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Men of my age need to watch out. I don’t want to be accused of a combination of ageism and sexism but it is my experience that past the age of fifty women tend to become more positive and adventurous while men become more risk averse and negative. Perhaps I’ll explore the reasons for this phenomenon in another post but its observation has made me wary of signs I might be becoming a grumpy old man. And still they come. On Friday evening, as I drove across South London, there was one of the classics of incipient ARG (age-related grumpiness): I found myself shouting at the radio.

The reason for my ire was a discussion on Any Questions about school performance (you can hear it again here, the item is at 37 minutes). The programme was broadcast from Torbay Boys' Grammar School and near the end a question was asked about the fact that, apparently, 32% of pupils in independent schools get 3 or more A* ‘A’ levels while the figure for grammar schools is 27% and for comprehensives as a whole it’s just 8%.

What made me shout was that of five people who had the opportunity (including two who were explicitly opposed to the selective system, MPs Sarah Teather and Emily Thornberry), no one corrected the misleading impression created by the statistics. Whatever the arguments for or against selection (of which more later), the relevant comparison is not between all schools in non-selective systems and grammar schools in selective systems, it is between all schools under both regimes. And here the evidence is consistent; on a like for like comparison there is little or no difference in the performance of selective and non-selective systems.

I happily assume that my readers are substantially more intelligent than the panel or audience for Any Questions, but in case any of the latter has dropped in, let me explain why the statistics are profoundly (and, I suspect, deliberately) misleading. In selective systems, grammar schools take the top academic cohort measured by the 11- plus. The proportion selected varies but is generally in the region of 10-20%. So, even if we assume the higher level of 20%, then the 27% triple A* star attainment rate in those schools represents 27% of 20% of pupils in those systems, which is just over 5% of pupils overall. Given that the secondary moderns in selective systems are by definition denuded of more academic pupils their performance will be much less good than the 8% average for comprehensives in non-selective systems. This is why, if you add the grammars and secondary moderns together, the overall attainment level in selective systems is no better. It is staggering, on a programme which is presumably intended to inform the public, that no one made this point.

Away from spurious stats the debate about selection will rumble on, although it is significant that Michael Gove has replaced the Conservative ambition to create more grammar schools with the intention of imposing a 1970s grammar school curriculum on all schools. I don’t hold out the faintest hope that the champions of selection will change their views, but recent science seems to have tilted the argument further away from them.

There is the work of Carol Dweck which suggests that children are much more motivated by being told attainment is down to effort than that about inherent intelligence or talent. The 11 plus is basically a kind of IQ test and it seeks to make a clearer distinction – which is then reinforced in many other ways – between clever pupils (who go to grammar schools) and the rest (who go to secondary moderns).  Add to this the findings of neuroscientists like Sarah-Jayne Blakemore which demonstrate the plasticity of the teenage brain.

These pieces of research suggest it is both spurious and damaging to sift children into the clever and the dull at the age of eleven. Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if, instead of the platitudes of Ms Teather and the conventional leftie ‘it’s not fair’ critique of selection offered by Ms Thornberry, either of them could have illuminated the debate with new insights like these.

In fact, do you know what, I was right to shout at the radio. And as for this new-fangled interweb thing, not to mention tuneless modern pop music or paying £2.10, yes that’s TWO POUNDS TEN PENCE, for a cup of milky coffee, well don’t get me started….


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