James Handscombe

Selective education can tackle inequality. Here’s how

Selective education can tackle inequality. Here's how
Text settings

You know the figures: seven per cent of children in the UK attend fee-paying schools but they win 42 per cent of Oxbridge places and 70 per cent of jobs in private equity banking; they also make up 30 per cent of places in the cabinet. This is a significant decrease from previous cabinets - 50 per cent of David Cameron’s, 70 per cent of Sir John Major’s and 90 per cent of Margaret Thatcher’s were privately educated - but it is still worryingly high.

Grammar schools are suggested by some as a solution, but they have a poor record of improving social mobility. Children with educated, comparatively wealthy parents are better placed to get over the hurdles of 11+ tests and catchment areas. This means clever children from poor homes are all too often frozen out. That's the case against grammars. But it does not hold for selective education in general.

Harris Westminster Sixth Form, where I am principal, is bucking that trend. Through the two bodies that established the school – the Harris Federation and Westminster School – we have the very best of both the state and independent sectors and we have put these two sets of expertise to good use. Our first cohort of students got their A Level results last month. Seven students won places at Oxford and Cambridge and 48 per cent are going to Russell Group universities.

Our students are as likely as their privately-educated counterparts to get into top universities. But a third of our pupils clme from backgrounds so deprived that they were entitled to the Pupil Premium. The national average is 29 per cent and typical selective schools have under 10 per cent.

This success has been achieved by doing something radically different with admissions, a freedom permitted under the free schools legislation. Our policy is uncompromising: all students must meet the required standard in the entrance exam and interview but if we are oversubscribed (as we are, with five applications for every place) then students eligible for the Pupil Premium get priority.

So our school has the full social range, taking students from every background and neighbourhood in London. Our most recent cohort of 300 students came from over 150 schools.

Our entrance exam is designed to minimise the impact of tutoring or having been at a good school for GCSE: the questions are written to test students on how they think, rather than on the factual knowledge they have been taught. It puts all students, no matter where they have come from, in an unfamiliar situation and measures how they perform.

The interviews contain an opportunity to teach the student something, with candidates marked on their ability to learn rather than the complexity of what they already know. These measures ensure that we find students who have outstanding potential rather than those who have merely been well taught. But the failsafe is that the most deprived students are just competing against the test rather than against their more privileged peers.

Contrary to much of what has been said recently, selective schooling does not mean an inherent bias towards the well-off. That only happens if the deliberate and strategic steps needed to address that bias are not are taken. For example, it is not enough to rely on a tutor-proof test, a concept that does a disservice to the ingenuity and talent of the tutor. The admissions policy needs to address social mobility explicitly.

This is not a question of lowering standards, because all our students have to pass the test, but of accepting that students from challenging backgrounds face challenges: they are statistically less likely to reach their potential. This is a challenge to educators but also an enormous opportunity because it means that there is a pool of untapped potential waiting to be given a chance.

The curriculum of Harris Westminster offers them that chance: the chance to be inspired by more-able peers; the chance to work seriously hard to keep up with fast-moving lessons; the chance to listen to the enthusiasm and expertise of visiting speakers; the chance to study in an academic library; the chance to explore uncharted areas of knowledge and to discover new interests and passions.

Harris Westminster is a stepping stone from all kinds of secondary schools to the top universities. Along with other 16-19 Free Schools such as King’s Maths School and the London Academy of Excellence, it is starting to change the educational landscape and move our society towards a future in which students from all backgrounds are represented fairly at the top universities and in elite jobs. That’s the future I’m working for.

James Handscombe is Principal of Harris Westminster Sixth Form