Andy Cook is chief executive of the Centre for Social Justice.
Whether the brilliant teachers I know – such as my wife, mother and sister-in-law – believe it or not, school selection is already happening. And what’s more, it is not only happening through house prices, but through hidden costs, through aptitude tests and intangible social capital.
In response to this, the Centre for Social Justice consulted a wide range of leading educational experts to find out the best ways to address the matter. We’ve released a report which offers recommendations to ensure the Government’s proposed academic selection best serves children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Many parents face an increasing financial struggle to ensure their children get the best education possible. But, in the most extreme case, homes near the high-achieving Beaconsfield High School in Buckinghamshire will cost you a whopping £629,021 (171 per cent) more than the average neighbouring price. And research by Lloyds Bank has shown that right across the top 30 state schools in England, houses were on average nearly £55,000 more expensive than homes in neighbouring parts of their county – the top six of these schools commanded a premium of over £150,000.
Consciously or unconsciously, schools can select pupils ‘by stealth’ – through the high costs of uniforms, trips, activities and equipment. The NASUWT union’s most recent Cost of Education report, an annual survey of parents, found that nearly a quarter of parents’ school choice was influenced by prohibitive costs such as these.
Experts that the CSJ spoke to also felt that aptitude tests, by which schools can select significant portions of their intake, were being used as a proxy for finding middle class families. Although designed to measure aptitude rather than ability, music and maths in particular are being seen as a gameable way to find aspirational parents.
All of this means that the overwhelming majority (95 per cent) of the top 500 comprehensives take fewer pupils on Free School Meals – the most widely used measure for the social background of a school’s intake – than the total proportion in their local areas. The Social Mobility Commission saw it from another angle. Their recent report found that a child living in one of England’s most disadvantaged areas is ‘27 times more likely to go to an inadequate school than a child living in one of the least disadvantaged’.
There is selection in our current education system, and it is immediately denying children from disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunities available to the wealthiest in society – regardless of their academic ability or potential. I know that my family members who are teachers, and indeed all hard-working teachers, giving sweat and tears in all those schools to all those children care about this, because this ultimately costs us all.
The Government’s proposed expansion of academic selection could – if carefully designed – help level the playing field. This is because we know that children with FSM do better in grammars than comprehensives. The attainment gap between them and children from better off homes is only four per cent at grammar schools compared with a 25 per cent gap at comprehensives.
But if new schools are to do this, it cannot simply be through a return to the model of the 1950s, and nor can they just operate as they are now. In their current form, grammar schools are not doing enough to counteract the social selection that is rife in the system. At present, there are 163 grammar schools in England. Just three per cent of pupils at these schools are in receipt of FSM. This compares to about 18 per cent in non-selective schools across the country.
In our new report, Selective Education and Mobility, we have identified a number of ways to make their reinvention a genuine tool for social mobility:
- Targeted intervention – Don’t think that what works in Kent will work in Cumbria. The government should start by looking at ‘cold spots’ for education and social mobility.
- Quotas – Aspirational families will always, quite rightly, push for what is best for their children. To reach more deprived families you may need to drag them to the front of the queue rather than assume they will turn up.
- Outreach – No school is an island. Selective schools should work with ‘feeder primaries’ and the wider community of schools. This would help attract and enable deprived children, who don’t even apply at present.
- Completely new ways of working. – Too much thinking around schools is confined to the existing rules. We would like to see schools with partially selective intakes and grammar “streams”. Sixth Form grammar schools with the remit to scout for talent, not just GCSE results. Targeted interventions that meet local needs that don’t necessarily look like anything that has gone before.
It’s time for the Government to be bold and reimagine how to give the nation’s poorest children the same chances as its wealthiest. Selective education could be the way to do this, drawing children out of poverty and offering them a future.