Dear Justine Greening
Congratulations on your appointment as Secretary of State for Education.
One of the issues in your in-tray will be the future of grammar schools. Much of the debate around the merits of selective systems is framed by competing ideologies and pervasive myths rather than the evidence. We therefore wanted to take this opportunity to provide you with data on how children from different backgrounds fare in a fully selective system.
In Buckinghamshire, over 8000 children sit the 11+ exam every year. It is an area that provides a unique insight into how selection works in practice because it is the only local authority in the country where every child in a state primary school is automatically entered for the 11+ exam.
Over the last few years, Local Equal Excellent, a group of concerned residents and parents, have used FOI to collect extensive data about outcomes for different groups of children under the Bucks 11+ exam.
The figures show that children living in the wealthier areas of Bucks are twice as likely to pass the 11+ than children living in the poorer areas. Children at private schools are nearly three times more likely to pass than children from state schools.
In 2014, of the 276 children on free school meals who sat the Bucks exam, just 10 passed – a shockingly low pass rate of 4% compared to the overall pass rate of 30%. (After 2014, the grammar schools decided to stop collecting data on pass rates for children on FSM.)
Children from some ethnic backgrounds suffer serious bias under the 11+ exam. In particular, children of Pakistani heritage (Bucks’ largest ethnic group by some margin) are half as likely to pass the exam than White British children.
High ability children from poor backgrounds and some ethnic groups do disproportionately badly under the 11+ exam. These are precisely the children who proponents of selection claim the system helps.
For those who believe that children have a fixed quantum of ‘ability’ (a necessary belief for the underlying logic of selection to hold together), the fairness of selective systems stands or falls on whether or not an exam can be found that accurately measures that ability at the age of 10. The evidence suggests the contrary. While it is generally accepted that exams like SATS and GSCEs are likely to reflect differences in learning contexts and opportunities for children from different backgrounds, the School Admissions Code requires that grammar entrance exams do not test prior learning but rather measure aptitude or academic potential. For any test that achieves this, we would expect to see a representative spread of results for children from different socio-economic backgrounds and ethnic groups, as tutoring and prior learning opportunities would make no difference. But this is the opposite of what the data shows. In fact, alarmingly, 11+ tests appear to be more susceptible to demographic variables than SATS.
Proponents of selection must therefore either believe that children from certain backgrounds are born with less ability, or concede that a test has yet to be found which can measure aptitude in the way in which the law requires. Could you confirm which of these is the Government’s position? If it is the latter, then the continuation, let alone expansion, of selective systems is surely indefensible until such time as there is a 11+ test that is demonstrably capable of assessing aptitude in isolation from children’s backgrounds.
The unavoidable corollary of grammar schools is secondary modern schools. In Bucks, about half of our secondary modern schools ‘require improvement’ according to Ofsted. These schools’ performance is not somehow disconnected from their existence within a wholly selective system – it is a function of that system; schools being set up to fail, children being consigned to a parallel and inferior educational pathway. These children form the majority, yet the impact of selection on their futures is conspicuously neglected in the grammar school debate.
In other words, the vast majority of children from lower income homes in Bucks are turned away by grammar schools and forced to attend a secondary modern where their prospects of achieving good GCSEs have been shown to be worse than if they had attended a comprehensive school. It is frankly baffling how anyone could contend that damaging the educational chances of the majority of children in this way, could add up to social mobility? Nor should parents be asked to believe such a claim until evidence is presented to support it.
We would welcome your response to the data we have provided and would be happy to provide any further information, including the underlying datasets. Members of our group would also be pleased to meet with you or your officials to brief you further.
Dr Katy Simmons
Dr Neal Skipper
On behalf of Local Equal Excellent