Football in the playground at Davenant Foundation Grammar School in Stepney, 1964. Photo: Getty
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Despite good intentions, grammar school selection was dysfunctional right from the start

The tragedy lay in the way the system was allowed to continue long past the point where its failings were clear.

The romantics who want to bring back grammar schools think they know what they were like in their heyday. Taking only the cleverest junior school kids they could conveyor-belt them through GCE O- and A-levels, finally projecting them, at 18, done and dusted, into proper universities, to do proper subjects.

To me, though, nostalgia has once again transformed dysfunctional reality into revered myth.

I “passed for the grammar school” in 1948, the only one from my junior school that year, and on 6 September I was the solitary “fuzzer” (first year) boarding the school bus at my stop. A little further on, though, at the next mining village, a whole gaggle of excited fuzzers piled on. Their junior school was well known for getting a third of its children into grammar school.

The difference was down, quite simply, to coaching. Our head was ideologically opposed to it. At the other school, children were made to buckle down to endless practice tests.

In a letter to the Times Educational Supplement in September 1951, secondary modern school head J Kelly confirmed that coaching in primaries was widespread.

“The A stream,” he wrote, “known to children, parents and staff as the ‘scholarship class’, is prepared for the selective examination with intensive drill.”

Coaching was often identified as one reason why many children who passed failed to make the grade at grammar school. The numbers were worrying. The 1954 government-sponsored Gurney-Dixon report on “Early Leaving”, discovered that in 1953, in a sample of 120 grammar schools, 37.8 per cent of pupils left with two, one or no GCE O-levels. Half of these actually left at the then statutory leaving age of 15, a year ahead of the exams. Working class children, incidentally, were heavily over-represented among the low achievers and very thin on the ground in A-Level courses.

Of course, society was different then. There were jobs and apprenticeships for 15 and 16 year olds. That said, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that many children passed the eleven plus only to be let down by their schools, allowed to fail when they should have passed, to leave when they should have stayed. Looking back, I see that my grammar school teachers, good-hearted graduates with no teaching qualifications, were effectively exam-focused lecturers, ill-equipped to apply more inclusive, personalised methods.

Meanwhile, under the noses of the grammar schools, underlining the nonsense of selection at eleven, college-trained teachers in secondary modern schools were quietly and routinely demonstrating that significant numbers of their children were capable of O-level. The 1959 Crowther Report into education 15 to 18 mentions

… the discovery that a fair number of the pupils in modern schools are capable of reaching academic standards that have in the past been confined to grammar schools.”

I taught such groups in two sec mods. Dubbed “late developers”, they were, in fact, able youngsters who had fallen foul of the bluntness of the instrument wielded against them at eleven.

The inevitable solution to what Crowther called this “overlap” came with the arrival of non-selective comprehensive schools.

Of course it will be argued that today’s grammar schools are different from their predecessors. It seems clear to me, though, that the fundamental problems remain the same.

Inevitably each sought-after grammar school is part of a package that includes less desirable secondary moderns – proponents of selection have a puzzling blind spot about that.

Then, selection, potentially life-changing, will always be error-prone, and subject to manipulation by coaching.

Finally, although no system of education can be perfect, the particular fault of a selective system lies in its attempt to classify children according to their likely adult roles. It evades the real challenge, which is to achieve excellent teaching that starts with the needs and attributes of the individual child and goes on to open up the greatest range of choice.

Gerald Haigh, author of several books about teaching, and contributor of many articles on education to a range of publications, was a teacher in primary, secondary and special schools for 30 years, 11 of them in headship. You can find him on Twitter at @geraldhaigh1

A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.