It seems that Hitchens is so wedded to his mistaken belief that state schools choose who applies to them that he can’t see the logical impossibility of this position. There is little point reiterating the argument. We disagree.
On the second point, Hitchens is also wrong. Parents ‘selecting by wealth’ – if this means parents choosing schools based on in which school catchment area they can afford to live - is actually a very good thing. As I said in my last piece, parents will, naturally, select their children’s education as much as they possibly can. This is essential to the ongoing demand for high quality provision of effective state schooling for all.
Parents should not feel guilty for acting in a way which the school admission system requires of them. Furthermore, I’ll reiterate school selection by ability at 11 years of age, as proposed by those such as Hitchens who criticise parental selection by wealth, is a socially divisive anachronism which has never helped disadvantaged children as a group. Parents exercising choice over their children's schooling is a much better method of delivering high quality schooling to all than selection by ability, as argued by Hitchens, May and Davis.
Clarifying the argument
Peter Hitchens wrote a detailed response to my piece and summarised his argument clearly. “What it means,” writes Hitchens, “is that the principle mechanism of selection for many if not most of the better state schools is the parent's wealth.” Hitchens clearly believes that, in effect, schools select children based on their parent’s wealth, which allows them to buy (or not to buy) houses within school catchment areas. His argument is that ‘selection by parents’ is unfair because, Hitchens argues, “the selection (of better state schools) is only open to those who can afford expensive houses.”
This argument uses an economic argument, that of distinguishing between ‘notional demand’ and ‘effective demand’. Hitchens version of this can be summed up by his observation that lots of people might want to shop at Harrods, but only a few people are in a position to actually do so. As Hitchens put it, “if the parent lacks the resources to buy into the good catchment area, his or her desires are of no value.”
This argument - with which I strongly disagree - is based on ‘effective demand’ and the idea that ‘better schools’ have ‘good catchment areas’ populated by those who ‘can afford expensive houses’.
The simplistic idea of ‘better schools’
The idea that some schools are ‘better’ than others is taken as read by many who write about education. On the face of it, there appears to be some kind of continuum onto which schools can be placed. As with many simplistic ideas, however, further analysis shows that the situation is actually much more complex than it might initially seem.
As I’ve explained elsewhere, schools’ reputation, results and intakes evolve together. I’ve also explained that results are linked to factors which are external to schools. This is particularly important because Ofsted use test scores to judge schools. What is more, it has been well established that in-school variation is much greater than between-school variation in outcomes, so even within any given school, the results vary considerably, making the idea of 'better' seem meaningless. If ‘better schools’ meant ‘more effective schools’ and we had some way of disentangling all of the confounding factors which go into any measure of school effectiveness, then we might be able to say that some schools were ‘better’. We don't and it's simplistic to think that we do.
What those who refer simplistically to ‘better schools’ frequently mean by the term are those schools which have higher academic attainment and more exclusive school socio-economic composition, which we know parents value highly. It is, however, well established that higher academic attainment and higher socio economic status are, on average, directly linked. This makes Peter Hitchens’ argument that the “principle mechanism of selection for many if not most of the better state schools is the parent's wealth” entirely tautological: Higher SES children get higher results and therefore their schools are seen by some as ‘better schools’; ‘better schools’ and 'richer children' are interchangeable in this argument.
(As an aside, it is worth noting the obvious fact that we live in an unequal society, a feature of the compromise we have taken by selecting to organise the society the way we have. This means that, whilst most people shop in mid-range supermarkets, some people can afford to shop at Harrods. It also means that some comprehensives are in Harrods-level residential areas, but the vast majority are more ‘mid-range’, if you like. Not being able to afford to shop at Harrods doesn't mean that your supermarket choices are 'worse'.)
The simplistic idea of ‘buying into a good catchment area’
Peter Hitchens claims that ‘selection is only open to those who can afford expensive houses’ and that “if the parent lacks the resources to buy into the good catchment area, his or her desires are of no value.”
Putting aside the observation that it can be argued at a basic level that all homes in England are ‘expensive’, this argument is seems to be based on the idea of a ‘good catchment area’ which is clearly defined by the wealth of those living near a given school, and therefore of the children who attend a given school and, in turn, by those who get the results in a given school. ‘Good catchment areas’ are defined as those which have ‘good schools’, and vice versa. It is, once again, tautological.
The idea that desires of parents who can’t afford to live in the most expensive part of town have no value, as Hitchens does, is again simplistic. It assumes incorrectly, as above, that schools outside the most wealthy areas of towns are ‘worse’ than those in the wealthy areas; this is the snobbish suggestion that mid-range supermarkets most people use are somehow ‘worse’ than Harrods. This is clearly only true in an extremely limited sense.
Parents selection of schools is not only a good thing, it is essential
There is, however, a key point regarding parental ‘selection’ of schools. In essence, every parent, at whatever income level, has some degree of choice in where they choose to live, and therefore in which school catchment area they live. For a great many reasons, people in England tend to live in the most expensive housing they can afford. And therefore, at a very basic level, a majority of parents absolutely do select schools by wealth. What’s more, on balance, this is a good thing. It gives most parents a substantial degree of choice of where to school their child and simultaneously puts pressure on schools to provide schooling which appeals to parents.
This dual function – parental choice and pressure - has been an essential aspect of the provision of effective state schooling since universal selection by ability ended. Whilst reforms thirty years ago altered the system a little, allowing parents to express a preference for a given school, the vast majority of parents have always known that their choice of school has been based on where they are able to choose to live. The expensive parts of most towns and cities have been expensive for a long time, and it is disingenuous to suggest that they have become more so solely because of schooling rather than as part of a basket of factors affecting escalating house prices.
To argue that parental ‘selection by house prices, selection by wealth’ is a negative, as May, Davis and Hitchens have done, or is in any way a recent development, is disingenuous. Parental selection by house price has long been an essential part of comprehensive education and should be applauded, not criticised.
Of course, what Theresa May, Peter Hitchens and others really signal when they criticise people 'selecting by wealth', is that they clearly want us to believe that schools in areas of disadvantage are authomatically ‘worse’ that those in more expensive areas. But this is simply equivalent to suggesting that Tesco, Sainsburys et al are inherently ‘worse’ than Harrods. It rather depends on what you expect from your local retailer.
Additionally, allowing parents to exercise choice in their child’s schooling based on the place they can afford to live does not automatically reduce any other parent’s access to a good education, unless – and this would be an odd position for a politician to take - you believe that it is impossible for all schools to provide a good education. It seems extraordinary that anyone on the political right would argue against individual choice – in this case, a parent’s choice, within their means, of where to educate their child - but this seems to be a feature of the odd arguments for selective schooling.
Why ‘section by ability’ is socially divisive anachronism which does not and has never helped disadvantaged children as a group
This argument has been made too many times to count, which is why I didn't make the argument in my last piece. Here's a short summary. Government commissioned reports in the 1960s made it clear that those who did not pass the 11+ were much more likely to be ‘children of manual workers, skilled or unskilled.’ Current grammar schools do not serve the disadvantaged, with just 2.6% of their pupils receiving free school meals compared to 14.9% nationally, and Grammar Schools increase inequalities in outcomes. Where children are segregated by a test at 11, a two-tier system is created with clear winners and losers. A short but comprehensive rebuttal of selective myths is here.
Headteacher Tom Sherrington has written eloquently on the problems selection at 11 creates. As he says, “There is no evidence that supports the claim that selection (at 11) improves outcomes across the system as a whole. It doesn’t. Extending selection won’t either. It can’t.”
Tom summarises the case for comprehensive education as follows:
- Selection in the system does not improve outcomes across the whole system.
- Selection is explicitly about elitism; it’s absolute folly to make claims for social justice through selection. Even if, anecdotally, this was true for some in the past, it absolutely isn’t true now.
- Selective schools do not necessarily deliver better educational outcomes in the round even for those who attend them; the majority of students at selective schools would get just as good exam results if they went to the local comprehensive.
- The testing process is complex and the test for FSM is far too crude to provide a robust and fair basis on which to base selection
- Even though existing selective schools might be fabulous for those who attend and work in them, that does not necessarily justify their existence let alone justify opening more given the wider needs of the whole system.
No system for allocating children to secondary schools is without its downsides. Parental selection by wealth and school selection by ability can lead people to believe that some schools are better at educating children than others, based on outcomes heavily influenced by factors external to the schools. Some schools in the comprehensive system struggle to compete with schools with more favourable reputations and results. Some children miss out on an elitist education and are separated them from a third of their peers. Some schools find it easier to attract keen staff and supportive families in the comprehensive system.
Returning to widespread ‘Selection by Ability’ will create a system which privileges a minority of children who already do very well within the comprehensive system, and is demonstrably worse for those deemed to have failed at 11, which has always included the vast majority of the poorest in society.
We should aim for an effective education for all, and be wary of those who define 'better schools' by those who attend them. On balance, parents’ choice of schools (May, Hitchens and Davis' negative ‘Selection by Wealth’ criticism) keeps up pressure for a good education for all children, whist allowing a majority of parents a large degree of choice over where their child goes to school.