16 May 2007

Thoughts on Willetts' speech

[This is a bit stream of consciousness atm - will try to tidy later]

Is Willetts right about grammar schools?
Willetts effectively concludes that because grammar schools don't take the same proportion of children receiving FSM as exist in their catchment area they must be discriminating on the basis of wealth. This assumption isn't well supported. It could equally be the case that primary education is particularly failing children from the very poorest backgrounds - and as such they are less well equipped to pass the 11+ in the first place. Willetts argument does not seem to account for this possibility. Indeed he himself highlights research by Dr Leon Feinstein showing that from affluence has an effect on attainment which kicks in "long before the age of 11", something which makes it rather hard to understand why Willetts is focusing so intently on post 11 education as a means to promote social mobility.

Another very compelling argument is that a proportion of poorer parents do not apply to grammar schools in the first place. This is certainly an area worth proper examination - there is anecdotal evidence that poorer parents are more likely to select their nearest school or express no preference at all as to secondary school. A project examining the potential correlation between FSM and non-return of secondary preference forms would be interesting. This could well be one of the factors explaining why top comprehensives seem to also discriminate against pupils in receipt of FSM in admission. The current Government certainly identified this as a problem, with the suggestion in the 2005 DFES White Paper that "Choice Advisors" be created to mitigate advantage of affluence. Willets does not examine this at all - and it is absolutely crucial to the success of his proposed solution - creating even more choice.

Willett's analysis here seems to be a solution in search of a problem. It reads like someone has decided that the party's education policy will 1) reject grammar schools and 2) reject vouchers and more intervention and that Willetts has been asked to provide the justification.

Will his solution work?
More good schools will not necessarily promote more social mobility. There is nothing to suggest that Willett's proposals as currently explained would do anything to boost social mobility in this country - as opposed to increasing the quality of schooling for all (not in itself a bad thing!). If he cannot demonstrate that increasing choice will benefit the poorest people in society as much as it does the average parent then in fact his solution would run the risk of decreasing social mobility. He must be able to show that the poorest people, who are often much less articulate, less able to navigate bureaucracy and less able to access information, will be able to navigate the new system as effectively. This doesn't seem to have been explored very much.

This is doubly so because Willett's system must include an increase in school failure as well as school success. If the marketplace works effectively bad schools will close - and before they do so they will get worse as resources and pupils flow to more successful neighbours or new schools. Children will run the risk of ending up in bad schools not only by their applying to them, but also by their becoming bad schools whilst they study there. This is, of course, possible now, in a more regulated educational marketplace - but with deregulation it would be likely to happen more often. The risk of disadvantaged children being stuck in failing schools whilst children with more savvy parents get out must also be addressed.

Another key issue is whether these proposals could work in more rural areas. Whilst in a city there may well already be several secondary schools within a 5 mile radius this isn't true in more rural areas with lower population densities. To have any choice at all in many areas of the UK would inevitably mean an expensive increase in home-to-school transport - whether funded by parents or the state - and travel times that not all will accommodate. The current Government has never properly addressed this issue in its more limited reforms - we certainly can't afford to overlook rural areas in the same way.

What's the politics here?
This policy gels perfectly with the team Cameron rebranding. The threat of grammar schools has always been used by Labour as a cudgel against the Conservative Party - and effectively. Most grammar schools were closed by 1976 - and hence only a very small proportion of the population under 40 attended one. For the rest the prospect of grammar schools, or more accurately of secondary moderns, can be intimidating. As this is the age group most likely to have children in school, it is also the age group most likely to prioritise education issues in choosing who to vote for. Equally in brand terms for many people grammar schools are old fashioned things of the past - Labour liked drawing the comparison.

In distancing himself from the grammar movement Willetts helps to draw a line under the days of the nasty party. In publicising this bold new step he also gets to challenge the old Conservative brand again - the headlines about grammar schools in today's papers may well be no mistake. Finally he gets to appeal to the crucial younger floating voter - the key people we need to win back.

However, this I would question the decision to be so critical of grammar schools. Phrases like "there is now overwhelming evidence that such academic selection entrenches advantage, it does not spread it." will be thrown in the faces of Conservative councils defending existing grammar schools. It is all very well for Willett's to claim that he isn't proposing the closure of existing grammar schools - his words will be misused to call for exactly that. When Conservative councillors resist they will be accused of not following their party line.


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