Divisive, unjust and ineffective

With the Tories apparently converting to all-ability schools, despite internal opposition, the debate on academic selection seemed one argument that had run its course, despite the continuing existence of 165 grammar schools, that no government dares touch.

Not so. The argument rumbles on, boosted by recent publication of Alan Milburn’s study on social mobility: the latest example being a fairly pallid offering from Mary Warnock in the Independent.that was robustly rejected by Professor Richard Pring in the letters page, a couple of days later.

Here is Pring’s excellent letter reproduced in full:

Grammar schools are divisive, unjust and ineffective

Friday, 31 July 2009
It is difficult to understand how a philosopher of Mary Warnock’s distinction could still peddle the myths about grammar schools (“Children need to be taught to think highly of education”, 29 July). Far from rescuing “children from disadvantaged homes”, the 11-plus examination failed to do just that – despite its pretensions to detect innate intelligence accurately at the age of 10-plus, when most took the tests.

The Crowther report, exactly 50 years ago, expressed its concern that so few of those from the bottom quarter in terms of poverty, who did in fact get to grammar school, actually obtained an O-level; 40 per cent of those from the unskilled working-class who passed their 11-plus left school without a single qualification.

Those who, like Mary Warnock, want to bring back grammar schools, or wish to retain the remaining 165 (which distorts comprehensive provision in about 45 per cent of local authorities) must subscribe to three propositions: first, that it makes sense to distinguish a minority group (about 20 per cent) of intelligent young people (the rest not capable of handling abstract ideas or learning for its own sake, as the Norwood report in 1943 put it); second, that this intelligence is fixed, not to be acquired through subsequent experience or teaching; third, that that innate quality can be accurately measured by IQ tests.

The injustice of such assumptions was demonstrated in the 1950s when Phillip Vernon showed how coaching could shift pupils’ IQ scores by as much as 14 points. And that partly explains why the children from more advantaged homes did so much better.

Professor Richard Pring

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