spite of Cameron and Gove’s supposed commitment to all ability schools and disadvantaged children.

Ending selection can be done, over a period of time without ‘destroying good schools’ or damaging the education of the children currently educated in them. Comprehensive Future, which I chair, has set out a plan. All we need now is some political courage, rather than more tinkering around the edges.

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