16 May 2007

Willett's education speech in summary

What does Willets want to do?
Willetts highlights research that shows that social mobility has declined and wants to use eduction as a means of addressing this.

What does he see the problem as?
Willets claims that grammar schools take a disproportionately low number of pupils from poor backgrounds. He highlights the fact that just 2% of their intake recieve free school meals (FSM), whereas the populations in which the schools are located have an average population of 12% of children in receipt of FSM. From this he concludes that grammar schools are failing to promote social mobility. He concludes that this means that "there is now overwhelming evidence that such academic selection entrenches advantage, it does not spread it."

Willets asserts that this is because today's society is simply to hetreogenous for the 11+ to effedctively discriminate betwen able and less able pupils. Also middle-class parents now "invest far more effort in raising their kids than they did a generation ago."

Elsewhere Willetts notes that the same issue is a problem to a lesser extent with other top state schools, highlighting research from the Sutton Trust which identifies that the top 200 non-grammar state schools have 6% of pupils in receipt of FSM, whilst, of the population in their catchment area, 12% are eligible.

What options does he consider?
Willets rejects both regulating admission and vouchers. He rejects regulation because he does not believe that an effective and simple system can be developed. He rejects vouchers because he doesn't believe that they would have any effect without reforms to the "supply side" of the school system. As such he advocates a policy of creating more good schools.

More good schools
Willetts policy is essentially one of encouraging the development of more autonomous schools within the state sector by removing barriers to them being set up. He hopes that by creating more 'self-governing independent states schools", and in so doing drive quality, presumably via parental choice. Particularly he highlights City Technology Colleges and Academies as the way forward in particular.

Is there a problem with using Free School Meals (FSM) as a synonym for poverty?
Using FSM as a measure of affluence is administratively easy - the data is readily available. However, FSM are a discretionary benefit, which parents in receipt of certain other benefits are entitled to claim. Not all do - hence the measure tends to underestimate poverty levels, almost certainly not enough to affect the validity of Willet's argument, but certainly enough to give cause to pause. One could argue that cultural reasons might cause parents at certain schools to be less likely to apply for FSM - it certainly attracted stigma at the comp I attended. This could serve to reduce the magnitude of the Willet's findings enough to suggest that research using a more accurate measure of parental income could well be justified. Certainly we should be careful about identifying any child not in receipt of FSM as being affluent - this is certainly not true.


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