The Shadow of Selection: the algorithm and the game of the English school system

In one way or another, I have been involved in education for fifty years: as a pupil, a student, a lecturer, a parent, a PTA organiser, a primary and secondary governor, a trustee, a trust Chair and a school counsellor. From as early as I can remember I was aware that aware that people went to different kinds of schools, though as a Catholic I was brought up to believe my kind were the best.  I began my education at a Catholic primary school, and knew that my neighbours went to the ‘Protestant’ school up the road: poor things.

As the youngest of six children, I knew that people went to a variety of secondary schools: my five older siblings, who were each a year apart in age, went to six different ones between them. The eldest four took the eleven plus: two failed and two passed and they each went to a different single sex school. By the time the middle two reached their middle school years in a grammar and a convent, the system changed around them, and their schools merged with two secondary moderns to become a mixed comprehensive. With the eleven plus no longer a means to ‘sort us out’ in our local authority by the mid-1970s, I followed the youngest of the boys to another comprehensive school. Six children and not one uniform that could be handed down: my poor parents.

The six of us got along surprisingly well while growing up, given the different stories we were told about ourselves at age eleven. For this is what secondary school selection is. A story about ‘ability’, ‘aptitude’ or ‘potential’, sorting the wheat from the chaff. And while in England the eleven plus only survives as a means of selection in state schools in a small number of local authorities, the shadow of selection is still long across the English education system.

The current fall-out from the A-level-result-by-different-algorithm-debacle (different because grades are always moderated in part by an algorithm) is showing up in a very painful way the inequalities and injustices that are built into the system. Normally, disappointed schools and students deal with ‘volatile’ results in relative privacy and the news cycle and academic year moves on. But that is not because each year results are a transparent measure of the ‘ability’, ‘aptitude’ or ‘potential’ of each student. In many cases, individual outcomes are as much to do with the histories of the schools where the exam was performed as they are a reflection of the knowledge and application of the students. The success of failure of a ‘cohort’ is always in part affected by the attainment of previous students and by their own success or failure aged ten or eleven in SATs tests. Previous performance of cohorts and SATs results are of course measures of schools not individuals and the relationship between them and individual outcomes is opaque. It is not easy to trace how a given student’s A levels were impacted by the schools she started age four and eleven, but that history is there in every result and it’s time we stopped forgetting about that when September comes around.

Before the U-turn, this year’s system of moderation unfairly affected some students from independent and selective state schools as well as comprehensives, because the downgraded marks have largely shown up in large cohorts. But the disproportionate impact was on students in the schools that most students attend. Many of these are the schools that each year swim against a tide to ‘close the gap’, ‘raise attainment’ and ‘make good progress’. In the last few years, that tide has become choppier due to a return to ‘more rigorous’ assessment by examination at the end of programmes of study for A level and GCSE and the effective downgrading of continuous and skills-based assessment. I may have missed it, but I’d be curious to read the equality impact assessment of these moves.

In 1942, the Beveridge Report identified the five giants on the road to national reconstruction: ‘Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness’: social insurance and the National Health Service were established to vanquish them. But the 1944 Education Act, steered by R.A.Butler,  was to make schools custodians of children’s welfare. The Butler Act provided universal secondary education for children up to the age of fifteen and launched a raft of measures to ensure that the minds and bodies of children were nourished by their schools and local education authorities.  But the Act also enshrined the ‘tripartite school system’ of grammars, technicals and secondary moderns and stopped short of reforming faith and independent schools . Children would be selected for their destination at the end of primary school in tests designed to discover their ‘ability’, ‘aptitude’ and ‘potential’. This part of the Act meant that around twenty per cent of ten and eleven year olds, who had passed a test to measure their abstract reasoning, were selected for an education based on the curricula and traditions of the public schools. The rest would follow curricula designed for the more ‘technical’ or ‘concrete’ of mind. This is the language of the Spens and Norwood Reports of 1938 and 1943, which informed the Butler Act. Their authors used the findings of ‘modern psychologists’ to claim that children’s capacity to improve ‘general intelligence’ declined in most from age eleven and generally came to a halt at age sixteen. These reports would provide the educational rationale for the tripartite system (which quickly became a two-part system as technical schools withered away). The message that most children in this system were given is that they should not aspire to academic success and that ‘non-academic’ subjects are less valuable than those studied in our great public and grammar schools. If we’re honest, these beliefs still shape the English education system.

Green papers, white papers, new curricula, assessment methods and accountability systems pile up almost annually in attempts to ‘improve’ state schools, although the rules of the  improvement game change with equal frequency. New pedagogical approaches and neuroscientific understanding of brain development have long displaced the psychological and educational norms of the 1940s but plenty of people are nostalgic for a widespread return to selection, often on grounds of social mobility. But as we find out each August, some children just don’t make the grade as they come to the end of their time in English schools, either at GCSE or A level, and the expansion of grammar schools is not going to change this. Perhaps this year, as some of those students who were briefly let down by the algorithm went to grammars and independent schools, more people might notice how the ‘shadow of selection’, the injustices built into the English education system, means that some children will always be left behind. Or as order has, it seems, been restored, the game will resume.








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