The link between global education rankings and grammar schools

maths_14_year_olds_timssThe Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) published its global education rankings today with Asian nations dominating the top of the table. The Pisa global education rankings similarly show Asian schools performing better than Western schools. It is always difficult to separate the effects of school structures from the culture and attitudes of the people. Is Singapore’s maths teaching really better, or are cultural factors leading to great maths results?

Many people suggest Asian families attitude to education and support for academic success leads to these results. One study offered Pisa-style tests to Asian children in Australian schools and found that the children achieved Pisa test scores just as high in Australian schools as Asian schools. This does suggest that the school structure doesn’t matter as much as the pupil’s family or cultural background.

So how does this relate to grammar schools? If we believe that the family culture of some children may be a factor in education league table results, won’t the family culture of grammar school pupils lead to a boost in school performance? High achievers in grammar schools do seem to perform a little better than high achievers in comprehensive schools, but an obvious difference between the two groups is the family background of the pupils.

All the children attending grammar schools, by the nature of entry to these school, are from families that care about education.

Grammar school pupils come from families that demonstrate one or more of these factors:

  • Families with educational ambition, they believe it is worth entering a test to try to get a better school.
  • Families with degree-educated or professional parents, they believe their child deserves a highly academic education and will go to university.
  • Families that prioritize education enough to prepare for a school entrance test. Families who win grammar school places may use online 11+ forums, work at practise papers or pay for 11+ tutors.

So what does this tell us about the success of grammar schools? Do high achieving pupils from families supportive of education need grammar schools for their children to succeed? The Asian Australian study suggests the structure of the school doesn’t matter so much and pupils from families that care about education will thrive in any school system.

Just for a second imagine that we offered a school admission test that didn’t measure ability, instead it measured ‘family interest in education’. This test might lead to two types of schools.

We-Care-About-Education schools. These schools have experienced teachers and greater prestige, the pupils who gain admittance have parents who encourage them to work hard and want them to go to university.

We-Don’t-Care-About-Education schools. These are the schools for the pupils whose parents didn’t bother to take the ‘family interest in education’ test. These schools are full of children who get no encouragement to do their homework, their parents tell them education is something they should escape as soon as possible.

How would this education system work out for the pupils in each set of schools?

What happens to pupils attending We-Care-About-Education schools? 

There would be quite a few advantages for the pupils attending We-Care-About-Education schools, they would find themselves in an environment that promoted learning and ambition. They would be supported by teachers, parents and other pupils to work hard and do their best. The schools would have great results due to a culture of everyone working together towards the goal of educational excellence.

What happens to pupils attending We-Don’t-Care-About-Education schools?

Oh dear. There would be clear disadvantages for pupils in these schools. The teachers in these schools would need to work extra hard to promote the importance of school work. The teachers would do their best but the culture of the school would be a problem because neither the parents nor the pupils would support the importance of education. The problems of the school might even put some teachers off working there, most teachers would prefer to work in the easier We-Care-About-Education schools. The pupils would see teachers leaving regularly and then be more convinced their school didn’t matter. Many pupils in the We-Don’t-Care-About-Education schools could achieve great results, but the school culture wouldn’t encourage them to achieve academic success. Many pupils could be persuaded to love learning and care about education, but with the school culture generally negative this would be harder. The pupils in these schools would be likely to underachieve and grow up and fail their ‘family interest in education’ test when their children apply for school.

Of course this is silly, grammar schools offer a test of ability not a ‘family cares about education’ test. But academic selection does create a divide based on educational attitudes as much as ability. The parents who care most about education work hard to win their child a grammar school place. Keen parents may practise test papers, pay for an 11+ tutor, appeal if their child fails the test, choose schools carefully, go private, apply for a grammar place beyond year 7, or research primary schools with the best 11+ pass rate.

The success of Singapore and Hong Kong prove that cultures supporting academic excellence lead to great results. I fear we may face problems if we divide our school system to create cultures of excellence in some schools, with cultures of low expectations in the rest. We need to convince all pupils that education matters, a school divide only makes this harder.

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