While there are legitimate concerns regarding grammar schools, being opposed to the principle of academic selection is misguided, argues Comment Central.
The announcement last weekend that Theresa May is planning to launch a new generation of grammar schools has been met with hostility from both sides of the House. Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs have vowed to fight the move, while Conservative MP Neil Carmichael, chairman of the Education Select Committee is also reported to oppose the decision.
Opponents of grammar schools claim that rather than being vehicles for social mobility they actually reinforces class divides and support middle class privilege. Middle class parents, they argue, invest vast sums of money to employ private tutors to coach their children ahead of the 11-plus. The incentive is clearly there: shell out for the cost of a private tutor now, and save a fortune on private school fees later.
And what’s more, the evidence supports this argument. A 2013 study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies together with Cambridge University found that among high achievers, those who are eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) or who live in poorer neighborhoods are significantly less likely to go to a grammar school. Crucially, though, their gripe is not with the principle of academic selection per se, but merely that the 11-plus in its current guise fails to be meritocratic due to middle class parents coaching their children. So, what if we could design a test in such a way that it more accurately assesses raw academic ability?
Similar to A-Levels, in the US prospective university students are required to sit their SAT. The standardised test is widely used for college and university admissions and is scored out of a combined total of 1600 points. Despite SAT prep courses and SAT prep tutoring being big business in the US, the evidence to support their usefulness doesn’t seem to stack up. Two studies conducted a decade apart show little evidence that intensive coaching is worthwhile. The first of the studies, carried out by the College Board in the mid-nineties, found that coached students were only marginally more likely to have large score gains than their non-coached peers. Furthermore, roughly one-third of those students studied saw no score increase, or even a score decrease, following coaching. On average, the study found coached pupils were thought to receive an eight-point net gain on their verbal test scores, and 18 points on their maths scores. The findings were further reinforced by a 2009 study by the National Association of College Admission Counselling (NACAC), which found coaching improved critical reading and maths scores by 10 and 20 points respectively. While 20 points could mean the difference between getting a university place and not, when taken in the context of an overall possible score of 1600, these marginal score improvements seem to suggest it is possible to design a test that is relatively ‘tutor-proof’.
Another important criticism often levelled against academic selection at the age of 11 is that is unfairly penalises late developers who have yet to reach their full academic potential. But a number of existing grammar schools already account for this problem via the ‘late transfer procedure’ more often known as the 12 or 13-plus, which permits children that failed to secure a grammar school place to try again when they are more academically mature.
Criticism of the existing grammar school system is not without merit, but being opposed to the principle of academic selection is misguided.