Comprehensive Future is hosting a webinar on September 19th at 11.30am, ‘What Would a Socially Just Education System Look Like?’ In the lead up to the event we have asked several organisations to discuss what a socially just school system means to them, read the series of posts here. This blog post is by Bucks campaigner, Dr Katy Simmons of Local Equal Excellent

A family divided : The impact of selection in a shire county

When, like the Fisher family, you live in an affluent area two houses away from a well-respected local secondary school, identified by OFSTED as ‘Good’, then you’d think life might be quite straightforward for your children, as they approach Year 7. No question about distance from the school, when that distance is approximately 100 yards. No questions about transport – the children can be in school in 3 minutes flat. Sounds like the ideal arrangement.

But if you live in Buckinghamshire, things aren’t quite so simple.

For families like the Fishers, the end of Year 6 can open up a divide that will last a lifetime. It is a divide that will totally change opportunities open to young people, as well as their views of themselves. For, over 50 years since legislation brought an end to selection at 11 in most parts of the country, Buckinghamshire students still take the 11+ Selection test, that sends them either to a grammar school or, if they fail to be selected, to an ‘upper school’.

Our friends the Fisher children both took the test, a test that drove a wedge between two teenagers. One of them was ‘ selected’ and one was not. The eldest Fisher headed next door to the flourishing grammar school. He left the house at 8.35 am each day, ran down the road to school and did well. But his sister was allocated to the local (failing) secondary modern school. In common with many parents in their small town, the Fisher parents decided that the secondary modern school wasn’t a good option. As it turned out, they were right, since over the time that their daughter might have been a student there, results went downhill, numbers of students went into decline and the school, having been unsuccessfully ‘ taken over’ for a while by a national chain of schools, was eventually closed. This closure left many children distressed and anxious, without a school.

The Fishers took pre-emptive action and arranged for their daughter to attend a comprehensive school a few miles away, across the county boundary. But their choice depended on them being able to afford the £800 a year bus fare. It wasn’t an option open to everyone. Looking back, the youngest Fisher thinks it was a good choice, even though she had to leave their house at 7am each morning to catch the bus.

This story is a familiar one to many families in Buckinghamshire. The bigger picture – of flourishing grammar schools and struggling ‘Upper’ schools – is also a familiar one to those who live here. At any one time, a significant number of Upper schools ‘require improvement’ or are in ‘special measures’. Failure is systemic. Some students in Buckinghamshire never able to attend a ‘ good’ secondary school. It is a fragile ecology of schools, where Upper Schools regularly spiral into failure, linked to financial difficulties and challenges in recruiting staff.

Why is this?

One reason is that disadvantaged students simply do not gain access to Buckinghamshire grammar schools, leaving the intake of Upper Schools skewed and heavily weighted with students with additional needs. So, if we take Wycombe High School (a grammar school) as an example, data shows that currently only 2.3% of WHS students qualified for Pupil Premium. In the nearest Upper School the Pupil Premium number was 18.9% – or 33.8% if numbers for the last 6 years were included. There are local primary schools in areas of socio-economic disadvantage in High Wycombe where no students qualify for admission to WHS. Poorer children simply do not pass the selection test.

Data shows, in addition, that students of  ethnic minority heritage fail to access grammar schools in a way that is proportionate with their numbers in local primary schools. Data on 11+ outcomes show unequivocally that the selective system in Buckinghamshire is underpinned by clear and substantial bias against children from certain ethnic groups. WHS, for example, currently has 10.8% of students whose first language is not English, in contrast with their nearest non-selective school where that figure is 71%.

So, having seen the intrinsic unfair bias of the selection process, let’s return to the Fisher children. In many ways the ‘ failure’ of the younger Fisher to access the next door grammar school was surprising, given that she had the same comfortable family background as her brother. The test itself has been discredited for many years so we have no way of knowing why, on that one day, the youngest Fisher did not score the necessary 121 marks – a mark that in itself does not represent a fixed point, as many parents think, but varies according to how many places are available. All part of the smoke and mirrors of selection.

But what we can be sure of is the impact of the test, years later, on the Fisher children. Both did well, both went to university. But speak to the youngest Fisher now and she’ll tell you within 5 minutes, even if you are meeting her for the first time, how she’s not as clever as her brother. After all, he ‘passed’ and she didn’t. Doesn’t that show that he’s smart and she isn’t?

‘But’, you might say to her, ‘You’ve just got a degree from a good University, you are a successful person. You are going to train to be a teacher. How can you say that you’re not as clever as he is?’

And you’ll find that, firmly stuck in her mind, despite the 10 years that have elapsed since she took the test, is the sense of how she’s a failure, just not good enough. She’s embarrassed, feels she should explain herself, feels, in the end, that her brother is ‘ better’ than her. That’s the final legacy of selection at 11.

We can examine the data, demonstrate its unfair bias towards the more privileged, show how that privilege can be bought. But in the end, it’s the impact on the ‘ unselected’ that is a lifetime’s inheritance.

Most Local Authorities made the change years ago. They recognised the injustice caused by selection and moved to a fairer school system. It’s time for the rest to follow.

Dr Katy Simmons


Book your ticket to the ‘What Would a Socially Just Education System Look Like?’ webinar HERE.

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