National Grammar Schools Association
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Bright Pupils Do Much Better in Selective Areas

9th July 2003

On Tuesday 20 May 2003, Graham Brady MP received a written answer to a Parliamentary Question about the percentages of pupils gaining 5 or more A*-A grade GCSEs and 5 or more grade A*-B grade GCSEs in wholly selective areas, wholly comprehensive areas and nationally for the year 2002. The answer from David Miliband, the schools standards minister, was as follows:
Wholly Selective LEAs Wholly Comprehensive LEAs National Averages

  Wholly Selective LEAs Wholly Comprehensive LEAs National Averages
5 or more A*-A grade GCSEs 15.1% 8.6% 9.7%
5 or more A*-B grade GCSEs 32.1% 23.1% 24.6%

However, because ministers keep saying that research shows that brighter pupils do as well, or better, in comprehensive schools, Mr Miliband was clearly embarrassed by these stark comparisons. So he added the following rider:

‘ The comparisons above take no account of the value added by the LEAs concerned. They are not adjusted for pupils’ prior attainment, nor to reflect the fact that selective LEAs, in aggregate, have lower levels of socio-economic disadvantage. 11% of pupils in selective authorities are known to be eligible for free school meals, compared to 17 per cent in wholly comprehensive authorities.’

David Miliband’s attempt to put a positive government ‘spin’ on these statistics is very telling. NGSA’s comments on Mr Miliband’s rider are as follows:

Note the phrases ‘take no account of the value added’ and ‘not adjusted for pupils’ prior attainment’. What Mr Miliband is saying here is that these figures are basic, unembellished statistics, which have not yet been subjected to the defective manipulation inherent in the Department for Education’s ‘value-added’ method.

Mr Miliband is right to point out that socio-economic factors have an effect on average examination performances, but he produces no evidence to show that the effect of the single economic factor he has chosen is of sufficient magnitude to account for these huge differences in performance between the comprehensive and the selective systems. It is noteworthy, too, that the superiority of the wholly selective areas gets greater as the focus shifts onto the brighter pupils.

Furthermore, Mr Miliband fails to realise that the socio-economic circumstances of the bright pupils, whose results are being compared, cannot be inferred from the figures he gives for estimated eligibility for free school meals, which relate to the pupil population covering the whole ability range. Neither Mr Miliband, nor anyone else, knows exactly what percentage of pupils is eligible for free school meals, because they do not have a record of every pupil’s family income - the only figures available on this are estimates of the number of pupils who might be eligible for free school meals. These, of course, may be exaggerated by the educational establishment in order to provide a convenient excuse for failure.