“The attainment gap between rich and poor pupils is reduced to almost zero for children in selective schools.” – Theresa May, UK Prime Minister announcing yet more changes to the education system to favour selective schools.
Apart from being untrue – the BBC’s Education Correspondent finds that even on the most selective measure, there’s still a gap of nearly four per cent to make up in exam grades for those qualifying for free school meals, the definition of poverty used to measure relative deprivation – May’s argument in favour of expanding not only the reach, but also the number of selective grammar schools in England (‘to increase parental choice’ – yes, but only for parents of children who can pass the qualifying exam!) founders somewhat on the rock of the word ‘selective’.
Because, if you select only the brightest children in the first place, they’re going to make up the attainment gap more quickly.
The real measure of a school’s success is surely what happens to pupils after they leave, not how well it does at getting them through the bewildering array of exams now facing them during their school career, thanks to the perennial, obsessive, top-down buggering-about with the system all new Education ministers feel it is their historic destiny to do; a bad case of ‘Butleritis’*, with the shared characteristic that the favoured model is always the rose-tinted one they themselves went through as children.
But what is a ‘grammar school’? I set off on expenses to the furthest and most fascinating reaches of the internet I’ve always wanted to get to but could never afford, to find out….
And I’m still not a lot wiser.
What distinguishes a grammar school from a comprehensive, secondary-modern, academy, technical, free, faith, primary, preparatory or public school (American readers switch off at this point. A ‘public school’ in Britain is actually a fee-paying private boarding-school, not open to the public. Fees range from US $30,000 to $50,000 a year) seems to be only two things:
It’s free, paid for by the State. But you have to pass an exam known as the 11-Plus to get in.
Beyond that, grammar schools tend to be seen as non-fee-paying, non-boarding public schools, with a similar emphasis on academic studies, especially the Classics; although public schools also like to recruit pupils who are sporting, while grammar schools are mostly located in urban areas where open space for playing fields and rivers for rowing on is at a premium. Like public schools, many existing grammar schools were built on foundation trusts established centuries ago, and have become venerable institutions. Discipline, tradition, smart appearance and uniformity are strongly stressed.
Public schools select on several criteria: money being one, offspring of alumni another. They don’t always select the brightest. Children will be presumed to have passed the 11-Plus and sit a Baccalaureate-type of exam at 11 or 13 called Common Entrance, across a wide range of subjects including, for instance, Latin and/or Greek, science and languages. Marks in these subjects will be used to ‘stream’ entrants rather than just admit or fail them.
What separates grammar schools and public schools from the rest, then, is a quality one might describe as ‘seriousness’.
Anyone who has done a psychometric test as part of a job application will recognise the mix of verbal and non-verbal reasoning, literacy and numeracy that goes to make up the 11-Plus. Teachers have criticised it, because it bears no resemblance to the national curriculum they are otherwise forced to teach, and is more like an intelligence test. It also has a ‘pass or fail’ finality about it, that sorts the thicker, lower-class sheep from the smarter goats into forever ‘them and us’ categories: there is no appeal or escape from what inevitably becomes not educational, but social selection.
This is surely far from Mrs May’s hopes for levelling the playing field (assuming it hasn’t been sold off for housing development), and reversing the inequality in our society. Her position on grammar schools, and by extension that of the awful Justine Greening, her Education Secretary, is both illogical and inconsistent.
To say, as the grammar-school-educated PM does, that grammar schools will improve the life chances of children from the poorest backgrounds – supposedly the whole point of Labour’s 1965 introduction of non-selective Comprehensive education from age 11, like the NHS free to all – is to fail to understand that the majority of children from very poor backgrounds have quite disorderly, not to say dysfunctional lives.
Assuming they have a home and are not stuck in a local authority bedsit or on a Romany campsite, they may have a single low-paid working mother, an absentee father; are unlikely to have any reading material in the home, will not have been read-to or taught numeracy skills at a young age, may not have English as their first language, have one or both parents who themselves had poor educational attainment, be exposed only to ‘pop’ culture, have a peer group sharing feelings of hostility to the very idea of school and be brought up in the expectation both of failure and a lifetime of dependency on State support.
Mrs May’s ideal poorer child would perhaps be the son or daughter of a churchgoing working-class family with ‘standards’ of decency, honesty and social conformity to uphold; a nuclear ‘hardworking’ family which, despite its low income, believes fervently in the value of getting on in the world through education; pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. The ‘deserving poor’, in other words.
(This is a good argument, by the way, for not closing down public libraries and adult education programmes as an ‘austerity’ measure!)
A literary ideal, it is arguable if such families exist today in any great numbers, as the heavy industry that created the close-knit communities that bred such values is long gone. It is the ‘squeezed’ middle-class with the sharpest elbows who will gain most from May’s new grammar schools.
Or will they?
I’ve not yet seen any practical logistics for the creation of these new grammar schools. What buildings are they to be housed in? Will they simply apply for rollover conversion from other types of school, in which case what will be the difference, apart from the category? Converting an existing academy or a comprehensive school into a grammar school will only reduce parental choice, surely, and not increase the overall availability of places locally, especially in high-performing schools? Starting a new grammar school from scratch allows for no time to build the traditions they rely on.
To serve their reputation for academic excellence, new grammar schools will have to find the best teachers, but from where? Who now teaches the Classics? Teachers’ unions have been warning for the past few years of an increasingly desperate shortage of qualified teachers, especially in Maths and the sciences. Recent changes have seen the creation of new Academy schools and Free schools, where already the complaint is of under-qualified teachers, with classroom assistants having to do the work of teachers. Creaming the best teachers off the top of the comprehensives must have the opposite effect to improving the educational attainment of the poorest children.
If the purpose of secondary education is to deliver more pupils to the universities, then what are we to make of the huge increase in children from poorer backgrounds, comprehensively educated, who since the early years of the Blair government that committed to a 50% intake have already been enrolling in large numbers on sometimes third-rate courses, running up unrepayable debts of typically £50,000 over three years through rising tuition fees, loans and extortionate rents for accommodation; who are subsequently unable to profit from better-paid employment as those jobs simply are not there for them, so underrated are their skills?
Clearly, comprehensive schools have been working hard to deliver more poorer pupils to universities, at the expense of developing their lifeskills and interests outside the narrow focus of GCSEs and A-Levels. What then is to be gained by adding yet more ‘opportunities’ for brighter children to go to university, when they are already doing so from the comprehensive system? I expect universities would be pleased to see more applicants with better A-Level grades and a broader education, with higher standards of literacy and numeracy, able to write essays and with the confidence to speak and argue cogently, because universities also practice selection and their reputations depend on recruiting the brightest and best to achieve more first-class honours. But they are under pressure to admit less well qualified students from poorer backgrounds….
And so round we go again, on the educational carousel. Only now it’s to be a game of musical chairs; and if you’re not sitting down when the 11-Plus music stops, you’re out.
In fact, it might be easier, quicker and cheaper, and a lot more effective, given the importance of proper sleep and diet to improving educational performance, for Mrs May just to lower the bar for pupils qualifying for free school meals.
That’ll narrow the attainment gap.
*RA Butler was the Labour minister who steered through the 1965 Act introducing Comprehensive education in Britain.
The Editor admits to some bias, in having had a public-school education that has left his life a total wreck.
Levelling the playing fields of Eton
One of the less lovely characteristics that mark out your average Tory CUNT (Conservative & Unionist? No Thanks!) is the strong tendency to always want to tilt the playing field in favour of the home side.
If it’s not rearranging constituency boundaries to disadvantage opposition candidates*, or shovelling more and ever-cheaper party donors into the already overstuffed House of Lords, then it’s selling off council houses at bargain prices to create more grateful Conservative-voting property owners.
So the unworthy thought has to occur to us, doesn’t it: is Theresa May’s interest in boosting the number of traditional grammar schools at the expense of comprehensives really just another ploy to churn out more Conservative voters, a next-generation striped-tie electorate that will ensure Tory hegemony for decades to come?
We should be told.
*The Prescience of BogPo genie pops up again. The next day’s lead story is about the Boundaries Commission report recommending changes that will cost Labour 25 parliamentary seats, including that of the leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
“A teenage mother had her child tax credits stopped after she was wrongly accused of being married to a dead 74-year-old man.” – BBC report
Complaining to Concentrix, the bloated and inept US contractor sucking-in £75 million of UK taxpayers’ money to bully working single mums out of claiming tax credits to supplement their meagre wages, Ms Nicola McKenzie told the Victoria Derbyshire programme that, when she pointed out to them that the local authority had confirmed that her 74-year-old ‘husband’ – a name previously registered at the same address – was in fact deceased and had gone to meet his maker, they told her: ‘You need to get him to make contact with us’ to confirm they were not married.
This is perhaps one egregious case of insensate bureaucratic incompetence out of many thousands. Though cock-ups over tax credits overpayments have been notorious for more than a decade, the authorities will admit to barely more than a hundred such errors a year.
I myself had a run-in over tax credits with HMRC, the tax-and-customs people, who, while admitting they had accidentally overpaid me, nevertheless pursued me for years in the mistaken belief that I was a company director, presumably with hidden earnings from dividends.
This false assumption existed in total denial of the easily established fact that I had instead been signing-on fortnightly at the local JobCentre during most of the year in which they argued my excessive income from my ghost directorship had disqualified me from receiving the benefit.
Curiously, I was not being accused of benefit fraud.
Nothing I could say to them would shift their nonsensical position, until in the end they set a private firm of debt collectors on to me and I flung the money at them in exasperation, realising that I could never beat the system.
Sadly for Ms McKenzie, too, Her Majesty’s taxmen and their buddies at Concentrix are totally impervious to accusations of incompetence or notions of redress, especially when their helpless victims are left without food for their children.
In a statement, HM Revenue and Customs responded: “We take great care to make sure that correct tax credit payments are made…. Payments to Concentrix are based on the quality and accuracy of their work.”
While Concentrix replied: “….re-evaluation of individual tax credits claims can be difficult…. We adopt a rigorous process at every stage to ensure we manage this process responsibly, and in full accordance with the protocols and guidance set by HMRC.”
Round and round we go in the Tories’ Kafkaesque modern Britain of privatised bullying, where even the dead must pay their dues.
This morning (14 September) brings news that HMRC have told a loudly spluttering Concentrix their contract will terminate next year. Extra staff are being thrown into the blazing reactor. It seems there is honour among thieves, after all.
Railroading the commuters
Rail Minister Paul Maynard said: “Wages are growing faster than train ticket prices ….our commitment to cap….rail fares in line with inflation will save annual season ticket holders £425 on average in the five years to 2020. ….We are investing record amounts in our railways….providing more seats, more services and better facilities on the trains.” – BBC News report, 12 September
All together now….
Maynard was responding to a survey showing that many commuters are having to fork out ten per cent or more of their annual net (after-tax) wages on season tickets for overcrowded and unreliable train services.
That’s as much as they spend on food.
Wages are indeed rising at 2.5% per annum, which is higher than the 1.9% rail fares are forecast to rise on average in January.
However, until 2015 rail fares had been rising on average by more than the rate of inflation year on year, under the old ‘inflation + 3%’ cap; while wage growth is more recent and starts from a much lower base, wages having been depressed since the 2008 financial crash (a year in which the Rail Fares Index soared by a staggering 7%).
At the same time, other unavoidable costs, particularly housing, have also been rising rapidly, outside the measures used to determine the overall rate of increases in prices – ‘inflation’ – which has been running at an abnormally low rate since 2008. And not all fares are regulated.
The Rail Fares Index shows that regulated and unregulated fares combined have increased by 66% since 2004. 2014 and 2015 saw lower than inflation rises overall, though long-distance fares have risen faster than the average.
While rail travel is still far cheaper than taking the car, there are huge regional discrepancies in cost-per-mile. Some commuters pay as little as 11p, while others are having to fork-out 37p, depending on where they live. British commuters have the highest rail fares in Europe, to travel on a network laid out, basically, in Victorian times, much of it still relying on manual or analog control systems.
Ministers always make these grotesquely optimistic statements on the basis that whatever costs they have some responsibility for are the only costs faced by whichever group is claiming to suffer hardship. In fact, it is surprising that Maynard didn’t also point to the fact that numbers of rail passengers have increased, something that in the past ministers have tried to claim proves a high degree of customer confidence, when the opposite is true.
Of course, if inflation is running at 1.3% (July 2016 – it’s now down to 0.6% in September) and fares only went up by 0.7% (January 2016) and wages have increased by 2.5% (thanks in part to George Osborne’s Living Wage initiative providing a one-off catch-up), rail fare increases might seem fair.
Only not from the point of view of workers struggling to make ends meet, forced to move further and further out of town by rising rents and house prices, and with historic levels of domestic debt, who are faced with increases in transport costs year-on-year when their wages haven’t been keeping pace with real-world living costs for a decade.
And following Brexit, with the pound still some 12% down against major world currencies the cost of imported goods and raw materials will inevitably increase, while historically low oil prices – the standard measure, Brent Crude was down at $28 a barrel in May but has since recovered to $50 – are also rising again, pushing up the underlying trend of inflation.
MPs, of course, are expensed to buy or rent second homes in London, to be nearer their work. ‘Laptops’ – executives of large companies and quangos such as local government and health boards – can claim travel expenses or are compensated in their contracts for their train fares.
Most commuters aren’t, however. They see little or no improvement in services resulting from the marginal increases in investment spending they are paying for through the nose; along with hefty salaries and bonuses for the executives of train operating companies who, while passenger numbers continue to increase by necessity and revenue is guaranteed by the Government to rise every January, seem to have little incentive to deliver anything but more misery and delays.
From our Correspondent ©2016 Polly_Wood @fuxnews.org
Professor Green (some sort of pop star? Ed.) says he didn’t enjoy being part of the celebrity magazine culture.
“Being dragged into that world is a scary thing,” he explained to BBC Radio 1Xtra’s MistaJam. ….”It’s all about the music” he said, premiering his new single Back on the Market.
Earlier this year he split up from Made in Chelsea’s Millie Mackintosh after a two-year marriage.