National Grammar Schools Association
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Dangerous nonsense in Parliament

May 2002

On 16 April 2002, David Chaytor MP asked Parliament for leave to bring in a Bill 'to establish that a maximum of 5 per cent of pupils can be selected, by aptitude or ability, for admission to any state secondary school.' (See House of Commons Hansard, 16 April 2002,

Mr Chaytor's 'Selective Schools (Transitional Arrangements)' were passed by 163 to 112 votes. Although the proposals are said to have little chance of success, this majority means they will again be debated in Parliament, probably on 19 July when they could go forward. This could mean the end of all England's remaining grammar schools. Moreover, it is probably significant that these proposals were raised just as the Northern Ireland Assembly is considering the Burns Report, which advocates destroying all Northern Ireland's remaining grammar schools too.

Unfortunately, whilst presenting his Bill, Mr Chaytor was allowed to make several misleading statements without challenge. To say he was economical with the truth would be an understatement. For example, Mr Chaytor said that:

'...The most recent research on selective systems by both the University of York and the National Foundation for Educational Research indicates that the most able pupils performed at least as well, if not better, in comprehensive schools as in selective schools'

However, it should be noted that both the 'University of York' study (by Professor David Jesson of Sheffield University) and the NFER study (by Ian and Sandie Shagen - were based on 'value-added' figures, which means that the exam results were manipulated before the researchers reached their conclusions. In more honest reporting of this research, NFER News, Spring 2002, says that 'at key stage 3, selective systems had a clear advantage... by the time they take the key stage 3 tests, [14-year-old grammar school pupils] are as much as a year ahead of pupils of the same ability in comprehensive or secondary modern schools' (original emphasis). Also that: 'grammar schools are particularly successful at enhancing the performance of their least able pupils' and 'the pupils who derive the greatest benefit from a grammar school education are those in the overlapping ability range... who just manage to secure a grammar school place.'

And, of course, the reason why anti-grammar school campaigners can claim that the most able pupils [may] perform 'at least as well, if not better, in comprehensive schools as in selective schoolsê is that the measure used - 5 or more A*-C grade GCSEs - is subject to a 'ceiling effect' which disadvantages grammar schools, even before the results are manipulated by 'value-added' techniques. Obviously, when more than 95 per cent of grammar school pupils are already achieving 5 or more A*-C GCSEs, the possibility for them to show significant 'value-added' improvements on that measure has practically disappeared. (See, Grammar Schools in the Twenty-first Century, NGSA, 2001 and 'Grammar Schools' Achievements and the DfEE's Measures of Value-Added: an attempt at clarification' by Professor S. J. Prais, Oxford Review of Education, Vol. 27, No.1, 2001.

Mr Chaytor also seems to be confused about the difference between 'equality of opportunity' and 'equality of result'. Yet he clearly supports the latter, not to raise standards, but for ideological and political reasons. (See Comprehensive Ideology: Burns and the Betrayal of Two Communities by Fred Naylor, Campaign for Real Education, 2002.)

He also claims, without quoting any evidence, that 'the remarkable success of British primary schools has been due entirely to comprehensive education'. Also that 'the startling increase in the proportion of young people going to university has been largely the result of [more] comprehensive education.' But if that is so, why is the government now ordering and bribing universities to reduce or otherwise manipulate their entry requirements to allow 'selection' not on proven ability, but by postcode?

And, if it is true, as Mr Chaytor suggests, that selective schools have 'wasted talent on a massive scale' and that comprehensive education is the main factor in recent improvements in exam results, why is it that, taken together, the much-maligned secondary modern schools have improved their results at more than 6 times the rate of comprehensive schools since 1967? (Again, see Grammar Schools in the Twenty-first Century, NGSA, 2001.)

A matter of choice?

There are many excellent comprehensive schools, just as there are many excellent grammar and secondary modern schools. But whether parents choose a selective or non-selective education for their child is a matter of personal beliefs and values. Simply because everyone cannot afford a Jaguar car, should that choice be forcibly removed? Educationally, despite all the questionable research and propaganda suggesting otherwise, there can be no doubt that, taken as a whole, the selective system produces better results overall. For example, in Northern Ireland, where selective schools have been retained, 10 per cent more pupils achieve 5 or more grade A*-C GCSEs than in England. It is estimated that the shortfall due to the comprehensive system could be as large as 60,000 16-year-olds in England each year failing to achieve 5 or more higher grade GCSE and 80,000 18-year-olds each year failing to achieve 2 or more A-levels. (See The Betrayed Generations - Standards in British Schools, 1950-2000 by Dr John Marks, Centre for Policy Studies, 2001).

Two other myths should immediately be demolished whenever they are uttered:

1. That children who do not reach the high standard in the 11-plus exam for entry to grammar school are failures.

By definition, only about 25 per cent of the population have the academic ability to benefit from a grammar school education. To suggest that the other 75 per cent who are unable to demonstrate this ability are failures is unfair and untrue. They may excel in other areas, or be better at sport or practical tasks. Probably, like most of us, they are average 'all-rounders' with a mixture of abilities. We don't all have the ability to be brain surgeons or top-flight lawyers. But does that mean we should consider all those who aren't as failures? (See Grammar Schools in the Twenty-first Century, NGSA, 2001).

2. That selective education is unpopular.

If that is so, why do grammar schools with a voluntary entrance exam regularly get about 10 applicants for the 11-plus exam for each available place? (See, for example, The Sunday Times, 18 November 2001.) These are tough odds for any child to face, yet they do so in large numbers. So more grammar schools are needed to offer better odds, not fewer to remove choice altogether.

Further information, if required from:
NGSA, Tel/Fax: 0121 544 3809.