A month or two ago it was accidentally let slip by the British government that they intend to bring back grammar schools. This has been a controversial decision so I wanted to consider write a bit about them. However, I feel it important to note that I am personally against grammar schools, so this blog post should be read with that in mind.
Grammar schools are a type of school in the UK that have traditionally selected students based on their grades. There are currently some grammar schools in the UK, but since 1998 there has been a ban on the creation of new ones. This ban is what the government is proposing should be lifted. The government certainly seems to have its heart in the right place when lifting the ban on grammar schools. The schools that the government wants to create will take the best and brightest at the age of 11, and, regardless of economic background, will provide them with a high level of education. The intention of grammar schools is therefore to enable social mobility and ensure that those from less fortunate backgrounds have the same opportunities as those from wealthy backgrounds. Enabling social mobility and striving for equality sound like great goals, so why am I against grammar schools?
While I support the sentiment behind grammar schools I believe that the Matthew effect will come into play in this kind of arrangement, meaning that the goal of enabling social mobility is unlikely to actually happen. The Matthew effect is an interesting idea: those who have much will continue to get more, and those who have little will get even less. Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers gives great examples of this in action. The basic idea in society is that those who have had an advantage will be presented with more opportunities, which in turn will become even more advantages and lead to greater opportunities. This explains, for example, why British footballers tend to be born in September. The British school system begins its academic year in September so those born in this month are the oldest of their peers, and are almost a year older than the youngest. When you first enter school this extra year makes a huge difference in terms of physical strength and coordination so those born in September are at a natural advantage in sports at that age. This then allows them to join the football team, where they will receive additional training. Due to the additional training the gap between them and the younger members of their peer group becomes even wider, and makes the older students more attractive for selection of regional teams, where they will receive even more training, which in turn increases the gap.
While grammar schools are intended as a way to lubricate social mobility I predict the reality to be quite different. Those who have come from more fortunate backgrounds are likely to be better at taking tests, and therefore more likely to be able to enter a grammar school. Likewise, those who come from more fortunate backgrounds are more likely to have parents who can afford to send them to additional preparation classes for the grammar school tests, which is a huge industry already in Japan and Korea where many high schools and universities have their own entrance exams. An argument against this is that the 11+, the test that grammar schools will use to select pupils, is an IQ test rather than a test of knowledge and test taking ability. Except that it has been shown that those from lower socio-economic statuses perform poorer on IQ tests from ages as low as two, and the gap increases as the children age.
An argument could be made that at least it is better than doing nothing, where there would be no pathways for intelligent children from poorer families to receive a top class education. However, this doesn’t appear to be the case when you look at which school systems are doing well. McKinsey & Company produced a report in 2017 entitled “how the world’s best performing school systems come out on top”, where they looked at what factors made the best school systems in the world so effective. Their conclusion was three things seemed to encourage high quality schooling: make sure the right people become teachers, train teachers well initially and continue developing them through their careers, and monitor students to allow interventions when someone starts to fall behind. In my opinion grammar schools will actually go against some of these principles.
One of the things I disagree with most about grammar schools is that it will cause good teachers to be drawn to grammar schools, where the students are likely to be higher performing. Currently the salary for teachers, along with the long working hours and the status of the profession in general, mean that the best of the best are not often attracted to teaching. There are many amazing teachers in the UK, but there isn’t enough competition to ensure that only those who have a passion for teaching enter the profession. In Finland, for comparison, getting into teacher training is about as competitive as getting into MIT, so the status that teachers have in society is very high. By ensuring that all teachers are high quality means that the level of teaching at all schools is good. Japan and Korea, on the other hand, have an interesting mechanism where teachers are randomly moved every couple of years to different schools, potentially even to a different city. This is quite an extreme system, but it does ensure that teacher quality is roughly even across schools.
With relation to monitoring students and helping them when they fall behind, this sounds like an area where grammar schools could be a positive. By separating the brightest and smartest won’t that leave teachers to adjust the level of classes to the students, ensuring that less students are less behind as they’re at more suitable levels? I am divided on this and am eager to see what happens in the future. However, is the separation of students of different backgrounds not depriving kids of one of their greatest forms of support: each other. Many studies, for example those by Rupert Wegerif and Neil Mercer, have shown the power of students supporting each other and building many skills by doing so. If you take this approach to education, that students should support each other and develop collaboration skills, is it not beneficial to have as diverse a classroom as possible? After leaving schools students might find themselves in a whole range of environments so should they not learn to communicate with people from a range of backgrounds? Furthermore, I’m sure that there are many students who don’t perform well on the 11+ who have talents in particular areas that could benefit others in the class who have theoretically higher IQs overall.
The question then becomes if not grammar schools then what? In an ideal world I would love to perform an experiment to compare what would happen if the government invested the money it intends to spend on grammar schools instead on teacher salaries. Would that increase the status of the profession and draw more people to the job? Or would investing money in more teaching assistants to provide targeted help for those who need reap better results in the long term? It is easy to criticize the government’s decision to remove the ban on grammar schools without proposing alternatives. In the end the educational system is a complicated beast where results of policy changes cannot easily be predicted with 100% accuracy. That does not mean, however, that policies should be made without looking at what has worked in other countries and what research has suggested.