One of David Cameron’s last acts as Prime Minister was to approve an application by Ashlawn School in Rugby to set up a new free school in the city. It’s not surprising that Ashlawn’s application was approved. Not only has it been ranked ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted, but last year 74 per cent of its pupils got five GCSEs at grade C or above, including English and maths (a metric known as ‘5A*–CEM’). Even more impressive, 65 per cent of its pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds met that same target.
However, before Ashlawn can open its new school in 2017 it has to overcome an obstacle. Ashlawn is one of England’s three dozen or so partially selective schools. These schools represent a ‘third way’ between grammars and comprehensives in that they select a minority of their pupils according to general ability. In Ashlawn’s case this means that 12 per cent of the 256 pupils it admits each year are selected according to their performance in the Warwickshire 11-plus exam, with the remainder being fully comprehensive. These 30 children are then placed in the school’s ‘grammar stream’, where they’re joined by an additional 60 children taken from the non-selective intake so that over a third of the children in the school are taught a grammar school curriculum.
Unfortunately, Ashlawn won’t be able to select 12 per cent of its pupils in the new free school because that’s prohibited by the ban Tony Blair’s government imposed on the creation of any new selective schools, including partially selective schools. At least, it didn’t think it would until now. With this weekend’s news that Theresa May is planning to lift that ban, Ashlawn may be able to go ahead and replicate its model.
As I’ve written before, I’m ambivalent about the expansion of grammar schools. In principle, I’m in favour because I think parents of bright children who want to educate them alongside other bright children should have that choice. It seems wrong that the option should be limited to those families who happen to live near one of England’s 163 remaining grammar schools or who can afford to go private, as it is as present.
But when I think about the possibility of a new grammar opening next door to the secondary school I co-founded in Hammersmith I can see why some headteachers are opposed. That school would cream off most of the brightest children in the area, effectively transforming the West London Free School into a secondary modern. That would make it harder to teach all the children at the school a knowledge-based, academically challenging curriculum, which is what we do at the moment. It would also make it harder to recruit good teachers. And other schools in Hammersmith and Fulham with the same aspirations, such as Fulham Boys, Sacred Heart, Lady Margaret’s and Burlington Danes, would be similarly affected. That’s the nub of the objection to grammar schools: they benefit a minority of children at the expense of the majority. Even at their peak in the mid-1960s, only 25 per cent of children at state secondaries went to grammars. So for every child that benefitted, three suffered.
That might have been a price worth paying if grammars were responsible for the high levels of social mobility that characterised British society in the 1950s and 60s, but there’s little evidence they were. Only 10 per cent of the pupils admitted to grammars were the children of unskilled workers and, of those, a third ended up leaving without a single O-level. Most damningly, fewer than 0.3 per cent of those leaving grammars with two A-levels were from unskilled, working class backgrounds.
For these and other reasons, I think Theresa May and Justine Greening should embrace a ‘third way’, i.e. partial selection. That means changing the law to allow academies and free schools to select up to 25 per cent of their places on the basis of general ability, but no more than that. Not only would this dilute the negative impact that increased selection would have on neighbouring schools, but it would mean many more schools could take advantage of – and benefit from – new freedoms when it comes to selection.
The attractive thing about partially selective schools is that the beneficiaries aren’t limited to those who pass the 11-plus. The presence of a cohort of bright children means the schools can more easily attract good teachers, with all the pupils benefitting. These schools are also more likely to make use of a knowledge-based curriculum, with the benefits cascading down the school. In the case of Ashlawn, this takes the form of 90 pupils in each year group being placed in the grammar stream, but not all partially selective schools go in for streaming. At Watford Boys Grammar, for instance, which is 25 per cent selective, children are taught an academically challenging curriculum in mixed ability classes, with the brightest expected to help the least able. This model seems to work as well as Ashlawn’s when it comes to raising the performance of the least well off. At Watford Boys, 58 per cent of disadvantaged children passed the EBacc last year compared to a national average of 11.2 per cent.
Jude Hunton, the deputy head of Ashlawn, explains the positive effects of a partially selective school:
‘It helps model high aspirations to many more students and therefore raise expectations and to encourage widespread application and effort towards achievement in a knowledge based, academic curriculum.’
One of the most common criticisms of selection is that it necessitates the sorting of children into sheep and goats at the age of 11. But that’s not true of partially selective schools since the sheep and the goats are in the same pen, so to speak. Another common criticism is that it’s unscientific to try and measure general ability at the age of 11 since IQ fluctuates during adolescence. Some have suggested 13 would be a more appropriate age. Again, that’s not an issue at partially selective schools since the level of challenge can be adjusted as children get older. In Ashlawn’s case, they can be moved in and out of the grammar stream.
Would a limited expansion of selection in this way help boost social mobility? It might. I’ve done a quick-and-dirty analysis of last year’s GCSE results at all England’s partially selective schools and it looks as if Ashlawn and Watford aren’t exceptional when it comes to the performance of disadvantaged children. As you’d expect, all children at these schools do well in their GCSEs – on average, 67 per cent got 5A*–CEM compared to a national average of 57.1 per cent. In the case of disadvantaged children, the figure is 46.6 per cent, with the national average being 36.7 per cent.
Critics of selection will point out that of course disadvantaged children fare better at these schools because some of them have been selected according to general ability. To control for this, I looked at how much progress these children make regardless of their academic starting points – a metric known as ‘value added’. Here, too, they outperform their counterparts at non-selective schools. On average, disadvantaged children at partially selective schools score 985.65 when it comes to value added, with the national average being 976.3. And at some partially selective schools, these children make exceptional progress, with Watford Boys topping the league at 1030.9.
I haven’t looked at how children from disadvantaged backgrounds fare at England’s 163 grammars, partly because there are so few of them. On average, less than three per cent of the pupils they admit are on free school meals. The numbers at partially selective schools are also below average, but not by such a huge margin. On average, 23.72 per cent of their pupils have been eligible for free school meals at some point in the last six years – a metric known as “FSM Ever 6” – compared to a national average of 29.4 per cent. (The FSM Ever 6 measure for grammars is 4.87 per cent.) To push these numbers up, I’d recommend that the government only allow schools to introduce partial selection if they admit more than the local percentage of children on free school meals. That would also go some way to addressing a problem identified by the Sutton Trust three years ago which is that England’s top comprehensives admit far too few children on free school meals.
I won’t pretend there wouldn’t be some costs associated with expanding partial selection. For one thing, it would mean fewer bright children at non-selective schools. But the negative impact on neighbouring schools would be far lower – and the benefits shared far more widely – than if you just introduced more fully-fledged grammars. In an equitable public education system, you want the brightest children to be spread out as evenly as possible, but not if that means they’re prevented from realising their potential, particularly the least well off. As with so many public policy issues, it’s a trade off between the welfare of the many and the rights of the few; partial selection is a good compromise. It particularly appeals to me because it would mean many more state schools teaching a knowledge-based curriculum, whether using Ashlawn’s model or Watford Boys’.
If the government is going to roll out partial selection, these new hybrid schools will need a name. (At one point they were known as ‘bilateral schools’, which isn’t very catchy). Since they’ll be a cross between grammars and comprehensives, I suggest ‘gromps’. Forget about more grammars, Prime Minister. Let’s have more gromps.