Theresa May’s speech to the British Academy on September 9th was the worst speech on education ever delivered by a Prime Minister. It was remarkable for the lack of evidence for a fundamental change to our education system. The Prime Minister made a number of claims that at best are not supported by evidence and at worst are contradicted by it.
A few days later the Schools Standards Minister, Nick Gibb, made a speech called “the importance of education research” extolling the virtues of evidence in policy making. He might usefully pass a copy of his text to Downing Street. As Professor Carey Philpott says in his article in this issue: “The recent White Paper, Educational Excellence Everywhere, places clear emphasis on the importance of evidence-based practice in Education. It declares the Governments’ intention to make this central to teachers’ practice and it commits to increased funding for the Education Endowment Foundation as the Government’s endorsed ‘what works’ body for education. The recently announced policy on grammar schools apparently flouts this commitment to evidence-based practice.”
In an excellent speech to London Councils, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, described the argument for more grammar schools as “tosh and nonsense”. Indeed it is. Sir Michael’s speech was particularly important, for London is the best example of success in turning round the quality of schools that we have in Britain. London has the greatest concentration of poverty in Britain. It has large numbers of children with multiple disadvantages, the very people Theresa May claimed to speak for. Its schools were largely very poor. As a result of the London Challenge, as Sir Michael reminded us, that situation has been turned around and they are now among the best in the country. How has this been done? Has an increase in grammar schools in the capital been any part of it? It has not. The Chief Inspector said that the “soaring success” of London schools, especially in inner-London, made a mockery of the claim that opening up many more grammar schools was the key to unlocking the potential of disadvantaged children and to boosting social mobility.
The international evidence is also against the Prime Minister. For many years the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has, through its Programme for International Student Assessment, tracked the progress of around half a million 15-year-olds in a massive research programme. The countries that do best in PISA largely have comprehensive systems. A small number, like the Netherlands, have selection. However, as Andreas Schleicher, the Director for Education and Skills at the OECD and the man in charge of PISA, told Education Journal, systems of selection result in lower levels of equity than non-selective systems and the negative impact of selection is worse, in terms of both academic results and equity, the younger selection takes place. These conclusions are “consistently supported” by the evidence from PISA. In the few cases where selection gets results it is at the expense of the poor. Especially where selection takes place early, as it does in England, it can not be based purely on academic ability.
There are a number of education authorities in Germany and Austria, which had a tripartite selective system much admired by supporters of selection in England, that have been moving away from this model. Some have adopted less stratified systems while others have quietly raised the age of selection to 14 or 16. The highest performing state in Germany, Saxony, is also the one with the least stratified school system.
Professionals in education are aware of these facts. In a survey of members published today by the Association of School and College Leaders, the National Association of Head Teachers and Teach First for the Fair Education Alliance (a body established last year to find solutions to educational inequality) 82% of heads and senior teachers were opposed to the opening of new grammar schools. Some 80% of these school leaders agreed that “there is no evidence for increasing selection in education” while only 11% disagreed. (The survey had a sample size of 2,500.)
The education Green Paper, Schools That Work for Everyone, that was published on September 12th is a more polished version of Friday’s speech, but it is as deeply flawed. Mrs May is claiming that you can have selection without losers and you can’t. Her plans will produce a system that doesn’t work for everyone to a greater extent than the one we have now, and will undermine the Government’s other policies to raise standards.
This article is an editorial taken from Education Journal edition 278 published on September 13th and reproduced with the kind permission of its author Demitri Croyton. The full copy of the journals is available to download at Education Journal no. 278 13-9-16.