The great grammar con

Grammar schools and "setting" are equally discredited.

There are 164 grammar schools remaining in England. How many of them do you think deserve to be called "excellent"? Pretty well all of them if you believe the pro-grammar propagandists, who include many Tory MPs and national newspapers.

Think again. According to a paper by David Jesson, visiting professor at the Centre for Performance Evaluation at York University, only 19 of the 164 grammar schools (or fewer than one in eight) come anywhere near "excellence". That's the number where pupils make, between tests at 11 and GCSE results at 16, above-average progress, taking their home backgrounds into account. By contrast, pupils at one in four non-selective schools make above-average progress. And in 16 grammar schools, progress is below average. "These," writes Jesson in the latest issue of Research in Public Policy, "are poorly performing schools." Jesson merely confirms what everybody ought to know. The basic truth about grammar schools - that their results look good because they select the brightest and most advantaged children in advance - was established many years ago. So was the truth about their supposed efficacy in providing a ladder out of poverty. Out of 22,000 children entering grammar schools annually, well under 500 are eligible for free school meals.

Grammar schools are so discredited by all serious research that debating their supposed merits is like reopening the question as to whether the sun goes round the earth. Yet, only a few months ago, the Tories demoted an education secretary because he was too critical of grammar schools. We should see the party's new "green paper" against that background.

After the big grammar school row, the Tories' fallback position was that they would have a "grammar stream" in every school. Taken literally, that would have entailed putting children in the same ability groups for all subjects. The "green paper" demands instead that setting - different ability groups for different subjects - should be universally adopted. Whether this means children will be shuffled between different groups half a dozen times each school day, I don't know. Hell, this is show business, and nobody cares about precision or practicality. The green paper reckons setting is used for only 40 per cent of "academic" secondary school lessons. In fact, the only authoritative figures available are for all subjects excluding PE, so I suppose it depends on whether you think, say, art, design, technology and music are academic. The majority of secondary schools already set for English and maths, though most refrain from doing so when the children first arrive.

Mixed-ability teaching was all the rage in the 1970s but these days it's a straw man. Michael Gove, the Tories' schools spokesman, told the London Evening Standard: "We want to see more teaching by ability in schools so we can begin to narrow the gap in achievement between those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds and the rest." That, to borrow a phrase from the Blessed Boris Johnson, is an inverted pyramid of piffle. The green paper's footnotes show he is relying on research that is a quarter-century old. A research review in 2005, commissioned by the government (The Effects of Pupil Grouping: Literature Review, Department for Education and Skills, Research Report RR688), found that "lower sets have a disproportionate number of boys, pupils from specific ethnic groups, pupils from lower social economic groups and pupils identified as having SEN [special educational needs]". Disaffection among pupils in lower groups was well-documented. The review reported some evidence that, particularly in maths, bright children tend to do better in setted classes, the less able better in mixed-ability. Children of similar ability, according to one study, can have their performance depressed by half a grade if placed in lower sets, or boosted by the same amount if placed in higher sets. But overall, the academic effects of using one form of grouping rather than another are close to zero. At best, the new Tory policy will help a few clever middle-class children do better at the expense of less able children from less advantaged homes. It certainly won't help the poor any more than the grammar schools do.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, China