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Selective school admissions today: from the transparent to the covert

The debate about selective secondary admissions is as fierce as ever, but educational opportunity is now determined by much more than just academic ability, a new Civitas book shows. A common view is that the battle for the best schools is increasingly unfair

A major new Civitas collection brings together a diverse array of education experts and commentators to explore the pros and cons of academic selection and the growing complexity of admissions processes for secondary schools today.

In this wide-ranging collection of essays, politicians, headteachers, campaigners and academics from all sides of the debate discuss the role that selection continues to play – and the many different forms it has begun to take – in our education system.

It highlights how the old divide between comprehensive and grammar schools, and selection based on academic ability, has been largely supplanted by a much broader range of admissions criteria.

The pressure on parents to navigate their child into a good school has become more demanding as a result and more dependent on factors such as geography and shows of faith.

The Ins and Outs of Selective Secondary Schools: A Debate features contributions from 27 different writers from across the spectrum but united in various degrees of dissatisfaction with the way that children are currently divided up between schools.

They include:

Graham Brady, a Conservative MP and the chairman of the 1922 Committee, who says that the availability of grammar school education is being left to the luck of geography. He proposes the introduction of selective free schools and of allowing state pupils to take up places at independent schools:

“In essence the policy is that if you are lucky enough to live in an area that already has grammar school places, you can have more. If, on the other hand, you think a grammar school education would be best for your child and you live in the wrong part of the country: you can whistle for it – or pay up and go private.”

“It is easy to see a future when a per capita funding formula would allow parents to use the sum of money available for the education of their child in any school of their choice, be it a free school, an academy or an independent school prepared to offer a place at the same cost.”

Chris Keates, general secretary of the teachers’ union NASUWT, who says that reforms to give schools greater freedom have paved the way for selection by stealth:

“It is clear that the regulatory and legislative changes which have increased ‘freedoms’ for schools, including those over curriculum provision, admissions, school finances and charging policies, have created the conditions in which selection by stealth – covert selection – can flourish.

“Notwithstanding the contested concept of selection on the basis of a child’s ‘aptitude’, traditional formal academic selection has the defining characteristic that it is at least overt. The criteria for entry to selective schools, usually based on achievement of a particular standard in a written assessment, are made clear to pupils and parents alike.”

David Davis, a Conservative MP and former shadow home secretary, who says there is already a two-tier school system, based on wealth rather than ability, and in which middle class parents dominate the remaining grammar schools:

“We already have a two-tier education system, one where selection is governed largely by wealth, whether through fees or covertly through house prices, rather than ability. In other words, we have a two-tier system based on injustice not justice, wealth not talent, and in the interests of the elite rather than the interests of the nation.

“The few remaining grammar schools are nothing like the motor for social mobility that they used to be. This is partly due to the fact that their rarity has turned them into the preserves of the sharp-elbowed middle classes; but this is also due to a massive failure in public policy, a failure in confidence in high quality education for bright kids.”

Fiona Millar, campaigner and journalist, who says that selection at 11 is still taking place in a quarter of local education authorities as part of a sorting of children into different types of schools:

“At the pinnacle of this hierarchy are the private, fee-charging schools and the grammars, where entry is determined by ability to pay, academic selection, or both. Then come the faith schools, an integral part of the English education system for over a century, yet sometimes responsible for subtle and insidious forms of covert selection.

“The proliferation of independent state schools’ such as academies and free schools has led to a rapid increase in non-denominational schools that control their own admissions, when in the past they might have shared a set of common local authority admissions criteria. And at the bottom of the pile are the local community schools. But even here the local picture is distorted by residential geography and the power some parents have to worm their way, even fraudulently, into the most popular schools.”

Prof Alan Smithers, of the University of Buckingham, who suggests bringing the national examination at 16 forward by one or two years:

“The surviving grammar schools have brilliant academic results, but they are a caricature of what once was. Without defined catchment areas, the few remaining have become Meccas for ambitious parents who jump for joy when a place saves them the tens of thousands of pounds that an independent school would cost.

“The real question about selection in education is therefore not whether it should take place at all, but rather what age and what type would be most appropriate. At present, restricted choice as a form of selection at age 16 is what is acceptable politically. But there is an educational problem with this arrangement: it leaves only two years for upper secondary education.”

Henry Stewart, co-founder of the Local Schools Network, who says grammar schools cater for the better-off youngsters and that the focus needs to be on improving comprehensive education:

“Children from a disadvantaged background are a fifth as likely to get into a grammar school as others in the local area. Overall, grammar schools help the richest five per cent of the population but the poorest 50 per cent do less well in selective areas. It is time to celebrate the achievements of comprehensive schools, while looking at how to improve them further.”

Rev Nigel Genders, chief education officer at the Church of England, who says the complexity of church school admissions arrangements is likely to intensify in the years ahead:

“Although we may yearn for a much simpler system, unless we return to the time when children simply went to their local school, with no possibility of parents being involved in a choice about their children’s education other than to move house, then the situation is likely to get ever more complicated, especially with the coming together of groups of schools in multi-academy trusts.”

Commenting, Anastasia de Waal, the deputy director of Civitas who edited the collection, said the range of contributions demonstrated how much the debate about school selection has moved on.

“It highlights how setting up the selection debate as a simple dispute between supporters of grammar schools and advocates of comprehensive schools is unhelpful today,” she said.

“To make any headway on the subject of selection we need to bring in all its existing components – that way we can identify which criteria are broadening opportunity and which are truncating it.

“While the debate has traditionally focused on the vestiges of the grammar school system, a large proportion of schools select on other premises. Selection criteria range from the entirely transparent – the means to pay school fees or the sex of your child – to the more covert – for example, whether you will be able to afford the correct uniform.

“Add to that the reality that both comprehensives and grammars can in effect select through criteria such as house price, and that even transparent criteria such as faith can be vulnerable to manipulation.

“As a result, what advocates and critics of ‘traditional’ academic selection now often have in common, is the view that who’s in and who’s out of today’s selective secondaries is becoming more unfair. In short, not all selection is equal.”


The Ins and Outs of Selective Secondary Schools: A Debate is published by Civitas on Monday March 16. A PDF of the text can accessed below.

The book will be launched at an event at the House of Commons (Committee Room 14) at 11am. It will feature opening speeches by Tristram Hunt and David Davis, followed by a discussion between the book’s contributors.

The full list of contributors:

Geoff Barton (Head Teacher, King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds), Graham Brady MP (Member of Parliament for Altrincham and Sale West), Nicole Chapman (Joint President, Association of State Girls’ Schools) Professor John Coldron (Emeritus Professor, Centre for Education and Inclusion Research),Nic Dakin MP (Member of Parliament for Scunthorpe), David Davis MP (Member of Parliament for Haltemprice and Howden), Rev Nigel Genders (Church of England Chief Education Officer), Gabriel Heller Sahlgren, (Research Director, Centre for the Study of Market Reform of Education), Peter Hitchens (columnist, Mail on Sunday), Chris Keates (General Secretary, NASUWT), Neal Lawson(Chair, Compass), Charlotte Marten (Chair, Grammar School Heads’ Association), Fiona Millar(education campaigner and journalist), Alice Phillips (Vice-President, Girls’ Schools Association), Eddie Playfair (Principal, Newham Sixth Form College), Stephen Pollard (Editor, Jewish Chronicle), Professor Sally Power (Director of Research, School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University), Rabbi Jonathan Romain (Chair, Accord Coalition), Neil Roskilly (Chief Executive, Independent Schools Association),Gillan Scott (Deputy Editor, religio-political blog Archbishop Cranmer), Professor Alan Smithers(Director, Centre for Education and Employment, University of Buckingham), Professor Emer Smyth(Research Professor, Economic and Social Research Institute), Henry Stewart (Co-Founder, Local Schools Network), Peter Tait (Headmaster, Sherborne Preparatory School), Margaret Tulloch(Secretary, Comprehensive Future), Professor Geoff Whitty (Director Emeritus, Institute of Education),Dr Joanna Williams (Director, Study of Higher Education University of Kent).


The Ins and Outs of Selective Secondary Schools: A Debate

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