May's ideas are a little late. Where I sit in Cheltenham, a new grammar school has already, in effect, opened this academic year. Between them, the grammars within a few miles radius have expanded (in some cases beyond their PAN*) to the tune of an additional 150 places.
It was interesting hearing, on Friday's R4 Today programme, Justine Greening talk (unenthusiastically, I thought) about Theresa May's ideas for grammar schools and not just because I was puzzled about where her Rotherham accent has gone, but because (a) the ideas are being branded as the PM's, not the education secretary's and (b) she said that disadvantaged pupils perform better in grammars than do non-disadvantaged pupils - see P8 vs FSM, below.
(a) seems to suggest that this is very much a political decision and not about social mobility or education
(b) simply isn't supported by any data anywhere. It can't be: grammar school pupils all achieve well on attainment (by definition, almost) and progress hasn't been measured yet - the old SATs system had a false floor as it only went to level 5, whereas most grammar pupils would have been at (or nearer) level 6.
The whole basis of May's proposals seem to focus on getting more disadvantaged pupils into grammars: the 2015 numbers show that while 28.1% of the secondary pupil population are eligible for PP, the proportion of grammar school pupils which are eligible is only 7%. That's the scale of the problem: grammars need to take four times as many disadvantaged pupils as they currently do.
How might they do this? Some options:
- Give disadvantaged pupils easier entrance exams or lower pass rates
- Errr... that's it.
P8 vs FSM
We can’t read too much into this data yet, because the P8 scores are artificially inflated because the 2011 SAT scores are used as the basis, and these only go up to level 5, whereas most grammar school children would have achieved a level 6. The average P8 for grammars in 0.33. 15% of comprehensives achieved better p8 scores equal to or better than this.
However, we also looked at Justine Greening’s claim that disadvantaged pupils perform better in grammars than do non-disadvantaged pupils. If this were true (and it’s difficult to prove, given that less than 3% of grammar pupils are on free school meals), then you’d imagine that the more FSM pupils in a grammar, the better it would perform. But the opposite is true (if anything):
In order to help overcome this sociological bias, May also thinks that new or expanding grammars should do one or more of:
- Open a new non-selective school as well
- Set up or sponsor a primary feeder school
- Sponsor a currently under-performing academy
It's difficult to see the benefits of any of this - who'd want to go to the new secondary modern? What's the primary school for? How would an under-performing (non-selective?) school benefit from sponsorship by a new or recently expanded grammar?
So, puzzled by all of this, we quickly surveyed teachers over the weekend - over 400 responded. Here's what they said... what follows are the numbers, but if you'd prefer to see teachers' own words, here they are.
A game of two halves
Just over half of teachers in grammar schools say that their school has expanded recently.
Just over half of teachers not working in a grammar would not work in one.
Grammar schools do not have a positive local impact
61% of secondary teachers with a nearby grammar think it has a negative impact. Only 12% think there is any positive impact:
A similar proportion of primary teachers with a nearby grammar think there is a positive impact, though a smaller proportion (37%) than at secondary think there is a negative impact. This isn’t surprising perhaps, as the impact of nearby grammars is felt more by secondaries.
Potential for opening a new non-selective school
Only 11% of grammar school teachers think their grammar school would definitely be able or prepared to establish a new non-selective school as well, if it exapnded. 22% think they definitely wouldn’t. Most simply don't know, though:
Those in non-selective secondary schools are less likely to think that if they converted they could establish a new non-selective free school as well – 28% say definitely not; 3% say they definitely could. Levels of uncertainty in these schools were, understandably, even higher:
Potential for setting up or sponsoring a primary feeder school
Setting up or sponsoring a primary feeder school seems a little more achievable, 17% think they definitely would be able or prepared and the same proportion saying they definitely would not.
Those in non-selective secondary schools are less likely to think that if they converted they could set up or sponsor a primary feeder school as well – 18% say definitely not; 9% say they definitely could.
Sponsoring a currently under-performing academy
Sponsoring a currently under-performing academy seems more promising still, from the grammar school’s point of view, with 22% of grammars saying they definitely would be able or prepared to do so; 11% not.
Those in non-selective secondary schools are less likely to think that if they converted they could sponsor a currently under-performing non-selective academy as well – 19% say definitely not; 9% say definitely could.
Overall response to the idea of expansion of grammar places
Overall, teachers dislike the idea of new or expanded grammar schools, with 63% against and 27% in favour.
it's no great surprise that teachers are generally against grammars - half are very much against them and wouldn't even work in one - so this study was more interested in schools' capacity to deliver this policy. It shows that of the three alternatives proposed, only the sponsoring options are at all viable. But what would this mean in practice?
Primary sponsorship: Grammar schools typically take from a huge number of feeder schools - obviously, they have to, since primaries are all non-selective.
- If they have 30 or 40 feeders, which do they sponsor? The biggest, which perhaps sends only three pupils per year? The most needy - highest PP, biggest EAL, lowest performance etc?
- How would the other primaries feel if just one feeder school was sponsored - does it imply that pupils at the chosen school are favoured in the selection process - or in some other way?
Secondary sponsorship: Sponsorship works best when schools are close geographically and when both schools are eager participants.
- Will local secondary moderns (becase that's what we're talking about) want to be spnsored by the school that's creamed off (as several our respondents put it) its most able students?
- At present, most underperforming schools aren't academies
- What do grammar schools get out of this relationship?
Finally, since grammar schools are mostly academies, they can already expand as they see fit, so all of this really only applies to new grammar schools anyway.
All of which makes one think that this whole policy is play to win back UKIP votes (grammar expansion was in their mandate, unlike the tories') and is very little to do with the quality of education.
Teachers' own words - we really enjoyed teachers comments about these proposals, so thought we'd publish them verbatim:
* One of these grammars which has expanded beyond its PAN is in an area of high social deprivation in Cheltenham. Its PP pupils consitute just 1.6% of its population and some pupils live over 50 miles away. Visit this one, Mrs May.