James Tooley

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We need to stop thinking of selection as a 1950s throwback and embrace the 21st-century possibilities

First class
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On the Today programme a month ago, Education Secretary Justine Greening was asked whether she could name any ‘respected figure or institution’ in favour of more grammar schools. She declined to answer, which was taken to mean that she couldn’t, and that there wasn’t.

I’ve been travelling a lot this year, so wasn’t around to offer my support. I’m back now. Assuming that a professor of education at a Russell Group university is respectable enough, let me wade into the debate: yes, I’m in favour of more grammar schools.

Educational experts against more grammar schools — of which there are plenty — point to the current evidence from England and international evidence in their support. They’re wrong to do so on both counts.

On current evidence, you can’t read too much into it. Only 5 per cent of secondary schools in England are grammar, serving 5 per cent of students. These schools can afford to be ultra-selective, because there is so much demand for a tiny number of places. Any fool knows that this will lead to the parents with the sharpest elbows getting their kids in. And sure enough, that’s what the evidence suggests happens.

Children going to grammar schools travel twice as far as those going to comprehensives, while proportionately three times as many children in grammars as in comprehensives cross local authority boundaries.  All evidence is of pushy parents travelling far and wide to secure a grammar school place for their kids, even if they live in areas where there aren’t any. A startling 13 per cent of grammar entrants come from fee-paying prep schools. This is not normal. If there were more grammar schools, you would not get these distortions.

One distortion that experts highlight is that less than 3 per cent of grammar students in England are on free school meals, the normal indicator of poverty. Agreed, that’s not good — although less remarked upon is that it’s similar to the situation in the top 500 comprehensives, which also have a much lower proportion of children on free school meals than other secondary schools in their local authority areas. The top 500 comprehensive schools of course are also selective: practising selection by postcode. I agree with Theresa May: this is unfair, much more unfair than selection by merit. If you had more grammar schools, then you’d have schools which were far more open to all kinds of students, including those on free school meals.

How do I know? Because that’s the case in Northern Ireland, where 45 per cent of youngsters go to grammar schools, which are ever increasing in popularity. As a proportion, there are more than four times more children on free school meals than in the singular grammar schools of England. Indeed, one grammar serving the lower Falls Road in deprived West Belfast has 38 per cent of its 1,180 pupils on free school meals. This is what you’ll see in England as grammar schools become more commonplace.

Regarding international evidence, there’s an elephant in the room that our educational experts, wilfully or otherwise, refuse to acknowledge.

What’s the highest performing country on all international tests? Singapore, of course. What do the educational experts and the BBC put this down to? They invest more in their teachers, of course. No one mentions the feature of the Singaporean education system that cries out to be noticed: it’s highly selective. What’s more, it’s explicitly modelled on the erstwhile grammar-school system of England and Wales that Mrs May is attempting to revitalise here.

In Singapore there is a heavy-duty set of tests at age 11-12, to mark the end of primary school, openly based on England’s 11-plus exam. Once results are out, students make six choices of school, and schools then choose on the basis of children’s results. The Ministry of Education suggests ‘Parents and students may wish to consider selecting schools that best meet a student’s learning needs’.

From there, the education system is exactly the selective system that was envisaged in the 1944 Education Act in England and Wales. Equivalent to the grammar schools are the express schools; then there are the normal (academic) schools (like secondary moderns), and the normal (technical) schools, like the technical schools in England, envisaged though seldom created.

Singapore even has super grammars, called integrated schools, which fast-track the brightest straight to A-levels or the International Baccalaureate. There is flexibility; as in the selective system in England, children can move between school types if it’s clear they were misallocated.

Educational experts condemn selection as leading to less equitable education systems. That’s simply not true. Andreas Schleicher, head of education at OECD (which produces the international assessments that Singapore excels on) praises that country as being not only the most successful education system in the world but also claims that it achieves ‘excellence without wide differences between children from wealthy and disadvantaged families’. There is plenty of data which shows precisely that. On indicators of fairness to children from lower socioeconomic status, Singapore is as fair as, or fairer than, countries which don’t have selection. Singapore compares very favourably with Japan for instance, which doesn’t have selection until age 15.

One measure looks at ‘resilient students’, those of low socioeconomic status who do better than expected compared to others. The higher this figure the better. Looking at the figures for science in Singapore (and other subjects are similar), 49 per cent of students are resilient, compared to the OECD average of only 29 per cent. In non-selective Japan the figure is identical. Selective Germany is almost identical to non-selective UK (34 per cent and 35 per cent respectively), while non-selective France has a very poor 27 per cent. It’s simply not true to say, as does the Rt Hon David Laws’s think-tank, the Education Policy Institute, that ‘International Evidence… shows that academic selection in school systems is associated negatively with equity’. Absolutely it is not.

Those against selection in England tend to portray its supporters as mad swivel-eyed loon types. Not at all; we want England — and other parts of the UK if only they’d follow — to be as modern and competitive as Singapore, which boasts the world’s third highest per capita GDP and its most open economy. Selection is not a throwback to the 1950s, but an embracing of a world of sophisticated 21st-century possibility.