It’s difficult to square this logic with the regular findings that by the age of 2 years, a significant pattern has been established in a child’s life that can be the difference between future success and supposed failure. If money is available, it should be targeted at this age group and their parents. Return of Sure Start?
It is also the case that, having brought GCE and CSE together to make GCSEs and then to establish an expectation of A*-C as the “pass” level, some 65-70% of the school population achieve something that formerly only 25% achieved. This still leaves 30% of children who may leave school with a range of GCSE grades that are seen as “failing”, where time and effort should be put to solving this dilemma. Leaving Secondary education should come with accreditation, a baseline for progress. The idea of success and failure runs counter to “Growth Mindset” and inclusive approaches, which a large number of successful schools espouse.
The language of Grammar Schools brings the notion of “failure” back to the end of year 6. It is probably assumed, by the public, that this will be as a result of the reintroduction of the 11+. However, in other blogs on assessment, especially since the curriculum change in 2014, I have written about the potential use of the recent incarnation of SATs as the vehicle for selection. The earlier language associated with the outcomes, of being at, or below the national standard, suggested the potential for a "high achievers" or "Grammar" grade, which could be set at the 20-25% of cohort level.
The problem with this is the idea that, if you are at the 25% mark, you are a success, but to be at the 26% mark, you are a failure. Whereas in the comprehensive system, this might result in streaming or setting, with the potential for movement within the organisation, separated into another school, this might mean “labelling” or the need for additional testing, 13+, 14+, etc. However, it is for the non-Grammar pupils to achieve, rather than the Grammar group to also be tested. *Educational performance/progress fluctuates; it is not linear.
The rise of pass/fail rhetoric can also be felt where teachers may feel emboldened to start to state that a child “does not belong in; my class, this school”. This form of “internal exclusion” might enable a teacher to continue teaching within a relatively narrow range, which can be virtuously described as having “high expectations”.
Over the past ten years in a variety of roles, I have visited many schools, often operating in very challenging environments, which have high expectations and also succeed. Three that I’d mention are Vauxhall Primary, The Orchard Primary, Hackney and Bethnal Green Academy, all of which achieve highly in external tests, within cohorts of children whose underlying disadvantage is often significant. How these two schools succeed is by knowing the individuals who make up the school population in “forensic detail”, to quote Edison David, Head of Vauxhall. They then tailor learning challenge and support to the specific needs of the children. In that way, children enjoy progressive improvement, which, in turn, increases confidence, motivation and responsibility for their learning. Working with the mixed ability of children enables the thought processes of achieving children to be shared with those who succeed less well a form of peer teaching and mentoring, which then encourages others to try out the successful methodologies.
This process starts pre-school, with nursery and pre-school provision linked to the schools, so that, with parent support, associated guidance and training, children can start formal education positively. The learning journey from birth to 7+, 11+ or 16+ testing can, for some, be very testing. It needs a holistic approach to such holistic problems. It may even need vastly different approaches, linking social services, health and education into a more coherent whole that supports children and families far better than at present.
The reintroduction of discussion about Grammars is a distraction from significantly more pressing issues. After six years of Conservative-led government, which has seen seismic change in curriculum and assessment, greater academisation, Free Schools, UTCs, Studio Schools, none of which is yet fully embedded to be able to see the success of those changes, we are now potentially faced with yet more change, when a period of proper consolidation is needed, to iron out the inevitable gremlins that will emerge. Change is not necessarily improvement.
It’s not another system that’s needed. High quality teaching and learning, personalised as needed and refined over time through insightful knowledge of the children, creates the basis for success. Creaming off the “bright” at the age of 11 has the hallmark of Aldous Huxley; develop the “alphas” at the expense of the rest.
The majority will lose out.
PS. If Grammars do become a reality, as they will be filled with bright, achieving, independent learners, perhaps they could be staffed at 40 per class, with no TAs, especially as they'll probably be using Direct Instruction? That way, the remainder of the education budget could be used to support those with greater need.