Selection by ability is not how you build a fair education system

By - Thursday 12th November, 2015

Teacher Joe Flynn isn’t convinced that Croydon, or anywhere else, needs a new grammar school. Quite the opposite, in fact

As a former grammar school pupil myself, some years ago I would’ve supported the view laid out by Robert Ward that a new grammar school for Croydon is a good idea. Since becoming a teacher, however, I’ve been convinced that selection by ability is an extremely bad idea, if we wish to build an education system based on the principles of fairness and opportunity for all children.

Let’s start with where I agree with Mr Ward. Part of his argument seems to be that as selection in various forms (streaming, etc) is no longer the taboo it once was, why such fuss about grammar schools? This is a reasonable point – those who advocate rigid streaming within school and are perfectly happy with situations like the bizarre segregated school-within-a-school system at institutions like Crown Woods are hypocritical to balk at the idea of grammar schools. But arguably, there is something talismanically ghastly about the grammar school for those of us who consistently oppose all forms of selection. There is a visceral repugnance among many people for such a blatant symbol of unfairness as a school which embeds a two-tier system of education for children.

Just 3% of grammar school pupils qualify for free school meals, as opposed to a nationwide average of 18%. There is no doubt that students from impoverished backgrounds don’t tend to go to grammar schools. Mr Ward seeks to explain this by saying poor kids come into the education system behind and the way to tackle this is with early intervention at a much younger age. In fact, research from Bristol University found that in areas with grammar schools, only 32% of high achieving primary students made it into grammar schools if they were poor, as opposed to 60% of other children. Perhaps this is, as Mr Ward might say, down to parental choice – poorer parents are generally choosing not to send their children to that sort of school. In my view, it seems likelier that middle class parents can spend bucketloads on tutoring, so that their kids are better able to answer the specific tests for grammar schools than their equally bright, but poorer, peers.

Schools teach people more than academics – they can also instil a certain view of the world

Parental choice, in this case, is not just something exercised by individuals which does no harm to others. Bright students who go to grammar schools obviously do not then attend the local maintained schools they otherwise would have, and this can have a damaging effect on the success of those schools and the atmosphere of those schools. Bright, motivated children from middle class backgrounds are likely to succeed just as well in state schools as in grammars, as Mr Ward grudgingly seems to admit. Why, then, should their parents be able to choose to segregate them away from other children?

My school provided me with an excellent education and allowed me to socialise with people of all ethnic and, to an extent, class backgrounds. What it didn’t do was give me any insight into the fact that our society also contains people with social problems and learning difficulties. Until I became a teacher, I more or less thought people who failed their GCSEs must generally be lazy or (a favourite word of Steve O’Connell’s when arguing with opponents of grammar schools) ‘thick’. Why wouldn’t I have thought that when those exams were fairly easy for me and all my peers? Schools teach people more than academics – they can also instil a certain view of the world. The more we segregate children from each other in schools, the more problems we cause in society as some simply don’t understand ‘how the other half live.’ It’s far, far better for pushy parents to push their local comprehensive to improve – as many do.

I think that it is worth noting the highly ideological nature of the campaign for grammar schools

Finally, as Mr Ward mentions that the campaign to get a grammar school for Croydon is being led by Chris Philp, I think that it is worth noting the highly ideological nature of that campaign. In saying he supports grammars, Mr Philp comments “this in no way takes away from the excellent work which free schools and academies are already doing in raising standards in Croydon and across the UK”. What a bizarre thing, to ignore the achievements of maintained schools in raising standards, and only point to free schools and academies. While, of course, there are many academies and free schools doing a good job, recent stories about falling GCSE results and rising numbers of inadequate ratings tend to imply they are far from the magic bullet for school improvement they are sometimes held up as.

Mr Philp chooses perhaps to endorse academies so gushingly as they fit into the wider picture of pernicious, creeping selection that both Mr Ward and myself, from different viewpoints, have acknowledged. Academies tend to select through their exclusion policies. In 2012/13, 2,700 students were excluded from 18,763 maintained schools, while 1,930 students were excluded from 2,390 academies (across all schools, exclusion policies are well documented to be discriminatory and unfair towards all sorts of disadvantaged groups.) Given these figures, I will continue to hope and campaign for an education system in Croydon based on a good local state school for every child, with strong local democratic oversight; grammar schools would be a dangerous distraction from that goal.

Joe Flynn

Joe Flynn

I have taught in a Croydon school for the past eight years and recently moved to Selhurst. I am the Assistant Secretary of Croydon NUT and a member of the Labour Party.

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  • lizsheppardjourno

    From all the many reasons for which I agree with Joe Flynn, I’ll select his sentence: ‘What it didn’t do (he is speaking of his own educational experience) was give me any insight into the fact that our society also contains people with social problems and learning difficulties’, which is for me the key to so much that is wrong with our education system.

    This is indeed how the elite schools damage those within them, blunting their understanding of the challenges facing many of their fellow citizens and making it easy to judge them for their perceived shortcomings. These products of elite education go on govern, for such is the nature of privilege. In a large number of cases elite education also limits children’s ability to relate to opposite gender humans – an equally harmful consequence which deserves fuller consideration another time.

    I support and share Mr Flynn’s vision of ‘a good local state school for every child, with strong local democratic oversight’ and continue to hope for it amidst the shambles of Croydon’s present system.

    • Robert Ward

      Thanks Liz,
      I share your view of the need for a good local state school for every child. What that looks like and how to achieve that is where the discussion lies. On that I am not dogmatic about what ‘oversight’ might mean.

      I had not thought of a local grammar as being an elite school. Are you perhaps conflating this with the Eton’s of this world?

      I would certainly agree that going to an all boys school meant that the opposite sex was something of a puzzle to me for a long time. To some extent it still is.

      Whether other positive aspects of my education counterbalanced that shortcoming and whether experience outside school or later in the wide world enabled me to ‘catch up’ is a matter for debate. At the end of the day that is something else where different choices will be made by different people.

      • Stephen Giles

        Between 1957 and 1964 I was proud to attend Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School for Boys in Barnet, a name you will recognise as having topped the A Level performance table for State Schools in recent years!

        Of course you must have an option for selection by ability, there is nothing worse for bright children than being held back by those who are less academic.

        I certainly cannot recall any boys at my Grammar School who possessed limited ability to relate to girls, likewise the girls from QE Girls’ Grammar School certainly had no touble with relating to boys!!!! But then our growth was not stunted by political correctness in the 60s!!

    • Anne Giles

      I would never have wanted my all girl school to allow boys. Too distracting.

  • Robert Ward

    I think Mr Flynn has given way to emotion more than logic, consistently using in words like ghastly, visceral repugnance, grudgingly and gushingly. If I may take some of his more substantive points:-

    The evidence on lower attainment at school entry age is in my opinion extremely strong and I do indeed argue that improved early intervention is very important. I don’t know of anyone denying these. The conclusions from Bristol University I am not familiar with but are not unsurprising, the as yet insufficiently addressed lower attainment and different parental choices are two, with some coaching a possibility. I have no evidence other than that which I quoted, but nor does anyone else that I am aware of, of their relative impact. My own experience age eleven was that our initial preferences were based on an assumption that people like us didn’t go to schools like those.

    There are some assumptions I would question: that some bright students not going to the local comp necessarily damages the local comp and that these same bright students would do just as well at the local comp as they would have at the local grammar. I have no evidence on either of these but implicit here is that there is some objective measure of ‘better’ rather than different.

    This is where choice comes in and where the ‘grammar schools do no better’
    argument falls down. Two schools may have similar academic performance but will
    be different in other ways, that’s parental choice.

    This is perhaps where there is some element of ideology – those who prefer to offer choice and those who prefer restricting it not only to themselves, but others.

    • Anne Giles

      Exactly, and parents have the right to choose.

  • Sean Creighton

    A good article. Over the years many people I know who went to grammar schools have told me that their schools streamed their pupils by so-called ability with the ‘brighter’ students tending to be allocated the best teachers, and those in the bottom grades being continually denigrated and told they would never make anything of their lives and in the case of girls would just be shop assistants.

    Streaming in any school is damaging if it is not highly flexible recognising that children may be weak in one subject and strong in another, and that the children with subject weaknesses need the best teachers to inspire them.

    On the issue of the poverty link to educational achievement, in his stunning lecture for Child Poverty Action Group yesterday Gordon Brown made the link. The other teachers union the NASUWT which funded the lecture has published two important pieces of survey research: The Cost of Education 2014 and The impact of financial pressures on children and young people (2014).

    Brown’s argument against the tax credit cuts with their adverse effects particularly on working families is that it goes against what should be a principle of a civilised society, the protection of children and their nurturing of their education, health and opportunity to develop themselves.

    As the NASUWT reports show lack of money is preventing children from low income families from full participation in education due to the cost of trips and excursions, after-school activities, PE and sports kit, and in some schools even books.

    These are issues that the Croydon Fairness and Opportunity Commission should be looking at.

    • Robert Ward

      On your points: I have no idea who the people are who have told you, but I do not recognise your description and could not imagine why anyone would send their child to such a school.

      I disagree that streaming is of itself damaging but agree that rigidity is to be avoided. Also that children may be strong in one subject but weak in another. Any school has to deal with these issues, how well they do it distingiushes the good from the less good.

      In my first year of Secondary school I came overall bottom of the class and bottom of the class in Mathematics. In my second year I was moved from the A to the B stream where I spent the rest of my Secondary years. I was pretty glum about it at the time. Turned out to be the best thing for me, I got better A levels than almost all of the A stream.

      There is clear evidence that educational achievement amongst lower income groups is low. Nobody disagrees with that. What to do about it is the issue. It is in my view lazy to blame coaching and school trips as a root cause.


      • Sean Creighton

        I am not sure you read what I said properly. Its the prohibitive cost of educational extras that does not help.

        • Robert Ward

          Hello Sean,
          I hope I did. I was using the school trip as a shorthand. In my own case I did not go on the school trips and my sports kit was somewhat faded. Did that mean I did not fully participate? Perhaps, but not once did any of my fellow pupils or teachers make any sort of remark about it.

          Lack of books is a different matter. I have no knowledge of whether or not it is true, in particular at the grammar school in question. It might be worth looking at, but is this an argument against grammar schools? At best a very weak one in my opinion.


  • Rosie E

    Hi Joe I’ve not come across this interesting idea of stealth selection by exclusion before. I wish there had been more space for you to expand on the stats…

    • Joe Flynn

      Hi Rosie, thanks for the comment. I didn’t want the article to take too much of a tangent about academies, as they are a different thing to grammar schools of course. The local schools network ( have done some good work on this issue. In terms of how exclusion policies are generally discriminatory, Prof. Gus John ( has been producing material on that for years. I recently read a stat from him that a Black Caribbean boy with special needs on free school meals is 168 times more likely to be excluded from school than a white British girl without SEN and not on FSM. Given the number of academies in Croydon and the ethnic and class mix we have here, it seems very possible this could become an issue of public concern in the borough.

  • Gavin Barwell MP

    Excellent article Joe, which perfectly encapsulates the difference between left and right on this issue.
    You don’t agree with grammar schools. Fair enough, everyone’s entitled to an opinion. But you don’t stop there. You’re so certain that you know what’s best for everyone’s children that you want to stop anyone who dares to disagree with you from being able to choose a grammar school for their children.

    Whereas Robert, Steve O’Connell, Chris Philp and I want to see a mix of schools – comprehensives for parents who share your view and one or two grammar schools for parents who want that option.
    Thank you for spelling out the difference so clearly.

    • Ian Marvin

      I’m not sure I entirely understand your reasoning Gavin. Surely the point of grammar schools is that the choice is shifted from the parents to the schools? So the majority of parents would not have the choice of sending their children to a grammar school. Personally I feel a fairer society would include an integrated education system, which of course would also exclude faith schools. My own education however was in a single sex grammar school which was founded in the middle ages where the day started with a service in the school chapel, socially I feel that I was disadvantaged by that.

      • Dave Harvey

        Ian has hit the nail on the head. Parental choice is a Tory myth. Schools choose. To make matters worse the schools choose by using academic tests. Middle class parents spend vast amounts of money on tutors to get their kids through. That’s the second Tory myth – that Grammars enable social mobility. When a school selects 20% it has to reject 80%. How does that make an 11 year old feel?

        • Robert Ward

          Parents choose whether to apply for their child to go the grammar school. The school then selects on ability. There is no compulsion for parents to apply, they choose. There is no need for any child to be rejected.

          The only evidence I have on tutoring is quoted in the article. Do you have anything other than speculation to support your ‘vast amounts of money’ assertion?

          On social mobility the evidence is in my opinion mixed. I have seen none at all that shows that the purely Comprehensive school approach has improved things. The only conclusive evidence of improved social mobility was from the assisted places scheme. This was abolished by the first Blair administration.

    • Anne Giles

      Spot on, Gavin!

    • Joe Flynn

      Thanks for your kind words about my article Gavin. I’m not sure the grammar schools issue is quite as left-right in nature as you make out. It was of course that infamous lefty paternalist Mrs Thatcher who closed the largest number of them- perhaps because she realised they weren’t working very well and were resented by Conservative-voting parents whose kids were rejected by them.