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On Selection, Grammar Schools and Mastery

10 September 2016
Yesterday evening, like every other Conservative Party Member, I received an email from Theresa May, outlining her plans to create a meritocratic Britain. A Britain that forces more universities and public schools to use their wealth and influence to aid improvements in State schools, a Britain that aims to give “our most academically gifted children the specialist and tailored support that can enable them to fulfil their potential”. I like the sound of that.
But also, a Britain that encourages the use of taxpayer money to increase the link between State and Church by encouraging the expansion of faith schools, “especially new Catholic schools”. A Britain that, yet again refuses to allow a school structure to have any time to settle by introducing the potential redesign of the entire landscape.
I should say, I have no particular beef with Grammar Schools. I have read all the same research and evidence as everybody else, I know that a system of Grammar Schools and Secondary Modern Schools does not advance social mobility and isn’t really effective in improving standards anyway. But I am not as livid as many of my peers in the education world who have been nearing nervous breakdowns in the last day or so.
This is because I know that the argument has nothing whatsoever to do with the evidence and, in the mind of voters, has pretty much nothing to do with the education workforce. The majority of people are not teachers, do not read education research. They are just people whom, once upon a time, went to school. Those who have children do not look at their own little darlings objectively. The Grammar School debate for the average parent is really one about how they remember school and what they believe about their own children.
Successive governments have overseen a dark time in schooling for some decades now. Behaviour has worsened and teachers have become browbeaten.
And we have now moved to the point where children who attended these schools are now the young parents who are thinking about where to send their own children. Those parents who attended schools in the 90s and 2000s will often remember a schooling that was about the needs of the one, rather than the many. They will remember sitting in classrooms where hours and hours of time each week was wasted, stolen away from them even, because teachers were ‘dealing’ with a tiny number of individual kids whose behaviour became more and more extreme as we moved through the 2000s. Perhaps they now look at their infants and, rightly, think to themselves, ‘why should me child have to put up with that?’
A great trick that parenting plays on you is that it is almost impossible to think your child isn’t special, isn’t wonderful. Of course they could pass an 11 plus, one thinks when looking into their toddler eyes. They could attend the ‘good’ school, away from distraction. They could have an education that is about knowledge and challenge, rather than one designed around naughty children who don’t want to learn.
Of course, everyone denies this kind of thinking. It just isn’t right on, is it?
But who has ever said of their infant, ‘well, they’ll probably be quite thick and end up in a dump of a school.’ No one. Ever.
The debate around Grammar Schools is an emotional, not evidenced based, debate.
Parents who attended schools, which they recall as being low in aspiration and challenge or full of disruption and pandering to the children who were out of control because nobody would do anything about behavior, don’t care about what facts and figures say. These parents feel state schooling let them down.
And perhaps it did.
But, over the last 5 years in particular, a change has been happening.
The Prime Minister signs off the email with the line “And over the coming months and years, that is the better Britain that we are determined to build: Britain, the Great Meritocracy.”
Interestingly, I believe that there is a danger that the result will instead be a slowing down of what had been an emerging movement of educators driving a new approach to meritocracy in England’s schools, which I wrote about in the blog The Rising Meritocracy back in 2014.
This new movement of educators is a violent reaction to their voice being denied for years and years. Changes at the DfE and Ofsted in the last 5 years and the increasing influence of a movement of teachers who believe in high aspirations and expectations, have just started to show promise.
Nick Gibb, the schools minister, has been relentlessly driving the promotion of a mastery approach for mathematics.
As someone who has been writing about and promoting mastery approaches for the past couple of decades, I find much of this rhetoric from the DfE most welcome.
Mastery, which at its heart is just very good use of formative assessment, is a long established model for schooling, starting with Washburne in 1921 and really popularized by Bloom in the 1970s. Much of the approach is present in high performing jurisdictions, such as the Pacific Rim countries.
The key characteristic of a school system where a mastery approach is truly embedded and successful is that cohorts of children will be working on the same mathematical concepts as each other. Not at the same level, of course. Every mathematical concept is infinitely broad, so there is no holding back truly bright children who will spend a great deal of their time studying a concept to a much greater depth than the school curriculum requires. I’ve had kids working on the 3D Bernoulli Equation in the past!
Concepts are arranged hierarchically such that whatever is being studied has a firm foundation of prior knowledge and skills already in place.
In a mastery approach, the length of time spent on any given concept becomes completely fluid (which is fine, because they are all infinitely broad), because the cohort does not move on to the next concept until all students have become secure in the concept at hand.
In other words, a mastery approach does not require any segregation of children based on ability, because all children are gripping the concepts. All children.
Introducing a mastery approach takes a long time, because it necessarily requires starting from day one. You can’t introduce a true mastery approach from, say, Year 7.
It is therefore really difficult to square the introduction of selection based on ability and the true belief in a mastery approach. Either mastery works or it doesn’t. If it does, selection on ability is simply not required.
I said at the beginning I have no real beef with Grammar Schools. I should come clean and tell you, during the 90s and 2000s, I would have voted for their return. This is because there had been an increasing trend in education to fail truly bright children. There had been a long race-to-the-middle, instead of recognising academic excellence.
I know there were attempts, and the Strategies gave a nod to Gifted and Talented (whatever the Hell that’s supported to mean), but in all honesty, really bright kids did not receive the education they were capable of.
If creating ‘special schools’ for these bright kids was the only way to provide them with that education, then yes, I would have voted to see the widespread return of Grammar Schools.
But there are green shoots of support for a schooling system that values knowledge and celebrates excellence. There are comprehensive schools up and down the country demonstrating time and again that a rigorous, academic schooling can be delivered to all. There are nowhere near enough of those schools yet and the ‘oh, not those kids’ attitude of those who believe that being poor means being consigned to a school diet of namby-pamby subjects and low expectations is still strong. But I have certainly felt a change, witnessed as I travel around the country visiting schools and meeting teachers at our events. Among this group, and the likes of Michael Wilshaw, there is a true desire to make all schools academically brilliant. It’s really hard to do, but very good head teachers are proving it can be done no matter what the circumstances.
Perhaps the belief at No 10 is that these successes are not scalable. Perhaps they are right. But what if they are wrong?
What if we are at the beginning of an actual improvement to all schools, just 5 years into the journey, and we pull it all apart by changing the entire landscape yet again?
My belief (I could be wrong of course, but all education reform is a gamble), is that the direction of travel was just starting to be the right one.
If we want all schools to be great, if we truly believe in a mastery approach to schooling where all children learn everything and the exceptionally bright go way beyond school level, then how can the argument be won?
Firstly, it is worth considering that there actually is no argument even taking place. The Grammar Schools announcement has no mandate by manifesto and is almost certainly not going to make it through both Houses (even if the Commons let is pass, which is already not a given, then the Lords will almost certainly reject it). So, from one perspective, the announcement may not be about education at all. There would certainly be a sense in creating a hullabaloo that led to a call for an early general election (to establish whether the mandate exists or not). As a Tory Party Member, I would be delighted for this to happen because the party majority would increase enormously at any election called now whilst the Labour Party is out to lunch.
Being less cynical, suppose this truly is about education and MPs head off to their constituencies to take the temperature of support for the proposal. Well, support for Grammar Schools polls pretty well, though not as overwhelmingly as some would like to believe. But most MPs would come to the vote torn and slightly incentivized to vote in favour of the Bill.
What might change this support in the electorate? As I have already said, it won’t be educational evidence (no one outside of education cares) and it won’t be facts and figures about how likely their child is to get in (everyone thinks their child is good enough), it will instead be emotions and memories.
Personally, the big change I would need to see happen before calling for no new grammar schools would be a serious and rigorous policy of supporting, challenging and advancing truly bight students in comprehensive schools. This is red line for me. We must stop failing exceptional kids.
Some will argue that this flies in the face of a mastery approach. This is, of course bunkum, for the reasons outlined earlier. But I understand why people are starting to think this. The messaging around mastery has been an absolute disaster. NCETM have singularly failed to communicate an accurate and consistent message – they have simply been ineffective at winning the PR war – and schools across the country are implementing the most watered down, disastrous nonsense believing that mastery means no differentiation or that the whole of a term should be spent on, say, Place Value because a scheme says so rather than looking continually at assessment data and using it formatively. Many so-called mastery approaches that I witness in schools mean that really bright kids are stuck working through mundane material on a concept because the teacher does not know how to extend it infinitely (or, at the very least, to the level the child deserves to be working on). Mastery, in some schools has become a race-to-the-bottom. So sad.
I believe that Nick Gibb is sincere in his desire to have schools working in a true mastery approach, but the mechanics deployed to date have not only failed to achieve this but, in many cases, are causing more harm than good.
This is my red line, but parents have many differing histories and incentives. The argument needs to be won that comprehensive schools do not have to be places of low aspiration or bad behaviour or the myriad biases that the 90s and 2000s have imbued in this generation of young parents.
If we can have a comprehensive system where all are challenged, where poor behavior is stamped out, where really bright kids get to excel in academic subjects much in the way a young Olympian does in sport, then we can avoid another fracturing of the education system and truly have educational excellence everywhere. Fingers crossed.

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