Considering a selective school for your 11-year-old child? 100 places on a league table may equate to only one grade at A Level.
Is it worth the gamble with your child’s future confidence and self-esteem?
In this article I’m going to look at the significance of league table positions for academically selective schools. In addition, I’ll address contemporary research which suggests that pupils at selective schools perform no better in exams than pupils at non selective schools.
When you shouldn’t choose a selective school
Your child wins a place at an academically selective state or independent school, congratulations! It’s what you wanted for them and they’ve worked hard for it. But will your child be happy there?
I’ve heard some parents say “if my child’s good enough to get in, he/she’s good enough to go”. Other parents prefer to choose the school where their child is probably in the middle of the ability range.
There’s sense in both views. But, as a good Headteacher will tell you, the decision should relect the answers to three simple questions. Is your child stimulated by an academic environment? Do they thrive on academic competition? And can they cope with learning at a quicker pace? If the answer to all of them is “yes”, great! But if the answer to one of them is “no”, then the decision should be more considered.
In this new school there’ll be many other equally bright or brighter children. Would your child’s best interests be to struggle and bounce along the bottom of every set? Putting a non-academic child through an academic school won’t make them cleverer but it could knock their self-confidence. And maybe self-confidence is more valuable than one grade at A Level to succeed in life.
Obvious? Apparently not. Too many children are tutored or “crammed” in the months leading up to 11+/entrance exams with the expectation of winning a place at a prestigious school. Is this parental vanity or the child’s best interests?
Academically selective schools and school league tables
What if you have a choice of selective schools? Parents look at school league tables. And selective schools market themselves on their position in academic league tables. Nothing wrong with that. Except…it’s only part of the story.
A typical academic school league table will list up to 200 schools in order of, say, A Level results. There are around 230 academically selective state senior schools in the UK, and 200-300 academically selective independent senior schools.
The difference in A Level results between the top and the bottom of these lists is very small indeed. Pupils at the school that ranks around 15th on these tables average AAA at A Level. Some pupils will get higher grades, some will get lower; that’s averages for you.
Pupils at the school that ranks 100 will average AAB, only one grade below school number 15. And those at school 200 will average ABB. Again, some will get higher grades, some lower.
That’s not a great deal of difference. Certainly not as much as the difference in academic intensity. And ABB opens the door to plenty of courses at Russell Group Universities. So, it might be risky to make a school choice based only on whether a school is number 50 or 150 on one of these academic league tables. Seven years of missed broad education opportunity sacrificed on the altar of a single grade point at A Level? Put the league tables in the mix, certainly, but there are 49 other aspects of education to consider too.
Are selective schools better than non selective schools?
You may even question whether to bother with selective schools at all, if current research is to be taken at face value.
Selective schools are a politically sensitive subject. Some argue that selective schools are bad for social mobility. Others argue to the contrary. It’s a contemporary debate. It’s a political debate.
Unfortunately, current research efforts are guided by the political debate. And they tend to conclude that selective schools perform no better than mainstream state schools once certain other factors are taken into account.
Two research reports released in March 2018 typify this. A study of the GCSE results of 4,000 pupils by King’s College London found that selective schools have little impact on academic achievement. They investigated the 7% difference in the GCSE results between pupils in selective schools and those in non selective schools. That difference became negligible (<1%) after adjusting the results for; family income, achievement at age 11, cognitive ability and genes linked to educational achievement.
A second report, this time published by Durham University, came to a similar conclusion. The study adjusted the actual results of 550,000 pupils for social background, rates of chronic poverty, ethnicity, home language, special educational needs and age in the year group. They found no significant difference between the adjusted results of pupils at selective and non selective schools.
In other words, it doesn’t matter which school you send your child to. Your child will do only as well as his/her biological, cultural and socio-economic status will allow.
A messy compromise
The two pieces of research serve a worthy purpose of highlighting the effects of poverty, lack of access to opportunity and low social mobility. Input to long term social policy, yes, yardstick for short term micro-level decisions, no.
For example, the research might support those who argue that an academic child will do well wherever they go. No need for any educational intervention. Your child has either “got it”, biologically, culturally and socio-economically, or they haven’t.
If that’s the case, then, depressingly, the flipside of the same coin must also be true. A non-academic child will do no better wherever they go. No need for any educational intervention.
But there’s the contradiction. Some non-academic children will do better because they have (at least) cultural and socio-economic support; parents. And that, by coincidence, is what the two research reports also say.
So we have a circular argument. The compromise is what we observe today. Parents considering selective schools in the belief that their child will achieve better academic results by being surrounded by similarly able, similarly motivated children. With similarly ambitious parents.
The question remains for those parents who prefer selection. How selective?