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Was Michael Gove right?

September 11, 2016 4:42 PM
By Jamie Dalzell in Liberal Democrat Voice

On 3rd June 2016, Michael Gove drew ridicule when he stated "People in this country have had enough of experts". However, Theresa May's announcement that her government are now seeking to actively support1 the reintroduction of selective schools goes against all evidence-based expert opinion.

We mocked Mr Gove but the reintroduction of selective schools may well prove he was right. There appears to widespread support across the right-wing press and the Telegraph website is currently indicating 77% of their readership support the policy.

To make such an argument, I accept that I do need to present credible evidence undermining the case for selective schools. As noted by Branwen Jeffreys, the BBC Education Editor:

Many thought the debate about grammars had become almost irrelevant.

and it is therefore not surprising that recent academic research regarding the impact of selective school's has been limited. Ironically, I suspect that this may have allowed such an antiquated policy to get its foot in the door.

However, digging through the archives, there are multiple articles and data sets that undermine and contradict the proposal that selective education improves education outcomes for communities. For a quick summary, in 2013 Chris Cook of the FT presented compelling analytical data that deprived families "do dramatically worse in selective areas", that "introducing selection is not good at raising school productivity" and that as "a way to raise standards or to close the gaps between rich and poor, it is hard to find evidence that [selective schools] are effective". There have also been more specific studies focussed on selective areas such as Buckinghamshire, which concluded that "the low prevalence of FSM eligible pupils in the grammar schools casts doubt on their ability to aid social mobility."

In light of such evidence, Professor Stephen Gorard recently concluded in a Guardian article that "selection by ability is currently the very antithesis of an evidence-informed policy". Even more pointedly, Sir Michael Wilshaw (the outgoing Chief Inspector of Schools) recently stated that the idea that poor children will benefit from a return of grammar schools is "tosh" and "nonsense".

So why do so many people appear to support the reintroduction of grammar/selective schools?

Undoubtedly, most people are emotionally compromised when it comes to education. The only objectively credible argument for selective education I can find revolves around efficiency. There seems to be a certain truthiness in the idea that is easier to teach groups of similar abilities so that strong pupils can be stretched and challenged and others provided more time and support.

However, the teachers I know are more than capable of teaching a mixed-ability class and just require the time to prepare various differentiation methods. The idea also overlooks the importance of peer interactions with massive benefits in most subjects for working alongside a variety of abilities. Where needed, setting of subjects is also obviously much more flexible (and changeable) than segregation at a school level.

Fundamentally a lack of good schools in certain areas and potential lack of time for teachers to prepare a fully differentiated lesson schedule can both be solved by one thing; recruitment, training and retention of more excellent teachers. Another disruptive and unmandated change to the schools system will just do even more damage (as evidenced by England's deterioration in results compared to Scotland and Wales, which have not faced Govian academisation).

I am very glad to see Tim Farron has committed to opposing these plans in all ways possible and I hope to see Lib Dems in the House of Lords unanimously vote against any legislation that supports the entrenchment of social divides. I hope as a part we can unite to defeat such archaic ideas and we can also prove Mr Gove wrong and place evidence and experts at the centre of policy-making for our nation.

* Jame Dalzell is a Cambridge based member and activist and will be taking up the role of Membership Development Officer for the city from January 2016. He will fight the King's Hedges County Council division in Cambridgeshire in May 2017