We don’t need better sorting hats to improve social mobility

October 13, 2016

This is roughly the talk I gave at a Policy Exchange fringe at Conservative Party Conference in 2016


I don’t like the words social mobility because they are so slippery as to give carte blanche to politicians to do exactly as they please.

We appear to have entered an era where social mobility policies involve the creation of new sorting hats. Educational sorting hats can be useful at the right time and place in life, to funnel some students into elite universities and others into technical training programmes, for example. But they often have pre-determined destinations in mind for the individuals who are pulled out, rather than leaving everyone to receive the kind of broad, academic education that enables citizens to have options throughout life.

This might make sense post-18 where some students are starting to push against the boundaries of what it is possible for them to achieve and where work-place preparation becomes important. (I have personal experience of these boundaries, having started a degree in maths at Cambridge before changing subject to something I found easier.)

But the idea that at age 11, children are ready to be put through the sorting hat that decides the type of education they deserve and will suit them for the sort of job we have in mind for them is deeply regressive. It is fundamentally in conflict (as are UTCs, incidentally) with the Govian belief in an academic education for all. One that gives every child the freedom to be everything they want to be. Is this not a truly Conservative ideal?

But to return to the sorting hat that Nick Timothy would like to introduce. At no stage has he, or other proponents, articulated how they would like the hat to sort. Is it IQ? Academic achievement so far in life? Likely future academic achievement? Whatever it is, he must know we cannot accurately measure it at age 11 and that some set of children will be ‘wrongly’ sorted, depending on what day of the week and on what test paper is sat.

Whatever system is devised, we pit sections of society against each other in ways that are divisive. We want August born children to have a decent chance of gaining a place so we allow them a lower qualifying score than September born children. Is this fair? And why are boys allowed lower qualifying scores than hard-working girls? How can it be fair to the working poor that the children of families on benefits in Birmingham now have dedicated spaces for them at grammar schools? And if we make spaces for the working poor too, as the PM has intimated they might, what about the ‘just about coping OK’ families or the ‘coping fine but no way we have the money for private schools’ families?

Proponents have expressed a desire to use grammar schools to support the white working class whose children are indeed struggling more than any others. But to do this we will have to require higher qualifying scores for Asian and black students, all of whom have excellent success rates at passing the eleven plus. At what point does this become racial discrimination?

Thankfully, I would argue, we do not need to worry about the complex questions that are intrinsic in putting eleven year olds through any sorting hat.

We do not need this sorting hat at age 11 because we want the same thing for everyone: a general, academic education that leaves them free to make choices about the kind of path in life they want to take as a citizen.

And there is nothing we propose to do with children in these grammar schools that we do not want every other child to experience.

[At the end of the session, Nick Gibb admitted he wanted to introduce a grammar school into a place like Knowsley because the teachers there have refused to improve schools and implement the EBacc. So our only choice is to abandon the 80% so that we can save the 20%. How sad. In response, I told him about a little place he might know that once had the kind of schools that caused the middle classes to flee the city. We invested lots of money, devised school improvement schemes and created programmes to plug teacher recruitment. That little place was Inner London.]

Grammar schools and pupil achievement

August 3, 2008

The quality of debate about grammar schools is poor. Most commentators’ opinions on the matter seem to consist of arguing ‘I went to a grammar school and I did well out of it. Now I am forced to pay for my son/daughter to go through private education’.

There are two problems with this argument. First, it represents a sample size of one, from which we can infer little about the effects of selection in society as a whole. Two, journalists are unable to describe the effects of their having attended a grammar school relative to the counterfactual – in our case this would be attending a comprehensive in a non-selective system. It’s not surprising they are unable to do this – our school experience makes up such an important part of our self-image. However, it is necessary we make these comparisons to understand what difference a selective education system could make to our country.

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