CF patron, Baroness Christine Blower, introduced the second reading of her Private Members’ Bill, the  School (Reform of Pupil Selection) Bill, in the House of Lords on December 2nd. The debate showed cross party support for ending the 11-plus and introducing a fully comprehensive school system in England. Peers from Labour, the Green party, the Lib Dems and the Conservative party spoke in favour of ending academic selection.

Baroness Blower’s excellent speech is below.

Although this Bill concerns a relatively small section of England’s schools, it is concerned with a significant principle about how our education system and service is organised. I believe profoundly that it is an important principle that the education service should provide access on an equitable basis to all children and young people. This is not, of course, what happens in the 35 local authorities where access to certain state-funded schools is on a selective basis.

The majority of the most successful education systems globally are of a comprehensive nature, meaning that, post their primary education, where there is virtually no selection, all children are welcomed by their local school—although I will address the issue of special schools later. Professor Stephen Gorard and Dr Nadia Siddiqui from Durham University have looked into selection. They conclude that, “pupils attending grammar schools are stratified in terms of chronic poverty, ethnicity, special educational needs and even precise age within their year group. This kind of clustering of relative advantage is potentially dangerous for society.”  The research measures factors such as chronic poverty and socio-economic status and uses these to show that the results from grammar schools are no better than expected, once these differences are accounted for.

Gorard and Siddiqui further conclude that: “The UK government should consider phasing the existing selective schools out in England. ” Such an opportunity is afforded by this Bill.

Comprehensive schools raise the attainment of all children. More children do better in a comprehensive system. The attainment gap, which has increased since the pandemic, between disadvantaged and more advantaged pupils, is narrower in comprehensive schools. Figures from the DfE show that non-selective—that is, secondary modern schools in selective areas—produce poor results, statistically significantly below the national average because of the nature of their skewed intake. Research from the University College London Social Research Institute shows that access to grammar schools is highly skewed by a child’s socioeconomic status, with the most deprived families living in grammar school areas standing only a 6% chance of attending a selective school. Interestingly, Gorard and Siddiqui note that their “analysis also shows that the chances of accessing a grammar school vary hugely by family background, even when we compare children who have the same attainment at age 11—or possibly 10—as determined by key stage 2 stats.”

Access to grammar schools by pupils from wealthier backgrounds is also likely to be associated with additional private tutoring that is not available to their economically disadvantaged peers. Therefore, the 11-plus has become a test that favours those with the ability to pay for tuition, a suggestion supported by the fact that only 3% of children in grammar schools are entitled to free school meals, the most widespread proxy for poverty in our system, as opposed to the 18% to 20% entitlement to free school meals in non-selective schools. At present, about 5% of pupils in England attend a grammar school, but as many as 19% are affected by academic selection, with about 100,000 pupils a year sitting the 11-plus—or, rather, an 11-plus, given that there are over 100 different 11-plus tests. Different selective areas and different grammar schools in so-called non-selective areas all set their own tests. There is no official body overseeing the 11-plus. Neither the DfE nor anyone else is responsible for quality-assuring this multiplicity of tests.

There can be a long-lasting and damaging effect on children from failing the 11-plus, as reported by teachers and parents. It can dent the confidence of 11 year-olds as they begin their secondary education. If they are not selected, axiomatically they are rejected. This is not the frame of mind in which to begin the next phase of their education. However, as demonstrated by an article in the Times last Wednesday, even people who go on to be successful in life may never lose the sense of shame and failure that not passing the 11-plus leaves behind. The headline was: “Shame of failing 11-plus haunts TV trailblazer.”

This Bill seeks that secondary schools have regard to the comprehensive principle by providing for admission to schools to be not based wholly or mainly on selection by academic ability. As Gorard and Siddiqui suggest, this Bill provides the mechanism to phase out the practice of academic selection and its corollary of rejection. The Bill would leave in place arrangements for admission to special schools for children and young people with a relevant special educational need or disability.

This is a social justice and levelling-up Bill. As I have said, 19% of England’s secondary school pupils feel the impact of selection, whether they face an 11-plus test or not. This is because the overall effect of concentrating higher-attaining pupils in particular schools depresses the overall GCSE results in the surrounding area. Research demonstrates the advantage of teaching lower, middle and higher-attaining pupils together. Higher-attaining pupils continue to obtain highly, while middle and lower attainment levels are generally raised. Kent’s GCSE results being lower than the national average confirm that selective schools do not improve results across the area. A comprehensive principle is that we all do better when we all learn together.

As to the social justice and levelling-up points, selective education produces social segregation. The proportion of pupils in grammar schools from disadvantaged backgrounds, with a special educational need or a disability, or who are looked-after children, is extremely low. It follows, therefore, that surrounding schools take a disproportionate number of pupils with disabilities or special educational needs. The law needs to change to end the unnecessary division of children into schools by means of the outdated and unreliable 11-plus scheme. This Bill offers a phased plan to bring about comprehensive admissions policies to England’s remaining state-funded selective schools. This would bring England into line with education systems in Scotland and Wales and ensure a fully comprehensive education system.

In conclusion, while there is currently a grammar school ballot legislation in place, frankly, it is unworkable, and rewriting it is not a good solution to this problem. In evidence to the Education Committee in another place, a conclusion was drawn that the grammar school ballot regulations were designed precisely to retain the status quo. Selection in Guernsey was ended by a parliamentary vote, not a local one. The parliamentary vote was acknowledged and accepted because clear evidence was advanced outlining the reasons and the rationale for the change. The people of the island understood the benefits of phasing out the selection, even when they did not initially agree with it.

I commend this Bill to the House. It is a brief but precise Bill, the effects of which would bring great benefits and enhance the social justice that I am sure that we all seek from our education system. I beg to move.

The full Hansard record of the debate can be read HERE.