Monday, March 17, 2014

Poor pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds children 'benefit most in a grammar [selective] school system'

Comprehensive schools prevent pupils from poor backgrounds achieving their potential, a study has claimed.

Researchers compared reading standards in countries which have retained grammar schools with those which have phased them out, such as the UK.

They found that family wealth played next to no part in a child’s achievements when they were taught according to ability. But a disadvantaged background was more likely to count against youngsters in countries that shun selective education.

British pupils were among the worst affected in Europe, with only those from Sweden lagging further behind.

The study, published in the European Sociological Review, examined the reading performance of tens of thousands of 15-year-olds across 22 nations.

It cross-checked the results against the teenagers’ socio-economic status and the type of education system prevalent in their home country.

The results showed how much influence wealth had on pupils’ marks. Overall, 9.4 per cent of the variance in UK performance was explained by the student’s social background, compared with a European average of 4.5 per cent.

Scandinavian countries, which have even fewer remaining selective schools than Britain, also had high figures, with Sweden on 9.6 per cent and Norway on 8.1 per cent.

However, countries which have retained selective education have virtually eliminated class disadvantage. Germany had the lowest figure at 1.4 per cent, followed by Hungary (1.5 per cent), Romania (1.6 per cent) and Austria (2.6 per cent).

The study by France’s National Institute for Demographic Studies set out to prove selective education discriminated against children from poor backgrounds. But it admitted that, against expectation, ‘in early differentiated systems rather than comprehensive ones, primary effects of social origin express less within schools’.


We cannot let Michael Gove be beaten by the Blob

Is Michael Gove in trouble? That's the subject of the cover story in today's Spectator which includes an interview with the Education Secretary by children's author Anthony Horowitz. Horowitz is a fan but he's left feeling a bit underwhelmed. "His vision should be uplifting but I cannot say that I particularly enjoyed my encounter with Michael Gove," he concludes. If you add this to Libby Purves's piece attacking Mrs Gove in the Times on Monday (££), Benedict Brogan's column on Tuesday ("Why are the Tories starting to grumble about Mr Gove?") and the row about free school meals on Wednesday, it's starting to look like a bad week for the Education Secretary.

Before we go any further, let's remind ourselves what Gove has achieved:

* He's cut the number of children being taught in failing schools by 250,000

* He's enabled more than half of England's state secondary schools to become academies, freeing them from the dead hand of local authority control

* He's opened 174 free schools (so far), with 75 per cent of the first wave being ranked "good" or "outstanding" by Ofsted

* He's rewritten the national curriculum, with more rigorous, intellectually challenging programmes of study being introduced in English, Maths, Science, Languages, Computing, Geography and History

* He's raised standards in GCSEs and A-levels, stripping out meaningless BTEC "equivalents" in subjects like Travel and Tourism, removing coursework and ensuring all pupils are assessed on their performance in end-of-course exams

* He's made it easier for head teachers to enforce discipline, giving them the power to permanently exclude children without the risk that they'll be reinstated by local authorities

* He's weakened the grip of Left-wing academics on the teacher training process, making it possible for outstanding schools to train teachers themselves

* He's made the league tables more transparent, forcing schools and local authorities to make much more information public so parents can make better informed decisions of where to send their children

* He's introduced new accountability measures that will make it harder for under-performing schools to "game" the league tables

As should be clear from this list, he's the Government's most effective Cabinet minister. He's achieved more as Education Secretary in less than four years than his all his Labour predecessors in the last 13. So why are the knives out?

To a large extent, that question answers itself. The reason he has so many enemies is because he's achieved so much. There's no great mystery surrounding why Education Secretaries usually achieve so little and why so few ambitious politicians have coveted the role until now. You're ranged against a vast array of vested interest who will fight tooth and nail to preserve the status quo. If you try and wrest control of our public education system from them, they're naturally going to do everything in their power to destroy you and, until now, few senior politicians have been willing to take that risk. Some, like Estelle Morris, threw in the towel before the bell was rung for the first round.

The upshot has been decades of managed decline in which a series of half-hearted "reforms" have quickly been absorbed by the Blob.  As the former Education Minister George Walden wrote in the Telegraph: “Reforming education, a friend sighed on my appointment, was like trying to disperse a fog with a hand grenade: after the flash and the explosion, the fog creeps back. So it proved under Thatcher, and so it has been under Blair and Brown.”

So Gove is paying the price for taking on the Blob – a cost that his predecessors have been too lily-livered to bear.

Reforming our public education system is a particularly unappealing prospect for most politicians because they're unlikely to see any tangible benefits for years – long after they've left office. For instance, the new, more rigorous GCSEs won't be taken until 2016 and the new A-levels won't be taken until 2017. And because they'll be harder, the pass rates will initially fall. The impact of the teacher training reforms will take years – decades – to be felt and the children who benefit most from the curriculum reforms will be those entering Year 1 in primary school in September, where'll they'll be taught the new national curriculum from the beginning.

By my reckoning, the first true test of Gove's reforms will be the PISA tests taken by 15-year-olds in 2027. And, of course, they won't be a genuine test at all because Gove's successors are bound to unwind some of his reforms – or usher in new reforms that revive some of the problems he's tried to eliminate.

In light of this, the temptation for an ambitious politician is not to make any of the difficult choices Gove has made but to do something simple that's going to secure a quick political win – like making GCSEs easier so more children pass them each year. Which is what his Labour predecessors did. Their attitude was, "To hell with the long-term impact of my education policies on generations of schoolchildren to come. The critical thing is that I get a pat on the back from the PM at this autumn's party conference." Not Michael Gove.

There are other, less important reasons why Gove is having a hard time at the moment, some of which are discussed by James Forsyth in the Spectator. Clegg misses no opportunity to have a go because his private polling tells him that the best way to win back Lib Dem voters who've defected to Labour is to attack the Education Secretary. And Clegg unleashes these broadsides with a nod and a wink from the Prime Minister because he knows that it's in the Conservative Party's interests as well to see those Lib Dem refugees return to the fold. Cameron is just being politically sensible, but his tolerance of these attacks has the unintended effect of making Gove look isolated.

Then there's Gove's tendency to pick fights when he'd do better to cross the street – the recent row over the First World War being a case in point. To his enemies, he seems to suffer from a surfeit of joie de guerre, a character trait that his two ex-special advisers, Henry de Zoete and Dominic Cummings, are no longer around to restrain.

Finally, he's made an enemy of Boris by aligning himself too closely with the "George Osborne for President" campaign. The Mayor seems to have been under the impression that he and Gove had struck a Granita-style pact – "Back me and I'll make you Foreign Secretary, old stick" – so he sees this as a great betrayal. He probably suspects that Gove secretly plans to run himself at some point and wants to do whatever he can to prevent that. In a four-way contest between Boris, Gove, Osborne and May, Gove's candidacy might be sufficient to split the maverick vote and mean that the eventual run off is between Osborne and May.

But these are trivial matters in the grand scheme of things. The real reason Gove is currently so unpopular is because he has taken on the full might of the Blob. For anyone on the Conservative benches and beyond who values those reforms, the time has come to rally round the beleaguered Education Secretary. He has already paid a heavy price for putting the interests of his country before those of his career. He deserves more than to be left to the mercy of his enemies on the Left.


The sorry truth is it's now smart for girls to be stupid, says JENNI MURRAY

Oh dear, poor Gemma Worrall. If you haven't heard of her, she's the 20-year-old Blackpool beauty salon receptionist who became an overnight Twitter sensation last week with her ludicrously misspelled and misinformed observation on the Ukrainian crisis.

If you really did miss it - and sadly for Gemma not many did - it went thus: 'If barraco barner is our president why is he getting involved with Russia, scary.'

She's had more than her comeuppance for the public display of ignorance, with 7,000 re-tweets of her observation, making news as far away as Australia, a flood of comments berating her for her stupidity and the by now familiar online threats of violence and worse.

She was called a stupid cow, an oxygen thief, warned not to breed and told by one particularly nasty tweeter how he would like to kill her.

Then came those wishing to win political points, citing Gemma - who has 17 GCSEs and two A-levels, no less - as a product of our parlous education system. How could the nation justify the deep flaws that allowed such ignorance?

Finally, the sniggers and fury died down, and there was a collective sigh of relief it wasn't one of us who'd made such an appalling gaffe.

But I have a feeling it will be Gemma - and all the other beautiful girls like her - who will have the last laugh. They may, as the Yorkshire saying goes, have been at the back of the queue when the brains were handed out, but they'll probably have a far brighter future than young women who model themselves on clever old bluestockings like me.

Think about it. Gemma's had numerous interview requests and been wooed with promises of thousands of pounds for prime-time TV appearances.  To her credit - so far at least - she has resisted the temptation to make a packet from her notorious gaffe.

It may, though, only be a matter of time before she succumbs to the pressure to become a public figure, given the tendency to handsomely reward the less educationally advantaged.

With those 14 ditzy words, Gemma achieved what millions of well-informed girls - who could find Ukraine on a map in an instant - have failed to do. And that's to be recognised and rewarded.

Times have changed and the value system seems to have gone into reverse. I call it 'being TOWIE-fied' after the millions made by the insufferably vacuous and wholly entertaining 'stars' of reality show The Only Way Is Essex.

The ones who hit the headlines and make the money are those who work hard - at being in the gym or at the tanning salon.

It's not brains that line your pockets or attract admiration now. Look at today's young barristers, who are striking for a day because they earn barely enough to keep them in shoe leather. Compare their earnings to those of glamour model Katie Price

Look at the brilliant young graduates pouring out of top universities each year who wind up working in burger bars.

When I read about Gemma, it got me thinking about two young women I met at Crufts on Saturday. I had my two chihuahuas with me and had been asked to present the Toy Class trophy.

They accosted me at the entrance to the Birmingham Exhibition Centre and begged me to buy a bracelet for chihuahua rescue. They were smart, charming and kind and I popped the bracelet on as I walked away.

It was only later I noticed it read 'I love Chihuahua's'. Total apostrophe failure.

I spent the rest of the afternoon dreading bumping into Lynne Truss, who was there too. She's the grammar and punctuation guru who wrote the bestseller, Eats, Shoots & Leaves. I'd have been so ashamed to be seen wearing such a mislaid apostrophe.

When women like Lynne and I were young working-class girls, education was rigorous - and it mattered.

Good exam results and a degree were our way of avoiding the kinds of lives which had so restricted our mothers - jobs as cleaners, factory workers or, at best, typists, followed by marriage, children and dependence on a husband.

We dressed smartly, made sure our make-up was tasteful and that it would be our brains that would attract employers, who would respect our well-stocked minds and pay us accordingly.

It was what society then required of us. We were expected to set aside the trivial, whether it be make-up, fashion, manicures or costly hairdos, and work hard to make our way professionally.

For Lynne and me it worked. Would we manage to claw our way to the top of the CV pile now, with our perfect grammar, well-honed arguments on foreign politics and ingrained knowledge of the periodic table? I fear we might not.

Women of our generation have encouraged our own children to take a similar path, only to find them burdened by student debt, struggling to find a decent job, paid peanuts if they do and with no prospect of ever saving enough money for a deposit on a house. So, is it us who have actually been the more stupid?

I'm not saying that Gemma's obsession with hair extensions and make-up should replace education and hard work for other young women.  But I do think more might benefit from taking up a similar career, rather than struggling along the academic route only to find no job at the end of it.

For too long we've been deluded by the idea that everyone should have a degree to the detriment of our service industries.

Perhaps now we'll learn to value those not suited to an academic training, but who are hugely important when the electricity goes off or the central heating fails or, in Gemma's case, when we need a makeover.

These are, after all, the people we all seem to prefer watching on television; not boring old academics.

Even those who don't get famous seem capable of making a far better living than better-educated counterparts - sad though that might be to say.

When the sun shone last weekend, I abandoned my boots, got out the sandals and noticed what a terrible state my feet were in. I doubt I was the only 'clever girl' making an appointment for a 40-quid pedicure and 50-quid leg wax.

Who's the stupid one now?

And, anyway, is Gemma really as daft as some would have us believe?

She may not know how to spell Barack Obama, she probably hasn't a clue where Ukraine is and thinks the Cold War is something to do with the Winter Olympics.

Nevertheless, she knew that for a Western political leader to be getting involved in a dispute with Russia is scary. And that observation is not stupid at all.

Maybe next time she will just be wise enough to keep her opinions to the confines of the beauty salon.


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