25 June 2007

Random Inequality

Googling for "return to grammar schools" (with quotation marks) produces 2060 results, almost all negative - NO return to Grammar schools. Googling for "return to secondary modern schools" (again, with quotes) produces no results at all.

I know this is an imprecise survey, but it's still meaningful. We live in a society in which it is unremarkable that people should say "No more good schools", but nobody should say "No more bad schools". As it has turned out, the comprehensive system has actually ensured that now almost every English child goes to a Secondary Modern.

It seems that the "almost" in that last sentence rankles with some. Brighton Council has said it will allocate children to schools by lottery, to prevent Middle Class parents making a school outperform others in the area by moving within its catchment area. There have also been calls at the national level to force independent schools to admit a quota of disruptive pupils.

These initiatives will have a predictable effect: to make good schools worse without making bad schools better. The arrival of a handful of intelligent, well-motivated pupils in a school with disruptive pupils can have no effect whatsoever; the arrival of a few disruptive pupils in a high-performing school will ruin the education of every child on the roll.

Making schools worse does not make things equally bad for everybody. The wealthy can still hire tutors, send their children abroad or otherwise ensure they have a good education. As the rest of the population slides further behind, the gap widens even further. Thus, these initiatives designed to further equality have precisely the opposite effect.

What makes this inexcusable is that we did have a period, ending in the late 1970s, when social mobility was higher, and this was the consequence of the Grammar School system and the Direct Grant. So we actually know, experimentally, that reversing the current education policies would create greater social mobility and improve standards - for everybody: A report published through the LSE reviewed the real life laboratory experiment that the continuation of Grammar Schools (with reformed entrance arrangements) in Northern Ireland up to the present has provided. It shows that:

Using administrative data before and after the reform, we find that the open enrolment reform of 1989 (which affected the 1979 birth cohort) had a clear impact in Northern Ireland relative to England. A 15 percentage point increase in the number of pupils enabled to attend grammar school (at the age of 11) was accompanied by shifts of similar magnitude in the number achieving five or more GCSEs at A*-C and one or more A-level. This suggests a strong causal effect of expanding the more academic track on overall educational achievement.
Although this research cannot be interpreted as evaluating the overall effects of a comprehensive or selective (‘tracked’) system of education, it is an example of where widening access to the more academic track has generated positive net effects. It illustrates the high price that pupils pay for being excluded from the academic track, even when they are some way down the ability distribution within their birth cohort.

The study also provides clear evidence that selection into the more academic track really has a causal impact – the improvement in educational outcomes is not simply an artefact of the selection process.
On Radio 4 this morning, John Humphreys interviewed David Cameron about a Sutton Trust report that showed social mobility has declined. A child born in 1970 was less mobile than one born in 1958. This can be paraphrased as follows: A child born into a society with academic selection and centres of excellence open to all on merit alone had a greater chance of social mobility than one born into today's Comprehensive system.

Humphreys advocated the Brighton lottery appeal. Cameron disagreed, but said there should be "No return to the 11 plus". "A lottery is completely fair," remonstrated Humphreys.

In fact, a lottery would be (almost) completely random. Random is not the same as fair and it's strange that anybody should conflate the two.

But it's much more strange that neither man advocated a return to a system of education that we know - from experience - works better than the present one.

It's also plain that when the established media and both major parties advocate educational policies we know, from experience - from experiment - can only fail, we're in trouble.

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