Pupil Selection and Curriculum Content

If you want to make yourself enemies in education, probably the best way to do so is to have a decided opinion about grammar schools. They are a litmus test for a whole range of other political and educational beliefs, particularly those to do with equality and elitism.

For some people,  grammar schools are elitist institutions which restrict educational opportunity to a small, already-privileged minority. For others, they are a method for achieving high educational standards which benefit the whole of society. Then there is also what I will call the Andrew Neil thesis, after the documentary made by Neil about a year ago. His argument was that the grammar schools provided bright working-class and lower-middle class kids with a route to educational and career success. Far from being elitist and unfair institutions, they were actually engines of social mobility.

One of the most striking pieces of evidence for Neil’s thesis is the social background of UK Prime Ministers. Between the Eton-educated Alec Douglas-Home and the Fettes-educated Tony Blair, five successive UK Prime Ministers were from modest backgrounds and four were educated at grammar school. (I can’t work out if Callaghan’s school was a grammar or not. If you know please comment.) Tony Blair was born in 1953, was 11 in 1964 and the grammar schools started to be abolished in 1965. Demographically, it all lines up perfectly – the first privately educated PM for forty years was from the age cohort that had dwindling numbers of grammar school students. The Prime Ministers are obviously only the most striking example of this thesis. If you read Dominic Sandbrook’s brilliant histories of the post-war years then there are numerous examples of successful grammar school students in all walks of life. Indeed, Sandbrook goes so far as to claim that upper-class distaste of uppity grammar-school students was one of the factors that led to their abolition.

He notes that Tony Crosland, the Labour education secretary who abolished the grammar schools, was himself educated at Highgate School, and that ‘there was nothing quite like the condescension of the public schoolboy for his grammar-school equivalent.’ Sandbrook also says that ‘if he [Crosland] had attended a grammar school, like Wilson and Heath, or his friends and rivals Jenkins and Healey, he might have been less keen to abolish an institution that had manifestly succeeded in propelling bright pupils from modest backgrounds to the highest places in the land.’ (Sandbrook, White Heat, p.334).[i]

Margaret Thatcher herself made a similar point (oddly, after her time as the Education Secretary who abolished more grammar schools than any other): ‘People from my sort of background needed grammar schools to compete with children from privileged homes like Shirley Williams and Anthony Wedgwood Benn’ (John Campbell, The Grocer’s Daughter, location 8774).

So it seems like there is a lot of evidence for this. Bright working-class kids were and are being let down by a system which doesn’t develop them to their full potential. Private school kids get an easy ride and can dominate top jobs because there’s no competition. Social mobility stalls and the economy and society suffer.

But I wonder if something different isn’t going on here. The problem is that as the same time as the grammar schools were abolished, there was also a concerted move towards child-centred teaching methods and non-traditional curriculum content in the state sector. The grammar schools were mainly abolished between 65 and 76. It is harder to come up with a precise date for the turn to child-centred education – certainly there are signs of it in the Hadow Report of the 30s and I have blogged before about the more distant intellectual antecedents of these ideas. But I think that plenty of people would agree that the Plowden Report into Primary Schools in 67 had a very significant effect not just on primary schools but on everyone involved in education. It advocated a child-centred and enquiry-based approach to education.

It is equally plausible, therefore, that the decline in the number of state-school educated pupils in top jobs is down the abolition of traditional methods and content in the state sector. What if government had abolished selection at 11 but kept the rigorous grammar school curriculum in the new comps? Of course, there are those who will say that this isn’t possible. They will argue that the issue of selection and content are linked, and that you cannot offer rigorous content to all because it is only suited to the top 15 or 20%. Thus, abolition of selection is, by default, abolition of traditional content. Peter Hitchens makes this point clearly here.

But I disagree. After all, the striking thing about the success of many private schools is that whilst they select at 11 or 13 on the basis of ability, they are also selecting on the basis of parental wealth (notwithstanding varying numbers of academic scholarships). So they aren’t taking the best-performing 15 or 20% of the general population – they are taking the best-performing 15 or 20% of those who are able to pay. And yet they are still able to deliver an academic curriculum to all of those pupils. Plus, we have more and more research evidence that hard work and good teaching make more of a difference than we ever thought. Plus, we have international evidence that those countries who do the best on PISA do well in terms of both excellence and equality – that is, in these systems the pupils at the top do very well, but all the other pupils reach a very high minimum standard too.

So I would argue that the problem wasn’t the abolition of the grammar schools; the problem was the abolition of traditional content and pedagogy. Because the two changes happened at the same time, it’s hard to prove this one way or the other. But it is interesting that most of the debate about these issues tends to revolve around the issue of selection at 11. The issues of content and pedagogy, which have a good case to be as important, are not discussed nearly as much. Nearly everyone knows about grammar schools and the 11+. Many fewer have heard of the Plowden Report and discovery learning.

[i] I can’t possibly write a post about this without quoting Crosland’s famous words to his wife: “If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to destroy every fucking grammar school in England. And Wales and Northern Ireland.” Scottish education was not under his remit. Another interesting fact about Crosland is that later, as Shadow Environment spokesman, he opposed the nascent ecology movement on the grounds that environmentalists were ‘kindly and dedicated people, but were usally affluent and wanted to kick the ladder down behind them.’ (Sandbrook, State of Emergency, location 4283). Sandbrook notes the inconsistency.


18 thoughts on “Pupil Selection and Curriculum Content

  1. Syd Egan

    What if it isn’t anything to do with education at all?

    What if the social mobility of the period from (roughly) 1920-1960 was a (breif) interregnum from ‘normality’, which had another cause entirely?

    (After all, it is certainly true on a histocial level, that social mobility is NOT the norm.)

    What if something happened in the decade BEFORE 1920, which cased a massively disproportionate number of upper and upper middle class young men to die very early… leaving a vacuum in the power structures of the following 40 years, which was then filled by those from more humble backgrounds?

    In other words, the gramar school/ public school thing was correlation (with increased liklihood of surviving/ not surviving WW1) not cause!

  2. Kristopher Boulton

    Quite a bold claim Daisy. Would be nice if it proves true. The issue with grammar schools that I can never reconcile is how, while providing social mobility for some, they necessarily trap the majority – those who don’t make it in – where they are.

    If it were content and delivery that made all the difference, we could change that far more quickly and easily, which is an exciting thought.

  3. Sue Sims

    Jim Callaghan also went to a grammar school – the Portsmouth Northern Grammar School for Boys, which went comprehensive in 1975, some time after he’d left.

  4. Ian Hedley (@ian_hedley)

    I hadn’t thought of it like this but it’s an interesting angle to approach it from. I absolutely agree that teachers and teaching is what’s important, not which kind of school they’re working in.

    My parents both moved from working to middle class via grammar schools. Their parents were all highly intelligent but held back through lack of opportunity (either because they were women or because they had to go out an earn money). Their generation was the first to be able to make that leap. It hasn’t happened in the same way since but like you I don’t think that’s got anything to do with the lack of grammar schools.

  5. missmcinerney

    I’m with Syd on this one – the reasons for change in social mobility in the mid-20th Century are complex and also relate to changes in the structure of the labour markets due to a decline in manufacturing.

    The oddest thing about the grammar argument is that it relies on this assumption: Students who are the most able to pass tests at 11 need a separate building in order to do well in the future.
    How can that be true? A separate building, by itself, cannot derive such benefits.

    I also find it odd that so many politicians credit their grammar schools with propelling them to high places. If everyone has the same schooling it is your own hard work that propels you. Somehow, that seems fairer.

  6. missmcinerney

    On the content issue: I thought politics in the 1980/90s refocused people back onto knowledge (i.e. “Back to basics”) hence the initial purpose of the National Curriculum. Was there a corresponding rise in social mobility during this time? [I actually don’t know the answer, there might well have been, in which case your claim would be strengthened].

  7. The Wing to Heaven Post author

    Syd – interesting point, but the dates don’t quite line up. The upper-class men who did survive WWI actually did a pretty good job of holding on to power – Churchill, Macmillan and Eden were all posh WWI survivors who went on to run the country, whilst Douglas-Home was just too young to fight in the war and made it to Number 10 as well.

    The real spurt of social mobility isn’t 1920-60, but 1940-80. Thatcher/Heath/Wilson/Callaghan had plenty of posh contemporaries and rivals, but they were more successful than all of them.

    It is of course fair to note here that Prime Ministers are an extremely small sample to make these judgments on, and that social mobility is a complex statistical issue. In fact, there are some researchers who argue that social mobility has NOT declined over the past thirty years.

    Ian – absolutely, teachers and teaching are what’s important. I think this is forgotten in a lot of debates about structures. Of course selection, governance, funding and structures matter. But they seem to dominate nearly all the debates about education, and the issue of what is being taught and how it is being taught is neglected.

    Kris – it is a bold claim, and not one I suspect you could ever prove definitively. But one of the points of this post was to draw attention to the undue attention that selection gets, over the at least equally significant issue of curriculum content and pedagogy. And I think the post has proved this – I’ve had more comments and twitter retweets on this than anything else I have written, and barely any of them have mentioned curriculum content and pedagogy!

    Sue – thanks very much.

    missmcinerney – ‘If everyone has the same schooling it is your own hard work that propels you. Somehow, that seems fairer.’ Not sure about this. If everyone has the same schooling and that schooling is inadequate, or at least not very good, then the effects of your parent’s education, background and knowledge are even more pronounced. I deal with this at greater length here. https://thewingtoheaven.wordpress.com/2012/04/04/why-i-am-no-longer-a-member-of-the-atl/

    You might just as well argue that if everyone has no schooling it is their own hard work that propels them. After all, that would be a level playing field. Indeed, that is the argument of extreme libertarians! I can imagine Mr Bounderby from Hard Times making the same argument. The obvious retort is Anatole France’s: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

    Back to Basics was largely rhetoric. If you look at what the National Curriculum actually did, then it was in general a continuation of the trends of the 60s and 70s. It was never, even at the very beginning, comparable to Hirsch’s sequence, for example. And as far as I know the National Curriculum didn’t even claim to do anything about pedagogy.

  8. missmcinerney

    So then the best thing to do would be try to make sure everyone has a top quality education. Easier said than done but the introduction of a better curriculum will help. You know already that I back the Hirsch idea.

    1. The Wing to Heaven Post author

      Yes, I think we broadly agree on this. I’m just always wary of suggestions that greater educational equality is what’s needed. If that equality takes the form of levelling down, rather than levelling-up, it will actually lead to parental background becoming more important. We need schools that are equal and good, not just equal.

  9. paul crisp (@paulcrisp)

    According to the headteachers of private schools I have heard opine on the subject, the key distinguishing factor (aka the ‘independent school DNA’) is parental commitment. They say that this commitment is the consequence of fees. More accurately, parents willing to pay are aspirational for their children and will provide the kind of support/pressure at home which is
    frequently lacking in the lives of children in the general population.However, I know of no research which has plausibly (let alone reliably) found the causes of ‘higher achievement’ in successful schools of any form of governance and assigned effect sizes to them. All the evidence I know of is correlational (and some of it speculative). We can’t even reliably say whether achievement has gone up or down as the measures of it are unstable over time.

    Of course, the thing which links independent and grammar schools is not just the similarity (and,usually, poverty) of the teaching methods, it is that they are both elites (i.e. a scarce resource with a high threshold to admission). Students are selected by wealth, ability or both. It would be intereresting to see how those students selected by wealth fared against those selected by ability but these data are not available AFAIK. The nearest proxy is probably the inclusive secondary school performance tables which often show grammar schools outperforming even the ‘best’ independents.

    Two, for me, interesting questions emerge about grammar schools. Firstly, if it is true (and there is some evidence for this) that social mobility has stalled in the last 15 or so years, would extending grammar schools generate a net benefit for the population as a whole? Here we would be trading a large improvement in the fortunes of a small number of citizens (those in grammar education) for a smaller improvement in the lot of the larger population (i.e. the rest)? This is a trickly calculus – but not a new idea (aka Utilitarianism – John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham etc). It seems to have been subordinated to an individualistic philosophy (each person is entitled to achieve the best he/she can) for the last 40 years.These, however, are social justice not educational matters.

    The second, more practical point, is a growth of grammar schools politically and socially possible in the 21st C? After all, as someone has already pointed out, more grammar schools were abolished under Conservative governments than Labour ones. Tory shire counties were the earliest and most enthusiastic abolitionists and this was for a simple, non-ideological reason – elite school systems require a largish population size. Choice and selection is essentially a luxury of areas with a large enough population to support 10+ secondary schools – unless society and the parents are willing to add weekly boarding to the package.

  10. jackstarbright

    By focusing on the opportunity for social mobility in society we miss a more relevant fact. Our education system itself does little to improve social mobility for it’s pupils, even whilst within school.

    Recent work by Chris Cook in the FT shows that poorer pupils tend to have a low academic outcome, regardless of where they go to school.

    If children from less affluent backgrounds leave school without sufficient education and qualifications [especially now] there will be little social mobility.

  11. tristramshepard

    You probably won’t be surprised that I have to disagree with a number of your points! My direct experience of Comprehensive schools is not that they adopted pupil-centred learning and non-traditional curriculum content in the 1970s, but in fact did the reverse. The mainly grammar school and university-educated teachers saw them as an opportunity to provide a more traditional academic education for all pupils, rather than taking up the considerable challenge of developing and valuing high standards of technical and vocational courses for those who were less academically-able. This was compounded in the late 1980s with the move to GCSE which introduced more academic content into a wider range of the more practically-orientated subjects.

    It is true however that the situation at the time was different in Primary schools, where an attempt to deliver a pupil-centred learning approach was more widely adopted but largely failed due to a lack of understanding by teachers as to what it actually involved and how it needed to be delivered to be effective.

  12. Chris Culpin (@CCulpin)

    Surely the premierships of just Blair and Cameron do not “prove” the end of social mobilty? Outside the strange, fortuitous world of politics, former comprehensive school students are succeeding in many, many fields. And what about the hundreds of thousands of comprehensive school-educated who were the first in their family to go to university?
    As for progressive methods:
    1. I taught in secondary comprehensive schools through the period in question, and child-centredness was never on our agenda;
    but 2. What is the link between progressive teaching methods and the absence of non-public school prime ministers since 1997?
    Chris Culpin

  13. Syd Egan

    (Daisy is right – for the Prime Ministers, my theory doesn’t work – in fact, Callaghan and Heath both fought in WW2; as Thatcher would also have done (just) if she had been male.)

    (But maybe there is still something in it – some kind of delayed effect of the fact that WW1 was so disproportionately catestrophic for those who would have been running the country 1945-65 if previous patterns of (lack of) social mobility had persisted.)

  14. The Wing to Heaven Post author

    Paul – I agree that the parents of children at fee-paying schools tend to be committed to their education. But I think there are many parents who are similarly committed but who simply cannot afford independent school fees.

    Jackstarbright – ‘Recent work by Chris Cook in the FT shows that poorer pupils tend to have a low academic outcome, regardless of where they go to school.’ This is true, and again I would say it is down to the fact that poorer pupils suffer disproportionately from the effects of degraded curriculums.

    Tristram and Chris – I am sure you both did teach in comprehensives which rejected the child-centred agenda. Whilst it’s difficult to come up with reliable evidence about this, it does seem, however, that you were in a minority. http://www.economist.com/node/136734 It may well be that I have placed the time scale a bit too soon – that Plowden’s ideas took longer to filter through than I have suggested. But filter through they most certainly did. The education system we have now is one in which Plowden’s progressive notions of the curriculum and pedagogy are dominant – both in the classroom and in the academy. I can give you chapter and verse on this if you so wish – indeed, a book I have written which is being published soon deals with this in detail.

    Chris, of course the premierships of Blair and Cameron alone do not prove the end of social mobility. The research that shows social mobility is declining is from the Sutton Trust, and it has been questioned by Peter Saunders of Policy Exchange, who makes similar points to the ones you make and questions some of the Sutton Trust statistics. I think the Sutton Trust research is reliable, and I also think that people we elect to high office have a symbolic quality which belies their small sample size. When you combine the dominance of privately school educated people in the Cabinet with the research from the Sutton Trust, I think you have something which is at the very least worthy of comment.

    Re 2., my point is that progressive teaching methods aren’t very good. They affect poorer pupils disproportionately because their parents don’t have the money/education to make good its deficits. I address this point in more detail here https://thewingtoheaven.wordpress.com/2012/04/04/why-i-am-no-longer-a-member-of-the-atl/

  15. Sue Sims

    I’ve taught in comprehensive schools, grammar schools, and one grammar school which became comprehensive while I was there. I’d say that the factor which has the biggest effect on pupil achievement is classroom behaviour. Without exception, all grammar school classes I’ve had were well behaved (obviously some better than others, but all acceptable); the comp. classes varied enormously.

    The most interesting example was the grammar-turned-comp: in the year of the change, we had a grammar school for years 8 – 11 and 13, and a mixed year 7 and (to some extent) year 12 (they had to obtain 5 O-level passes). Despite the grammar ‘ethos’ of the rest of the school, the year 7s, who weren’t streamed or setted, were very difficult to manage for teachers inexperienced in non-grammar-school environments (though, this being 1977, even the worst behaviour wasn’t anywhere near what one might see now). It was, btw, a pretty middle-class area (Northwood Hills in Middlesex), and the social mix in Year 7 was not that different from the higher years.

    As for curriculum: I don’t think we were consciously teaching a very different curriculum to the Year 7s; though I do remember lengthy discussions in my department (English) as to what new class readers we should buy, this was because our girls’ school was linking with the next-door boys’ school, and the Year 7 classes were going to be mixed. (I don’t think that this was the major cause of poor behaviour, since colleagues from the boys’ grammar also thought behaviour in Year 7 was much worse.)

    Reading through this, it’s too rambling and unfocused – sorry. I suspect that trying to find a single factor which would improve our educational system is probably pointless: I’ve picked out behaviour, but then one has to ask what causes the poor behaviour, and there are so many different possible reasons, many of which probably work together.

  16. jackstarbright

    Daisy – I suspect poorer pupils are also more likely to experience ‘progressive methods’ in schools. More affluent parents tend to chose schools (whether private, selective or academically focused comprehensive) which have a mainly traditional education content. The poorer pupils normally have few such options.

    Of course, there are some progressive independent schools – but they are in the minority and often appear to cater for ‘trust-fund’ type pupils. But at least the parents are making an active choice for their children. And can remove them from the school, if necessary.

    That said, I do think the ‘progressive’ Free-School “School 21” might be a reasonable test of progressive teaching methods in a state school. At least parents will have chosen this school for their children and, presumably, support the methods and curriculum.

  17. Pingback: The challenges of choice… – connectededucation

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