Select Committee on Education and Skills Fourth Report

4 Admission by selection

185. Attitudes to school admissions are informed by views on what manner of schooling best suits the needs of individuals and of society as a whole. Since the Education Act 1944 these views have coalesced into two opposing positions; one is that because children are different from each other their needs and therefore their schools must also be different. This view also holds that it is both possible and desirable to divide children by ability for the purposes of secondary education and that such division supports their learning. The contrary view is that, although children vary significantly in their abilities and interests, a system of mixed ability secondary schools operating a flexible curriculum that can respond to the individual needs of each child is the most effective means of raising overall levels of achievement whilst reducing levels of social exclusion.

186. The former position brought about the reorganisation of secondary education as set out in the Education Act 1944 while the latter led to the issuing of Circular 10/65[177] which called on local education authorities to prepare schemes of reorganisation of their secondary schools on comprehensive principles, a reform that was never fully completed. Current Government policy, whilst increasingly emphasising the theme of social inclusion, nevertheless has retained formal selection by academic ability in many parts of England (although significantly, the Government has announced that the 11 plus transfer tests should end in Northern Ireland) and has extended the total numbers of pupils selected by introducing the concept of selection by aptitude.

187. Evidence of the confusion that exists in Government about the place of selection in secondary education was provided by the Secretary of State's recent statement on the Government's five year strategy for children and learners. The Secretary of State told the House "there is a code of admission for city academies, specialist schools and all other schools, which rules out selection on the basis of ability" This is incorrect. The School Admissions Code of Practice and its underpinning legislation enables selection by ability in 164 grammar schools and permits its continuation in an unspecified number of partially selective schools. We eagerly anticipate clarification of the Secretary of State's intentions in this regard.

188. It is a matter of considerable regret that significant shifts in policy have taken place without the benefit of any open and explicit debate on the relative merits of either selective and non-selective admissions policies or selective and comprehensive education. The result is a series of initiatives that, under close scrutiny, appear to have been born of fashion and expediency rather than intellectual rigour.

Types of selection

189. Legislation enables some admissions authorities to select pupils in four ways:

a)  What the School Admissions Code of Practice calls fair banding is used by some all-ability schools to try to ensure that their intake reflects the full range of abilities in the proportions that occur amongst applicants for places at the school. Those schools that were applying banding before 1998 in proportion to the totality of pupils in the local community may continue to do so.[178]

b)  Designated specialist schools[179] may select up to 10% of their intake on the basis of aptitude in their specialist area(s). The Government intends that eventually all schools will be able to become specialist schools.

c)  Partial selection is a facility available to schools which had selection procedures in place in 1997/8. These schools may continue to select up to 50% of their intake by ability or aptitude provided that there is no change in the methods of selection or the proportion of pupils selected.[180]

d)  The 164 designated grammar schools are empowered to select all, or substantially all, of their pupils by ability.[181]

Fair Banding

190. Fair banding is used in many schools to ensure a spread of ability in their intake and to avoid the problems associated with an unbalanced pupil population. [182] Selection on this basis is required to ensure that the intake reflects the number of applicants in each band. Evidence from Professor John Fitz of Cardiff University[183] and Professor Anne West supported this approach, although Professor West called for some moderation to the existing model:

"I think some form of banding, organised at a local level not at a school level, would be a very strong option to consider. Under the current School Standards and Framework Act, the banding, where it is carried out at school level, is carried out on the basis of those who apply to the school, and those who apply to the school are not necessarily representative of that area."[184]

191. Dr Philip Hunter, Chief Schools Adjudicator, also supported the use of banding:

"I think there are arguments for saying that where you have got a school that is in an area which has got a very high proportion of difficult families and difficult children, and so on, they should be allowed to try to achieve a reasonably comprehensive intake by some kind of selection, which is what it is. I think, clearly, that is a powerful argument for some schools, in some areas."[185]

192. In the past some schools have been permitted to use banding strategies to significantly alter their composition. Mr Brian Jones, former headteacher of Archbishop Tenison School in London, told us about the way in which his school used banding to change the balance of the intake:

"When the ILEA disappeared in a lot of London boroughs, including Lambeth, banding went out of the window with the result that our school very quickly became heavily skewed towards the lower ability end, and it was comprehensive in name only. It really was a secondary modern school, if I can put it crudely. After a lot of deliberation we decided that the best thing to do, in order to try and achieve a balanced intake, was to move towards a banding system. We had to get the permission of the then Secretary of State, Gillian Shepherd, and that was not easy to get but eventually we got it, and what we do now is pre test the youngsters with a standard NFER test, a CAT test, which tests verbal, non verbal and numeracy, and at the end of the day we get a standard assessment score which enables us to place the children in one of three bands, Band 1 being above average, 2 average, and Band 3 being below average."[186]

193. On the basis of these test results Archbishop Tenison School then takes 40% of its intake from each of the top and middle ability bands and 20% from the lowest ability band. Although this strategy does not comply with current requirements for fair banding[187] it is apparent that it has had a significant and predictable impact on the success of the school. If arrangements of this type are to remain in place indefinitely one school's efforts to improve its results may be at a cost to its neighbouring schools. We urge the DfES to look into all banding arrangements which do not conform to those established under the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 to ensure that they do not outlive their usefulness and become a barrier to school improvement.

194. Banding offers an important means of mitigating the effects of social segregation inherent in admissions based predominantly on geography. We recommend that the Department actively promotes models of good practice in banding for consideration by all admission authorities.

Selection by aptitude

195. Specialist schools and other schools which declare themselves to have a specialism may select up to 10% of their intake on the basis of aptitude in their specialist area(s). Although only a small proportion of designated specialist schools use this provision, as government extends the specialist school programme to the point that "all schools will become specialist"[188] ever greater numbers of schools will have the capacity to select a proportion of their intake and thereby reject and displace an identical number who have not been so selected.

196. Selection by aptitude was a key area of investigation during the first part of our secondary education inquiry. In our report of Diversity of Provision we noted that we could find neither evidence of a meaningful distinction between aptitude and ability[189] nor evidence relating to the purpose or justification for selection by aptitude.[190] During this inquiry we have taken further evidence on this issue that has assisted us in clarifying the issue.

197. The Chief Schools Adjudicator, Dr Philip Hunter, writing on the distinction between aptitude and ability, has commented that "finding a difference between the meanings of two such words is the sort of exercise lexicographers get up to when they haven't enough to do."[191] Given that Parliament has established these concepts in the legislation regarding school admissions, Dr Hunter has offered a working definition: "It denotes a potential or propensity to develop an ability given appropriate teaching or preparation. In other words aptitude + preparation = future ability." [192] We asked Dr Hunter whether he was confident that the range of approved and legally permitted tests of ability or aptitude were capable of accurately predicting future levels of attainment Mr Hunter was clear: "No, I am not" he told us.[193]

198. This is significant. Evidence commissioned by the DfES[194] observed that "the measure of aptitude is an assessment of a pupil's capacity to be trained or developed… its usefulness can arise from the accuracy with which it predicts later success."[195] We have repeatedly sought evidence from the DfES of the link between tests of aptitude and achievement and have repeatedly drawn a blank. Despite the department's own commissioned research highlighting that the link between testing aptitude in a subject and attainment in that subject is perhaps the key indicator of the effectiveness of aptitude testing no such research has been undertaken or initiated by the DfES.

199. As the Department is unable to support its policy on selection by aptitude with evidence as to its efficacy and is unwilling to commission research on the subject, it is difficult to understand why the practice should be allowed to continue. Without such research we cannot know whether pupils selected by aptitude achieve at a higher level, either in the specialist area or across the board, than their unselected peers.

200. Given the well established links between social class and attainment, and the Government's stated commitment to social inclusion and equity, the integrity of the Government's commitment to aptitude testing is hard to defend without clear evidence of its educational benefits. We have not been made aware of any such educational benefits. Nor have we been made aware of any means by which aptitude can be assessed without reference to ability.

201. Aptitude tests are an additional and unnecessary complication in the school admissions process. Moreover, the resources invested by schools in running these tests are significant both financially and in terms of staff time. It is our view that these costs, to families and to schools, cannot at present be defended. We recommend that the facility for state funded schools to admit pupils on the basis of aptitude tests should be withdrawn.

Partial selection

202. Partial selection forms part of the admission arrangements for an unspecified number of schools, in the past selecting up to 50% of their intake on grounds of ability or aptitude. These schools, which had these selection procedures in place in 1997-98, are permitted to continue to select pupils provided that there is no change in the methods of selection or the proportion of pupils selected.[196] These arrangements are unsatisfactory in three ways. First, they contribute, to a greater or lesser degree to narrowing of the ability range in other local schools. Secondly, partial selection, by definition, reduces the opportunity for local parents to secure a place at their preferred school. Thirdly, the arrangements for regulating the manner and extent of selection in these schools are unreliable. This has caused considerable dissatisfaction and friction in a number of local authorities where this practices still applies. Objections to partial selection form nearly 20% of the total objections submitted to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator.[197]

203. During the course of our inquiry we were surprised to learn that the DfES has no baseline information on the admission arrangements that were in place for partially selective schools in 1997-98. The absence of verifiable, official data on partially selective admission arrangements in 1997-98 makes it difficult for interested parties to raise an objection to any change to partially selective admissions arrangements that may have occurred. This also places the Office of the Schools Adjudicator in a similarly impossible position when called upon to reach judgements requiring that information.

204. We are aware of no research evidence, nor did we receive any representations, indicating that partial selection contributes in any way to the overall improvement of educational standards. We therefore recommend that this option should be withdrawn.

205. Until such withdrawal takes effect the DfES should conduct an immediate audit of all schools selecting on this basis in order to establish a baseline position from which schools adjudicators and the courts could work when investigating objections and developing their judgements.

Grammar schools: selection by general ability

206. Selection by general ability is designed to identify, for the purposes of school admissions, pupils of high academic ability.[198] Some schools will recruit some or all of their pupils in this way. The strategy has the effect of narrowing the range of abilities within a school, or at least to raise the median level of ability. It is therefore the case that in areas where selective and non-selective schools coexist, those schools which do not select necessarily receive either no or a reduced proportion of pupils at the top end of the ability range. The larger the proportion of the age group in an area that is selected, the greater this effect will be. As a matter of arithmetic, where 25% of an age group are defined as being of high ability and all go to one or more selective schools, 75% of the age group must necessarily go to schools which lack any pupils of high academic ability.

207. This is a particularly significant factor in areas where pupil numbers are declining. In these areas, if selective schools continue to admit to their capacity, albeit from a wider ability range, non-selective schools will carry the full burden of the decline in pupil numbers and suffer a further reduction in the proportion of able or even average ability pupils they are able to recruit. Policy-makers and protagonists must therefore be aware that the unavoidable consequence of selection in areas of declining school population is that many non-selective schools, already with significantly skewed intakes, will have fewer pupils able to achieve at the highest level.

208. There are 164 grammar schools in England and no provision for more to be created. This has not prevented the expansion of those schools. The Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Charles Clarke MP recently told the House of Commons that the number of pupils in grammar schools has increased from 117,147 (3.1% of the age group) in 1983—84 to 150,750 (4.6%) in 2003-04.[199] This means that 33,603 more pupils are in grammar schools today than was the case in 1983. It is also the case that 22,029 more pupils are in grammar schools than in 1997 when the proportion of the school population in grammar schools was 4.3%.[200] These increases are relatively small in absolute terms. However, as grammar schools are not distributed evenly, but clustered in particular areas, the local effects of growth in the proportion of able pupils selected out of mainstream secondary education can be considerable, particularly when coupled with the impact of falling rolls.

209. In Opposition the Labour Party's then education spokesman promised "read my lips: no [more] selection, either by examination or interview, under a Labour government." [201] The fact remains that the numbers and proportion of pupils selected into grammar schools have increased in recent years. Ministers have claimed that there has been no "acceleration"[202] in this rate of increase but it is undeniable that selection has increased and, in areas where the school population is falling, may well increase further.

210. Although we recognise that the data on the impact of selection is open to alternative interpretations, we received evidence from three eminent academics with different research interests, all of whom felt that selection by academic ability had an adverse impact on educational standards and post-16 participation rates. The written submission from the DfES[203] quoted the most recent research from the NFER which demonstrated, as Professor Jesson's work had done previously, that the most academically able 25% of the ability range performed equally well, if not slightly better, in non-selective schools. We are aware of the recent Ofsted/Audit Commission report on Buckinghamshire LEA[204] which draws attention to the large disparities in the funding of selective and non-selective schools in the county.

211. In addition, we were concerned by the conclusions of the recent Ofsted report on Kent which concludes that:

"When national comparisons are made, the proportion of high achieving schools (A* against national benchmarks) is substantially greater [in Kent] than nationally, probably reflecting the number of grammar schools in the county.

The proportion of low achieving schools (E and E* against national benchmarks)is substantially higher than nationally, again probably reflecting the number of secondary modern schools in the county."[205]

212. The report also notes that the evidence from inspection suggests that there are fewer schools in Kent judged to be "very good" than nationally and that Kent schools are substantially more likely to require special measures or to have serious weaknesses than those nationally. The report also observes that all of the Kent secondary schools that require special measures are secondary modern schools.[206]

213. We are aware of no research evidence that indicates that schools which select wholly by academic ability help to raise standards or post-16 participation rates or that they have a positive effect on the coherence of the local education system or a benevolent effect on social inclusion. We invited as witnesses two supporters of grammar schools, neither of whom were able to furnish any statistical information to support their case.

214. All forms of selection at one set of schools have, as a matter of arithmetic, consequences for other schools. A government that permits the continuing expansion of selection, by ability or by aptitude, can only be understood to approve of both the practice of selection and its outcomes. If that is the position of the present Government it should be publicly stated.

215. We believe that it is time for Ministers to engage in an informed debate about the role of selection in secondary education and its impact across the education system as a whole. The Government needs to explain how it reconciles its insistence that there will be no return to selection with its willingness to retain and increase selection where it already exists. Without an honest and robust engagement with this issue the Government's policy on selection will continue to appear ad hoc and without principle.

177   Ministry of Education circular 10/65. Back

178   School Admissions Code of Practice, Department for Education and Skills, 2003, para 3.26. Back

179   And other schools which declare themselves to have a specialism. Back

180   School Standards and Framework Act 1998, S 100. Back

181   1998 School Standards and Framework Act, S104(2). Back

182   See paras 173-179 above. Back

183   Q 30 Back

184   Q 59 Back

185   Q 124 Back

186   Q 438 Back

187   See para 189 above. Back

188   Rt. Hon Charles Clarke MP, HC Deb, 28 November 2002, col 442. Back

189   Education and Skills Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2002-03, Secondary Education: Diversity of Provision, HC 94, para 139. Back

190   Education and Skills Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2002-03, Secondary Education: Diversity of Provision, HC 94, para 144. Back

191   "Apt or Able", Dr Philip Hunter, Times Educational Supplement, 11 July 2003, p 19. Back

192   Ibid. Back

193   Q 146 Back

194   SA 50 Back

195   Aptitude Tests and Technology An investigation of aptitude and its relationship with GCSE scores, Martin Coffey and Chris Wetton, Department for Education and Employment, 1996. Back

196   1988 School Standards and Framework Act, S 100. Back

197   Office of the Schools Adjudicator, Annual Report, 2002-03, p 5. Back

198   1998 School Standards and Framework Act, S 104. Back

199   HC Deb, 18 March 2004, Col 437, reply to question from Teddy Taylor MP. Back

200   Unpublished note from the Department for Education and Skills, 28 April 2004. Back

201   David Blunkett MP as shadow Education Secretary addressing the 1995 Labour Party conference. Mr Blunkett subsequently clarified that he had meant to say "no more selection". Back

202   Grammar schools have expanded, BBCi report Friday, 26 March, 2004, 11:42 GMT citing a comment from David Miliband MP. Back

203   SA 18 Back

204   Buckinghamshire LEA Inspection Report, February 2004, Ofsted/Audit Commission. Back

205   Report to the Secretary of State on Kent schools, Ofsted, December 2003, paras 10 and 11. Back

206   Ibid, paras 16, 17 and 19. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2004
Prepared 22 July 2004