A new role for grammar schools?
Peter Newsam, former chief schools adjudicator, has come up with a radical proposal for the future of post-16 education. Could it catch on?
Jessica Shepherd 1684 words
Publication date: 17 November 2009 Source: The Guardian
Page: 1 © Copyright 2009. The Guardian. All rights reserved.
Students at the non-selective sixth-form college in Farnborough, Hampshire, achieved an average of 398 Ucas points last year – the equivalent of more than three As at A-level. At grammar schools, meanwhile, the average point score was 385, according to a Guardian league table created from a database into which schools entered their results.
The full A-level results for schools and colleges will be published in January, but early signs indicate that at least 20 of the 94 sixth-form colleges in England and Wales will have outstripped the average grammar school.
It has prompted a suggestion from Sir Peter Newsam, the former chief schools adjudicator: why not turn the “best” grammars into sixth-form colleges? This, he says, would mean thousands more 16-year-olds would get the best opportunities – and would boost the intake of comprehensives.
Newsam was chief schools adjudicator between 1999 and 2002, and chief education officer for the Inner London Education Authority before that. He is also a former director of the Institute of Education, University of London, and was knighted for services to education.
He told Education Guardian that his idea would lead to “at least five times as many students getting an education as good as, sometimes much better than, [from] many grammars”.
Under Newsam’s proposals, a grammar school in which at least 98% of students achieve five A*-C GCSE grades and the average Ucas point score is high, and where the sixth form is at least as big as other year groups, would be “invited” to consider turning into a sixth-form college.
These grammar schools would stop admitting 11-year-olds and instead open their doors to a mix of 16-year-olds from non-selective schools, thereby gradually transforming themselves into sixth-form colleges. About 40% of current sixth-form colleges are former grammar schools, including Farnborough.
What is unique about the best grammar – and for that matter independent – schools, says Newsam, is the quality of their sixth forms. Under his plans, many more pupils would benefit from a top-quality post-16 education, he says. What’s more, the intake of neighbouring 11-16 comprehensives would improve.
Newsam has always been opposed to selection at 11. “It is not necessary to be selected at the age of 11 or to be in the same school since then to do well at A-level,” he says.
Although the government and the Conservatives are opposed to any expansion of grammar schools, they haven’t dared to get rid of them. In 2007, Conservative MPs Michael Howard, David Davis and Liam Fox were reported to be angry with what they said was a calculated attack on grammar schools by David Willetts, the Conservative shadow education secretary. But could Newsam’s suggestion be just the get-out clause they need?
“Grammar schools had a good purpose when 10% of the population went to university, but not now,” Newsam argues.
“Teachers in high-performing grammar schools are well qualified to teach sixth-form students to a high level. Were they to concentrate on that, they could reach at least five times as many students as they do now and transform the quality of education in their area. A new post-16 role for many of the best grammar schools would have a profoundly beneficial effect on local primary and secondary schools,” he says. “Given assured access to first-rate post-16 education, parental anxieties at 11 diminish.”
His proposals might just be taken seriously. They come just as a bill expected to trigger an increase in the number of sixth-form colleges has received royal assent – the last stage before it becomes an act of parliament.
Under the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act, sixth-form colleges are being given a separate legal status.
Local authorities will once again be responsible for planning their area’s post-16 education and will be free to choose a model of a sixth-form college.
David Igoe, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Forum (SFCF), says this is likely to see a rise in their number from the current 94 in England and Wales to up to 400.
On top of this, sixth-form colleges have been found to operate on between 6% and 20% less funding per pupil than schools, according to calculations by consultants KPMG and by the SFCF.
And the school inspectorate, Ofsted, and others have noted the considerable achievements of sixth-form colleges given their non-selective intake. An Ofsted study of 25 colleges and schools, published in September last year, found that “standards of attainment varied, with those in sixth-form colleges generally higher than those in the schools and further education colleges visited. Similarly, progress overall was greatest in the sixth-form colleges.”
A spokesman from the Department for Children, Schools and Families said it was up to local authorities to decide whether they wanted more sixth-form colleges.
On grammar schools, he said: “Ministers do not support academic selection at 11 and it cannot be extended outside the tiny minority of schools where it already exists. It’s down to parental ballots and local communities to decide whether to wind up grammar schools and become comprehensives. Our focus is on expanding popular and successful non-grammar schools to meet parental demand.”
Wide ability range
Igoe says he is “very confident” that there will be a lot of new sixth-form colleges over the coming years, but he has doubts about whether they will be former grammar schools. “It has never been part of the forum’s thinking to target grammar schools. Sixth-form colleges have worked really hard to cater for young people of a wide ability range; we wouldn’t necessarily be thinking of grammar schools taking that role,” he says.
Others also have their concerns. John Guy, Farnborough’s headteacher, who served on the government’s Tomlinson committee on 14 to 19 reform, says things have changed since the 1960s when many grammar schools turned into today’s sixth-form colleges.
“It just isn’t that simple to convert grammar schools into sixth-form colleges,” he says of Newsam’s plans. “Sixth-form colleges have changed beyond recognition in the last 20 years. I agree absolutely that a sixth-form college is a wonderful model – it maximises maturity and gives independence to young people, which enables them to support each other to study. But where I would pause is at the suggestion that it should be grammar schools that become sixth-form colleges.”
Tim Boyes, headteacher of two Birmingham comprehensives – Queensbridge and Moseley schools – says he broadly agrees with Newsam’s “provocative yet practical” plans. However, he says Newsam has not thought through the “complexities” of the qualifications pupils aged 14 to 19 can take. “I’m not sure a pupil who started taking a vocational qualification at 14 would fit into this grammar school-turned-sixth-form college model,” he says.
To which Newsam answers: “The argument that grammar school teachers could not cope with students arriving at 16 with “good” GCSEs is weird. If a grammar school teacher cannot teach A-level to such students, they are in the wrong job. How does anyone in sixth-form colleges manage in that case? They don’t insist on only admitting students who have As and A*s at GCSE.”
Newsam says pupils who start vocational qualifications at 14 should study part-time at an FE college and part-time at their schools, rather than the grammar schools-turned-sixth-form colleges.
Unsurprisingly, Shaun Fenton, the chair of the Grammar Schools Heads Association and headteacher of Pate’s grammar school in Cheltenham, gives Newsam’s proposals short shrift.
“We should not close successful and popular schools,” he says. He cites research by the Sutton Trust charity from last year, which found that grammars outperformed non-grammars by up to two-thirds of a grade. Fenton says: “Educational excellence in this country is about a rich tapestry of schools, including academies, specialist schools, comprehensives, grammars and more. Grammar schools have a distinctive and valuable place in that framework.”
Coached at seven
But other headteachers are convinced Newsam is right. Sue Roberts, head of Haddenham community junior school in Buckinghamshire, says that if parents knew their children would have access to top-quality education post-16, they’d be less inclined to “hothouse” their children for the 11-plus.
“Some pupils are coached at seven years old to get through the 11-plus, and it stops them enjoying primary school,” she says. “It’s tragic. We have children who can’t do netball club because they have to be coached. Parents have this sense that unless they go to grammar school, their children will be failures. Children are much more developed and have found more of their strengths at 14 or 16.”
Phil Karnavas, principal of Canterbury high school, one of the country’s highest performing non-selective schools, says: “Children develop at different rates. To pretend to be able to measure intelligence accurately at 10 or 11 is a nonsense. Some children spend their summer holidays being crammed, others are offered cash incentives for passing, and some are placed under major strain. Some who are put through all of this will ‘fail’ and the damage to their self-esteem could be profound.”
Even so, this year, the number of children sitting the 11-plus in Kent, which has the most grammar schools in England, climbed by a fifth. Private tutors have also reported record business as parents attempt to coach children to win a place, sometimes as early as 5am.
The best hope, says Newsam, is a few “charismatic mayors to make an audit of what their cities could do and see what bigger role the grammar schools could play if they concentrated on what they do best”.