Are parents the main barrier to educational equality of opportunity?

In recent weeks, politicians on left and right have been queuing up to give their views on what future form the education system should take. In so doing, they have succeeded in shining a light on how fractured it has become and how much confusion there is about its purpose.

The Telegraph gave room to a call from a selection of Conservatives who seem to believe that a universal return to selection at 11 will enable what they call “greater social mobility”. This appears to echo the apparent stance of UKIP (for this week anyway) who want to allow schools to apply to become grammar schools.

Meanwhile, Labour’s Tristram Hunt proposes to legislate to make private schools collaborate with their state funded neighbours. This has had the unfortunate, and probably unintended, effect of reinforcing a view that public schools are superior.

While I think his claim that teaching is currently enjoying a “rising status”is, at best, questionable, this article by former Special Advisor to Michael Gove, Sam Freedman, articulates very well that this is nonsense:

“While there are great practitioners in both sectors, teaching well in comprehensives requires a different level of persistence, commitment and skill. Classes are much larger and the ability range is typically much wider.”

What I do applaud Mr Hunt for is the central theme of his policy that, in my view, is about increasing collaboration between schools and providing improved opportunities for all young people not just those in certain schools. I only wish he would articulate this more strongly and show more willingness to challenge inequality within the state sector itself.

This is in stark contrast to the position presented by the Telegraph. I am rather confused by what is meant by “social mobility” in these terms. Does it mean ensuring greater opportunities for all or, as I suspect, is it an invitation for a few more to “join the privileged club”? If it is the former then introducing more grammar schools seem a pretty odd way to go about it.

As presented in this “Full Fact” blog , available evidence does not seem to support Conservative MP Dominic Raab’s assertion that grammars provide “a ladder of opportunity for talented and hard-working youngsters from council estates and rural backwaters.”

Research from the Department for Education’s (DfE) own figures shows that only 3% of grammar entrants were entitled to free school meals (FSM) against a national average of 18% in other state schools. Worse, nearly four times that many were shown to come from private prep schools.

Comprehensive research by blogger Gifted Pheonix posted this week presents available evidence indicating that exam performance of financially disadvantaged students is, at best, inconsistent across grammars as a whole.

Even the Telegraph concedes that, “in recent years, a growing number of parents have hired private tutors to help coach their children to pass the 11-plus entrance exam.” It is difficult to see how financially deprived “talent” can be accurately identified if this is the case.

CCHSIn August 2013 Chelmsford County High School for Girls (CCHS) announced they would run an independent test rather than the 11+ and a glance at their FSM intake up to that point may explain why. Of the combined end of Key Stage 4 cohort for 2011-13 (360 students) only 4 were identified as disadvantaged, the number was only 1 better at the boys’ equivalent, King Edward’s Grammar.

Even if we were to accept the proposition that grammars allow pupils from all backgrounds to flourish, there is no explanation of how expanding their number benefits those children who do not attend a grammar school. The clear implication being that non-grammars do not provide a path to academic success and, worse, that this is the only success that matters.

As Janet Downs of the Local Schools Network asks in her blog below, does the policy look quite so attractive if it is rephrased “bring back the secondary modern” for the majority?

Available evidence does not therefore back up the assertion that grammar schools are any sort of social mobility panacea for the, by definition, minority of students who have access to them. So why consider their expansion as part of an election manifesto?

Let the Telegraph explain:

“Conservative Voice, is building support among backbench MPs for a change in policy which it says would be popular with millions of middle-class parents.”


So education policy should be designed for one section of society. The most likely to be vocal. The most likely to vote.

Some would argue that this is already the case. While reviewing the coverage of this story I have read several times that, by law, new schools cannot be selective. This is not true of course. There are at least 30 “free schools” that have been set up since 2011 whose admissions criteria gives preference to some sections of the community over others, even if you live in the same street; faith schools.

In this month’s “Dear Ms Morgan” open letter in the Guardian, the author Michael Rosen brilliantly illustrates the contradictions in government policy:

“People like me have opposed [free schools] on the grounds that they get in the way of providing the same educational opportunities to all children…I gather that these days, I’m what’s known as “ethnically Jewish”. I could set up an “ethnically Jewish” school, couldn’t I?…And what would I have achieved? I would have pulled some children out of schools where they had mixed with children of many faiths, no faith, many cultures and mixed cultures.”

The expansion of selection, to whatever degree, undermines community cohesion but it also deprives our children of learning opportunities. Instead of championing inclusion and diversity, the government has allowed new schools to select and existing ones to alter their admissions policies in the name of “parental choice”. The “choice” too often is to collect with “people like us”.

That is why it is so dangerous to commission schools on that basis, parents may well wish to establish their own school but they are not obliged to consider its potential effect on others as part of that. Indeed, they are instead encouraged by the process to run down existing provision as being “not good enough”.

But even if division is popular with some parents, why should we pander to it if it is detrimental to the learning of any other part of the population?

As Sam Freedman rightly points out, the quality of teaching is certainly not inferior in the state system but why, when we are all contributing equally to it, are some of our children in smaller classes and enjoying markedly better facilities?

It seems to me that, as Michael Rosen stated, we are increasingly putting up barriers “in the way of providing the same educational opportunities to all children”. What disturbs me most is that no-one in power or with any pretensions to be so seems to want to challenge this.Scott Evans upset

tweet 1I was shocked at the reaction to the post I wrote in October on how the accountability system undermined inclusion. Comments from many in the education system not only confirmed that some schools were actively dissuading Special Educational Needs children from joining their school but that it was more widespread than I had indicated.tweet 2

What is actually being done about it? Nothing. Unfair admissions policies? Reliant on whistleblowers and then only amended for the future. In other words, there is increasing division in the system but there is no appetite to act for fear of upsetting this group of sacrosanct parents.

This article by former CCHS pupil Gaby Hinsliff in The Guardian clearly disagrees with the pro-grammar lobby but she echoes what I have heard many times on the subject of selection from those who, sometimes reluctantly, join in:

tweet 3“Parents would always find a way to game the system; we’d still have selection by house price, or by willingness to feign religious conviction, or some other ingenious new wheeze.”

So the argument goes that we have to accept inequality of opportunity because parents like it and always will. If inclusion is a casualty, so be it. If pupils are subject to uneven distribution of resource, so what? In the name of “social mobility” we should label 75% of students as second class at the age of 11.

Speaking as a parent, I don’t think that’s good enough.

It convinces me that party political considerations should have no part in deciding how best to run state education and that equality of opportunity should be its central aim.

I am concerned for everyone’s children, not just my own, because I believe we’ll be a better society as a result. That is my choice and there are many more parents, middle class or otherwise, who agree.

Initiatives such as “Meet The Parents” and groups such as the Local Schools Network challenge the notion that more selection is what we want.

Who’s willing to represent us in their manifesto?

Stephen Mayo


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s