Pardoning the Thanksgiving Turkey … and Social mobility

By Dr. Alan Bainbridge

Our Future Thoughts series of articles are opinion pieces designed to provoke debate, they represent the views of the author and not Comprehensive Future policy.

There is a charming tradition in the USA where in the run-up to Thanksgiving, one bird is chosen to be ‘pardoned’ by the President. I’m not sure quite what they are being pardoned for but the lucky bird is allowed to live out its natural days free from the fear of ending up on a dinner plate. The birds are given names and the whole hoo-ha is quite a celebration that cleverly detracts from attention the slaughter of tens of millions of less fortunate turkeys. This is not my metaphor but one I have shamelessly stolen from Arunduti Roy, and it serves to help us all take a deep intake of breath as we enter the frustrating world of how social mobility will be solved by opening more grammar schools.

I am becoming increasingly convinced that grammar schools are being offered a continued, or new, lease of life as some kind of distraction from the mess recent governments have been making of education policy. To push the metaphor further: one view of schooling is being promoted (we could argue ‘pardoned’ – if this decision is based on what research tells us about their impact), while all others are being left to wither and die.

The recent HEPI report on how grammar schools will enhance social mobility is a typical Thanksgiving turkey gesture. The public have already been exposed to headlines confirming – because this is how they are presented – that grammar schools are to be saved amid a dystopian nightmare of deregulated academies and free schools, voluntary aided and maintained schools, community schools and the list goes on. The grammar school is lauded, held high and saved. If this sounds slightly fanciful, I will just briefly take you on a detour to the nine secondary schools all within a short drive from this keyboard. As austerity continues to bite school funding remains under pressure and between 2015-2020 the three grammar schools will experience no budget cuts, while the 6 secondary modern schools will lose £1,125,000. When that is taken into account alongside voluntary contributions, gifts and donations, state schooling is facing a crisis – but ‘Hey’, let’s all celebrate a handful of young people entering an elite university.

The latest turkey being offered up has come from the HEPI  think tank from an author who makes the headline claim that all the previous research on the limited impact of grammar schools, are wrong. This clever fella has found out that everyone else has been looking at the wrong data and that grammar schools are actually very successful at enhancing social mobility, or getting a place at an Oxbridge university. It is not my intention to rehearse the litany of arguments against this research within this report – this has been covered far better by many more experienced colleagues.

Suffice to say a colleague and I marked the work as if it was a Year Three dissertation – and the inability to ground the work in the past literature, devise a suitable research question, justify the methodology using previous similar research, provide a rationale for the analysis and clearly explain their findings – leave this soundly in the lower 2:2, possibly 3rd classification. There was some acknowledgement of the amount of work carried out which saved the ignominy of having to re-submit.

The HEPI report is a shocker, and desperate back-peddling now informs us that it was only intended as a provocative thought piece. But just like the Brexit bus and claims to put multi-millions back into the NHS every week caught the public’s imagination, HEPI are now responsible for peddling the lie that saving grammar schools will serve the educational holy grail of social mobility … All while other schools and their educational purpose are desperately trying to stay alive.

There is something quite messy about education: one aspect is to do with what is its purpose, and second related to how do we find it if it ‘works’. The previous debate provides some insight to the second point, as finding out about cause and effect in education is remarkably complicated. While crafts have landed on Mars and tiny robots can now carry out micro-surgery the debate about the link between early educational attainment and how to get to an elite university continues to rage. As such, formal schooling is now embedded within a mishmash of ever-changing policy initiatives including different types of school to such an extent that it is difficult to argue that, at least in England, for the presence of anything resembling a school ‘system’.

It appears as though the only substantive thinking about education is linked to maximizing and monitoring educational attainment. But the purpose of education is more than this. To think about purpose and what values underpin this brings us back to thinking about both the rationale and efficacy that underpins the idea to organize secondary education through the use of a short test taken at the age of 10. That this test is referred to as the 11-plus disguises the fact that some children were 9 a few weeks before sitting this test, most are 10 and a few are 11. What is more, is that many of those taking this test would have been ‘coached’ from the age of 8/9. Hence, the impact of the short 11-plus test on how school systems are organised can be perceived throughout most of the lifespan. Sticking with this test and its associated system of schooling assumes the acceptance of the following values.

The purpose of education in an 11-plus school system:

  • Segregation of young people from the age of 10.
  • Overemphasises the importance of testable knowledge.
  • Encouragement of competition, rather than collaboration.
  • Favours test scores over professional judgement.
  • Promotes both ‘upward’ and ‘downward’ social mobility.
  • Social mobility is more important than social cohesion.
  • Suggests education can solve societies problems.

Segregating children at 10 and reducing their future opportunities requires taking a stance that assumes ultimate trust in the accuracy and truth of the 11-plus test. Focusing on the test detracts attention away from an education that considers how we can work together, care for each other and the world we live in. Additionally, schools are seen to be in direct competition for pupils and financial resources, including voluntary contributions. There is an assumption that good democratic decisions and opportunities can emerge from a population who had dramatically different educational experiences. The focus on social mobility is always directed ‘upward’ and assumes a desire to throw off the shackles of lower social status: the possibility that this might not be desired, or that the opposite may also happen, seldom enters the debate. There is also the rather blinkered and hopeful assumption that schools are able to put right all the wrongs created by long-term political decisions making.

A way forward without having to kill turkeys.

The promotion of a system of schooling organized around the 11-plus is only possible if the destructive impact this has on all levels of education is hidden from view. Just as saving the Thanksgiving turkey distracts attention away from the mass slaughter of other turkeys, so to a tempting offer to save (increase) the number of grammar schools distracts from how this will impact the wider system of education.

I have said this before but it is always worth repeating – my complaint is not with grammar schools (or their accompanying secondary moderns) but the dubious values that support testing children at the age of 10. So how can we imagine an education where trivial acts to offer £50 million to save a turkey are not necessary? How can we imagine an education that sees social cohesion as more desirable than social mobility? Finally, how can we imagine an education not obsessed by segregation but one that values all individuals by providing genuine opportunities for choice?

I offer a few brief but far more morally acceptable ways forward:

  • Provide comprehensive education organised by local education authorities from the early years to, at least 16.
  • Promote informed educational choice at 16 and not segregation at 10.
  • Focus on social cohesion and not social mobility – on collaboration, not competition.
  • Look beyond education and consider the impact of housing, benefits, tax and ability to travel.
  • Trust a well-educated education profession to make wise decisions.

Dr. Alan Bainbridge is the Joint Coordinator of the Kent Education Network and member of Comprehensive Future’s Steering Group. He currently lectures in higher education having previously taught in Secondary Schools for 20 years. He is writing this article in a personal capacity.



  1. Nick Hillman January 29, 2019 at 6:53 pm - Reply

    Thanks for responding to this report, which I helped publish. I will make only one brief point in response to your comments for now (not least because I have responded to the critiques already elsewhere in detail, including in Schools Week and on the HEPI blog).

    You state ‘desperate back-peddling now informs us that it was only intended as a provocative thought piece’. This is wholly wrong. The paper was published in HEPI’s Occasional Paper series, as is made clear in a large font on the front cover (and through the use of a different cover design to our regular papers). The raison d’être of the Occasional Paper series is, and always has been, to provide provocative thought pieces.

    So there has been no back-peddling and we stand by the paper, as we think it is the sort of thought-provoking paper that think tanks should produce. Indeed, most of the attacks, including elements of yours, appear to rest on the idea that we should have focused on other factors, most of which are very well-trodden already, rather than the wholly new data obtained by the author. It is our job to make people think and to encourage debate, not to make the same old points, which have produced a rather sterile conversation and left the grammar schools flourishing, all over again.

    If you look at the rest of the Occasional Paper series, you will find an equally provocative paper that argues powerfully for ‘comprehensive universities’. It is a pity that Comprehensive Future and other similar bodies chose not to engage with that paper as much as they have with Iain Mansfield’s report because, if they had, they would have found a powerful narrative that could help further the cause (given, for example, that selection at 18 helps drive selection at 11).

    I do wonder whether the reluctance of the many comprehensive advocates working in higher education to engage with Professor Blackman’s arguments stem from the fact that they have themselves chosen to work in highly-selective institutions. That is at least worthy of debate too.

  2. Alan Bainbridge February 1, 2019 at 12:38 pm - Reply

    Dear Nick, thank you for taking time to read my opinion piece on the Comprehensive Future website. I agree with you that your report was part of a series of occasional papers and meant to provoke. I also acknowledge that the design of the report has this intention but this is a challenging assumption to all but those who are aware of these fine distinctions. As a simple comparison, my piece on the CF website has as a header …

    Our Future Thoughts series of articles are opinion pieces designed to provoke debate, they represent the views of the author and not Comprehensive Future policy.

    … it is clear that mine was an opinion piece – the sort of piece that uses metaphor, humor and emotive language to stimulate debate. I accept that I have less influence than HEPI but I have (apart from a few Tweets) not seen any headlines about turkeys and grammar schools in the press. It was an opinion piece that chose to focus on a values debate – I would be interested in your thoughts on that.

    Returning to the HEPI report, your own website has the heading ‘Grammar schools significantly increase the chances of disadvantaged pupils reaching highly selective universities, especially Oxbridge’. There is nothing impartial or hesitant about this, it does not use metaphor or humour – the report and your headline present the piece as a fact. Unless you are aware of the function of occasional papers, this is to all intents and purposes a real, full on peer-reviewed piece of research. Hence, the press began to use simplistic ‘grammar schools = Oxbridge type’ headlines as fact, then the academic community swooped down and criticised it. Only then did the ‘back peddling’ (my emotive language for an opinion piece as I have no proof, just a hunch) begin and HEPI responses now emphasised the ‘provocation/opinion’ nature of the report. I suspect to deflect from the criticism of the research.

    I would offer some thoughts to avoid this confusion. If you do publish opinion/provocative pieces (and I am very happy with this) then say so at the outset – your own headline should be tentative, the report should clearly state this, when the researcher is interviewed in the media the first thing they should say is “I’m glad our provocative opinion piece has brought some fresh ideas to the segregating children debate …” – something like that.

    Yes, let’s have the debate about comprehensive universities – I have another hunch why that occasional paper did not receive the same attention and it has to do with the recent report using the headline phrase with ‘grammar school’, ‘disadvantage’ and ‘Oxbridge’.

    I congratulate you, as your intention to provoke and revitalise a stale debate has been successful but I would also ask you to look into your heart and consider the impact of what HEPI has done. Tentative research has been promulgated as truth and in doing so added fuel to the entirely political (it is certainly not educational) opinion that grammar schools deserve to be expanded.

    I am not opposed to existing grammar schools as they do an excellent job – as do nearly all other types of school. I am opposed to segregation and the dangerous belief that it is possible to predict ability at the age of 10. Segregation at 10 (it is 10) or 18 is unnecessary and morally dubious – segregation begins very early on in life and requires significant political and social structural changes to alleviate. Not grammar schools – these are a dangerous distraction. Lifelong comprehensive education is the best sound moral and educational way forward.

    I went to a secondary modern school, then a grammar school, I then taught in a secondary modern for 20 years and now work in ‘new’ university. I would be very happy to talk more as I suspect we both want the same outcome – to maximise the possibility for young people to make the life choices they wish to make.

  3. Nick Hillman February 4, 2019 at 10:55 am - Reply

    Thank you for your further thoughts. I shall make just three brief responses, not least because I have just submitted a 2k-word article responding to the fuss and explaining my position for a specialist education outlet. It is just plain wrong to claim, as you do, that we have sought to ‘deflect from the criticism of the research.’ I have spent hours responding to it!

    1. We cannot be blamed for your lack of understanding of the purpose of HEPI Occasional Papers. We regularly make the distinction between our Occasional Papers and our other output clear – and it is not ‘a fine distinction’! Authors have responsibilities, but so do reviewers like you to check the facts before condemning people in such strong terms. We also do not control how the press write up our research (though – to be clear – I have no complaints about how they did it).

    2. You are assuming ‘provocative’ and accurate are opposites, for example when you say things like ‘Unless you are aware of the function of occasional papers, this is to all intents and purposes a real, full on peer reviewed piece of research.’ As with all our longer pieces, the report did go through a peer-review process and all the claims in it (for example, the wholly new data on BME entries to Oxbridge) stand. Most of the criticism seems to have been based on an assumption that we should have written about different things (mainly rehashing tired old ground), which to my mind says more about the person making the critique than the contents of the actual report. Your hackneyed pretence that a policy paper should be judged in the same way as an undergraduate essay falls into precisely this trap in my opinion, as when you say the paper should have focused on ‘using previous similar research’. While we are familiar with such research, we are more interested in fresh insights and new evidence. By the way, we generally describe Occasional Papers as ‘polemical’ rather than ‘provocative’ but neither term implies a lack of accuracy; they are a description of how we think the reports are likely to be received, well-proven in this case, as much as a reflection of any intent by the authors. These terms, are also used to remind people that HEPI is a broad church: we are as happy to publish pro-comprehensive pieces as anti-comprehensive pieces if they hit our quality bar (and so long as there is a link to higher education – see our charitable objectives). Indeed, we tell all our authors explicitly that they should not be controversial for the sake of it and would turn down pieces that were.

    3. You have made a series of false allegations and you now admit ‘I have no proof, just a hunch’. That is a pretty serious admission, given that your main point seems to be to attack a serious piece of research on quality grounds.

    Our role as a think tank is to make people think – the clue is in the name. As Comprehensive Future have printed elsewhere on this website, I personally am open-minded on the selection / 11+ issue and I welcome the chance to debate it. But we will also robustly fight any attempt to close down debate, which your comments above get exceedingly close to (‘look into your heart and consider the impact of what HEPI has done’).

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