Selective grammar and private schools dominate the league tables. Yet current research suggests that they make no difference to pupils’ grades. So how do you decide which one, if any, is right for your child?
Despite decades of political intervention, many parents covet a place at an academically selective school for their child. Their thinking is straightforward. They view selective schools as vehicles of social mobility. Getting into the right school means getting the right education, grades, university, and job.
Is the thinking too simplistic?
In this article I’m going to explore some misconceptions about selective schools in the UK. Is a selective school education worth risking your child’s future confidence and self-esteem?
How many selective secondary schools are there?
There are just over 5,000 secondary schools in the UK of which 500-600 are academically selective. Which means that places are offered according to pupils’ performance in an entrance exam, the 11+ or Common Entrance exams.
The selective school count breaks down as follows:
- 69 Grammar Schools in Northern Ireland,
- 163 Grammar Schools in England,
- 6 Bilateral Schools in England (schools with both a selective and a non-selective stream),
- 36 Partially Selective Schools in England (comprehensives school permitted to select 10%-35% of pupils on “ability”),
- 200-300 academically selective independent schools.
I’m excluding schools whose sole entry criteria is artistic or sporting excellence.
Yes, probably only one in five private senior schools are academically selective. Why the margin of error? Because some selective schools are less selective than others. There may be an entrance exam, and there may be a minimum ability required. But selective entry is more a marketing positioning than a policy.
There are no selective schools, other than independents, in Wales and Scotland.
How many selective prep and primary schools are there?
There are no selective state primary schools in the UK. However, just under 30% of independent prep schools practice some form of academic selection. Two-thirds of those are linked to an academically selective senior school, and one third are standalone prep schools.
All other prep schools operate waiting lists. Pupils can be selected by ballot, weighted ballot (by gender, ethnicity, etc) or first-come-first-served. Hence the race to sign up as soon as the child is born. Of the selective prep schools three-quarters are selective at Nursery/Reception entry. Which begs the question of how can they reliably assess a four or five-year-olds? Places are awarded based on observations of the child in a ‘taster day’ group play session or task. It’s only for older year group entries, particularly from Year 3, that schools use more formal assessment.
How do I get my child into a selective school?
State primary schools won’t help you prepare your child for entry into a selective school. So, what do you do? Firstly, check the admissions pages and departments of your shortlist of schools. Then it’s all about preparation. And there are many self-help guides, workbooks, and videos on the internet to help you.
But in reality, you have two choices. A private tutor or a private school. It’s why they exist.
This article about private tutors suggests that at least 18% of children are tutored for the 11+ or entrance exams.
Most private prep schools start to prepare pupils for Year 7 senior school entry from early in Year 5. And preparation means adding verbal reasoning and non-verbal reasoning to the English and maths that they will be tested on. Schools are competitive, and a good number start much earlier than Year 5; Year 2 for example. They may also help your child with interview preparation and general knowledge sessions.
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 reflect 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 you might want to reflect for a moment.
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 to be successful in “life”, maybe self-confidence is more valuable than one grade at A Level.
Obvious? Apparently not. 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?
How important is a school’s position on the league tables?
Many parents turn to school league tables to help them decide which selective school to choose.
Subsequently, selective schools market themselves on their position in academic league tables. And they manage them by setting thresholds for entry into 6th form.
So, you’d think that every place, or 10 places, up or down the league table is significant. It’s not.
A typical academic school league table will list up to 200 schools in order of, say, A Level results.
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 debate as old as our grandparents, and yet it’s contemporary and political.
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 considered.
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.
If adjusted results are similar, where does the time go?
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.
The research suggests that selective schools provide no better or worse education than the 90% of schools that aren’t selective. More pupils go to Oxbridge from schools at the top of the league tables simply because they have more academic pupils. And if those pupils were at other schools they would still go to Oxbridge. That’s the argument.
If the research is right, it’s not the preparation for exams that selective schools are better at. That’s down to you.
But the yardstick the researchers use is achievement at GCSE or A Level, albeit adjusted. Intuitively, a group of more academic pupils should cover the same course material quicker than non-academic pupils.
So, what happens to that extra time the academic pupils have left over? Is the day shorter at selective schools? Is there more time available for the broad curriculum?
It’s worth asking the question if you’re committed to a selective school education for your child. That’s where the benefit must be, not exam results. That must be the special sauce of a selective school.