Friday, April 11, 2008

Minding Our Grammar Schools

Thanks to 'Anonymous'1 in the comments to the last post, Nick's latest Evening Standard piece.

Does anyone know if Nick went to a comprehensive or a grammar school? He's arguing (again) for the retention and expansion of grammar schools.

But whatever strategies they [British academics/universities] follow they can't provide a remedy for the effects of bad secondary schools because it's too late to pick up the pieces at 18.

Hmm. The name of this blog is, as you can see, 'Aaronovitch Watch.' Let's have a look at our main watchees late dad, Sam Aaronovitch.

SAM AARONOVITCH was a working-class intellectual. The child of Jewish immigrants in the East End of London, he was part of the enormous contribution by the Jewish community to radical politics in Britain....
Although in his party career he had already written several books - on questions of economic policy in particular - he embarked on an academic career as the king of late starters when he was near 50. He once explained his difficulties in filling in applications for university posts. "Education: St George's-in-the-East Secondary, Stepney 1930-34; Balliol College, Oxford 1967-71."

Why does Nick believe that all comprehensives are bad and all grammar schools are good? Comprehensive education may not suit everyone, but that's not an argument for keeping fee-paying schools. Even so, I'm not convinced that schools are that important. I was hoping that Terry Pratchett was educated in a comprehensive. He wasn't, but he wasn't a grammar school boy either.

Terry Pratchett was born in 1948 in Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire, England, the only child of David and Eileen Pratchett, of Hay-on-Wye. He passed his eleven plus exam in 1959, earning him a place in a technical school (High Wycombe Technical High School). Pratchett described himself as a "nondescript student", and in his Who's Who entry, credits his education to the Beaconsfield Public Library.
His early interests included astronomy; he collected Brooke Bond tea cards about space, owned a telescope and desired to be an astronomer, but was no good at mathematics.

Back to Nick:

Lord Adonis, the Blairite education minister, had the better idea of helping gifted state-school children compete with Balls and his kind by offering residential and online courses.
The result was telling. The teaching unions attacked the scheme, and 900 of the 3,100 secondary schools in England and Wales refused to take part.

I've tried to find out more about this. I did come across this wonderful exchange in Hansard.

Lord Adonis: My Lords, we strongly support field trips and other forms of education outside the classroom and have sought to simplify the regulations. We do not have any evidence—nor has Ofsted provided any—that the number of children going on school trips is declining; indeed, from the anecdotal evidence that we have from schools, we think the opposite is the case. Research into residential education by the Scout Association and the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award in 2005 found that 86 per cent of primary schools and 99 per cent of secondary schools offer pupils at least one residential education opportunity, of which outdoor education was the most popular type, so the opportunities do appear to be there.
Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, long ago when I was a practical teacher, I taught a class in which all the pupils got to Oxford and Cambridge but none of them knew where the Rhine was. Can the Minister assure us that people will know where the Rhine and Danube are in Europe?
Lord Adonis: My Lords, I have many skills as a Minister but imparting that information to the nation’s youth is not among them.

An old Times article says that The adviser who was given a peerage and with it the task of transforming education has run one school before — it was a disaster.

Also in the Times (from last month) NUT head Bill Greenshields wants nationalisation of private education.

I can't find any reference to this suggestion by Lord Adonis or the reasons the teaching unions opposed it. Can any readers help?

[1] We're going to have to give them numbers, I think.

Update 9:30 Since so many commenters have mentioned their own backgrounds, I went to a comprehensive too. As I've mentioned before it was Royal High, a comprehensive, despite the name, though it only became one (and co-educational too) the year before I started. Nick Cohen favourite Robin Cook went there when it was a fee-paying boy's school in the middle of Edinburgh. Ironically enough, since I've talked about satire recently, Ronnie Corbett - the "working class one [with the Morningside accent]" here, went there too. So maybe I got a grammar school education from a comp. But I don't think so. Look, if I'd gone to public school, it would have been Fettes. And you all know who's a Fettes old boy, so I'm bloody glad my parents were too poor.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having spotted the early signs of NC's intellectual decline a long time ago, it's been ages since I've bothered reading his stuff (AW is much more fun...thanks guys). Looking at his ES piece, I know I did the right thing.

Where to start?

1 - At the risk of being fact-checked to death, Thatcher created more comps than any Labour education secretary

2 - If John Denham really did go to a comp, then he'd have every right to abolish the remaining grammars and private education. (Saying: you can't have a dog in this fight because you own a cat must be a Decent tactic filed somewhere over at the Decentpedia)

3 - It's nice to see NC getting the vibe from his new chums with the 'all academics are lefties' canard: it must be Islamofascsist Awareness Week already. Besides which, Nick doesn't actually say whether most of them went to a comp.

4 - I could make a lot of money challenging every single advocate of more grammar schools over a simple question: What kind of schools do you want for the majority who won't get a place at a grammar school? (Try as they might, they never want to talk about secondary moderns)

5 - What's the point of Adonis introducing a variant on the Tories ' Assisted Places Scheme?

6 - Shouldn't Nick do sopme kind of full disclosure itf he's going berate people for their choice of school?


4/11/2008 12:45:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Quick web search produces little except this:

which makes no mention of unions and indicates secondary schools mostly did identify potential pupils. Did Adonis say something directly to Cohen (they were at the Observer together in the late 90s)?

I've no wish particularly to leap to Ed Balls defence, but Cohen is surely trying to have it both ways here. His columns on this matter usually assert that affluent parents are adept at finding ways of manipulating the state school system to their advantage. That the leap to wanting grammars back is tendentious doesn't stop him having a point here. But what Balls was trying to do, in however limited a way, was tighten up on precisely such abuses.

Jonathan (comp educated academic, FWIW)

4/11/2008 12:53:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

Some general observations:

1. Nick Cohen is not an idiot and if he writes a anti-comp piece in the Evening Standard he knows very well that that the audience he's writing for isn't the parents of bright working-class kids doomed to languish in comps, but the parents of professional-class metropolitan kids who go to fee-paying schools. Which, incidentally, is not a demographic who tend to know a great deal about comps. (Not knowing much about comps is, by the way, not usually a disqualification for writing about them in the papers. A similar policy applied to, say, association football would involve having state-of-the game pices writing by people who had never attended a football match.)

2. It is extraordinary how much writing on comps suffers from the fallacy that somehow, they are dedicated to the holding-back of the academically-able. Why, in God's name, would they wish to do this? What good would it do them? What would be the point? Why would tachers who struggle every day with kids who aren't keen on learning somehow wish to hold back the ones who are keen to learn?

3. Similarly, you would think that comps had been devised in the Sixties by an educational establishement dominated by the Marxist left, which it very much was not, in order to do down the children of the bourgeoise. Like the thesis that in the Sevnties the unions ran the country, it's not really compatible with the fact that the bourgeoise and their children made it through the long dark night with their property and privileges entirely intact. In fact, the reason the educational establishemrnt favoured the introduction of comprehensives wasn't ideological but pragmatic: unless newspaper columnists they had the responsibility to educate everybody, not just the few, and the system that they had already was simply failing in that respect. Moreover, far from identifying working-class talent and encouraging it, it was failing in that aim too.

People shouldn't assume that because somebody famous in the past was a grammar-school pupil, it meant their old man worked down the pit. Grammar schools were then, as they are now, overwhelmingly middle-class.

4. People should watch out for some dicky statistics on this matter, as there are plenty flying about. Popular examples include the one about grammar schools sending more people to Oxbridge forty years ago than state schools do now. This neglects the fact that a large number of the most successful grammars schools went private in the Seventies and are therefore in a different column for "now" than the one for "then".

Self? Comp (albeit single-sex and Catholic) and Oxbridge.

4/11/2008 01:54:00 PM  
Blogger Matthew said...

Nick went to a grammar school and Oxford, IIRC.

He's been keen on them for a long while, on the idea that children from poor families can get an elite education. The most supportive evidence in this debate comes from Northern Ireland, where academic standards a bit higher on average and no worse at the bottom. There are numerous problems with using this as guide to how it would turn out in England - a lot of schools in NI are also single-sex, the % in grammars varies widely, there are far fewer ESL students, there isn't a London, and one migh question whether the non-academic performance of NI schools has been very good.

Also the grammar regions in the UK don't show the same outperformance.
There's some quite good studies on this by the Univ of Bristol, and they found that in UK grammar areas average attainment was slightly better in terms of GSCE points, but this was because of a small number of pupils getting zillions of poinnts, the median was lower. It did find that children from poor backgrounds were those helped most by grammar schools, but the problem was only 6% of them got into the grammar school.


This selection problem was always a major problem with grammar schools, and surely would be worse now there is greater willingness and ability to pay for extra tuition.

[comprehensive and Oxford]

4/11/2008 02:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nick Cohen's dad is a university lecturer . He went to Altrincham Grammar. His recent obsession with grammar schools began when, rather late in life , he had a child. Effectively he is saying "Ed Balls must let me fiddle my son into the equivalent of a grammar school - by way of parental interviews, 'donations' to the school , or I will be forced to send Nick Junior to a public shool - and that's waht meritocracy and fairness mean, you bastard!!!"

4/11/2008 03:23:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

Not quite on-topic, but I was quite amused to see Nick Cohen described as a liberal here. Do you think he knows?

4/11/2008 05:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As grammar schools take the top 20-25% of the ability range, you create 3-4 secondary moderns for each grammar. Cohen and others who claim to be in favour of grammar schools are in fact 3-4 times in favour of secondary moderns. Isn't it strange how they never write about the success of the secondary moderns where the majority used to be 'educated'. I wonder why that is...

4/11/2008 05:28:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ps I went to a comprehensive

4/11/2008 06:08:00 PM  
Blogger Matthew said...

"Bring back secondary moderns"!

Agree, odd how this obvious fact is ignored. Of course they would say the secondary moderns would be well-funded - better funded! - and more suited to the needs of its pupils. Which was the idea back in 1944 as well, and didn't work.

I also think it's a bit strange how apparently the worst thing in the world of education is that comprehensives give 'selection by house price', a concept that isn't really proven (I think there was a study in Reading or somewhere, which probably isn't representative and didn't really come to a strong conclusion), yet of course secondary moderns would be selected by house price too.

4/11/2008 08:56:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

yet of course secondary moderns would be selected by house price too


4/12/2008 09:14:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you read the piece you see that Cohen isn't explicitly arguing for the return of grammar schools. It's rather equivocal. His urging that

Until the Labour Party and wider liberal society realise that they must bring on talent, England will continue to be a perverse country in which the language of egalitarianism is used to justify the maintenance of class barriers

could be taken as a call for the return to grammar schools or it could be taken as just an endorsement of the policy of offering residential courses to 'gifted children'.

I was an 11+ failure and I hate the grammar schools with a bright passion. Being part of the 80% who were 'selected' for secondary modern education was not good for self esteem. The curriculum at my secondary modern was pretty restricted and we weren't taught foreign languages. That gave me problems several years later when I did try to get into a university whose matriculation requirement was an O Level in a modern foreign language. Secondary moderns - and by definition, grammar schools, as you can't have a grammar school without several secondary moderns - stunted the educational opportunities available for millions of people.

As for Cohen's point about the problems for those of modest means getting into university, I should have thought that the most signifiant point is that going to university is now a privilege that is dependent on being able to take on a mountain of personal debt. When I finally managed to get into Oxford in 1978 all I had to worry about was the academic work and making friends. The fees were paid at source and a fairly generous grant paid my living expenses. My family's lack of money was no obstacle to me. Stranbge how Cohen doesn't think it worth mentioning tuition fees.

4/12/2008 09:53:00 AM  
Blogger Matthew said...

"yet of course secondary moderns would be selected by house price too


Well secondary moderns are comprehensives for the 80% or so who don't pass the 11+. So presumably they would have catchment areas just like comprehensives, and presumably the better ones would have higher house prices around them.

As I think I said I don't think the house price selection effect is anywhere near as large as the pro-grammar people say.

4/13/2008 04:40:00 PM  
Blogger Matthew said...

"Well secondary moderns are comprehensives for the 80% or so who don't pass the 11+"

This was a silly statement - obviosly they are not, as they don't have the other 20%. But I mean in that they select only by geographical catchment area, not 'ability'.

4/13/2008 04:41:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

Ah OK. I think I still had it in my head that if you didn't pass the 11+ you'd simply be off to the local secondary modern as opposed to having lots of local secondary moderns competing for your parents' custom. And I suspect (as you may also suspect) that in practice the degree of competition would be negligible.

4/13/2008 05:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's also worth commenting that counties like Kent, which has largely and deliberately retained their grammar schools, have some of the worst results in the country.

4/14/2008 09:40:00 AM  
Blogger Matthew said...

"Ah OK. I think I still had it in my head that if you didn't pass the 11+ you'd simply be off to the local secondary modern as opposed to having lots of local secondary moderns competing for your parents' custom."

That proponents of grammar schools don't mention the 'house price selection' effects for secondary modern pupils suggests to me that they don't think it will happen either. Which implies that they think the parents who will move house to get to a better school will me much the same parents whose children will be in the better school, i.e. the grammar school. Which is precisely what opponents of the idea think as well.

4/14/2008 11:13:00 AM  

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