Bringing back grammar schools would lower the national IQ

The new Conservative Prime Minister has indicated her willingness to allow the creation of new grammar schools and selection at age 11 in the English education system.

The arguments of the proponents are as follows.

  1. It will increase social mobility by providing a better education for bright children from poor backgrounds.
  2. We have academic selection for post-16 education so why not at 11?
  3. Bright children make better academic progress in grammar rather than in comprehensive schools.
  4. Grammar schools get better exam results than comprehensives.
  5. Less academic children are better suited to a more practical education.

The opponents argue:

  1. You can’t create new grammar schools without also creating new secondary moderns, whatever you call them.
  2. Less able children do better in fully comprehensive schools than they do in secondary moderns.
  3. Although grammar schools get better exam results than comprehensives this is because of their selective admissions and the overall performance of schools in fully comprehensive areas is better than in areas that have selection for grammar schools at age 11.
  4. It is socially destructive to divide families and communities by selecting children for different schools at age 11.
  5. The 11 plus test does not reliably select children with the most academic potential anyway.
  6. The 11 plus test encourages affluent parents to pay for private tuition to pass the 11 plus selection and this is unfair because poorer parents cannot afford to do this.
  7. Grammar schools are highly socially as well as academically selective.

The evidence favours the arguments of the opponents rather than the proponents. Much of it is explained in Henry Stewart’s article here and through other articles and comments on this website. Regrettably it appears likely that, as with so much else that has gone wrong with the English Education system under both Labour and Conservative governments, the evidence is unlikely to be a major factor in the ultimate decision of Theresa May’s government.

My argument against grammar schools and any kind of selection at age 11 between or within schools is different.  Academic selection at age 11 lowers our national IQ.

My book, ‘Learning Matters‘, argues the case for a developmental approach to education. It is based on the idea that attainment, in all its forms and contexts, is founded on general abilities and that it is the job of schools to recognise and to promote the development of these underlying abilities. At the same time a school should be maximising students’ attainment in their academic studies and nurturing the physical, artistic and social skills that grow out of these talents and abilities. My book draws heavily on the work and ideas of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky.

Although the basis for the routine work of Educational Psychologists for more than half a century and the current Cognitive Ability Tests (CATs) based admissions systems for hundreds of state funded schools since the inception of the Academies programme, the general intelligence factor ‘g’ is a concept about which much heat has been generated. Many left inclined educationalists still begin any discussion in this area with an IQ denial statement of some form. ‘Learning Matters’ addresses these concerns in detail and includes a discussion of Howard Gardner’s, ‘Multiple Intelligences’ and Steven Gould’s, ‘The Mismeasure of Man’, much quoted by many on the left to support their discomfort with ‘general intelligence’.

Chapter 12 of ‘Bad Education – Debunking Myths in Education’ (2012) edited by Philip Adey and Justin Dillon, also addresses the myths of both ‘intelligence fixed at birth’ and ‘multiple intelligences’. My arguments against grammar school selection are based on the validity of general intelligence as set out by Adey and others, but with the insistence that although resilient, such general intelligence is plastic and that its development should be the priority of all good schooling.

Plastic general intelligence is a significantly different concept to ‘fixed intelligence conferred at birth’. It opens the door to the development of the intellect of all children (and indeed adults) through good quality education. However much educational practice commonly believed to be ‘good’ is in fact ‘bad’ because it does not result in cognitive growth. That is a theme that runs throughout ‘Learning Matters’.

Steven Pinker, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University wrote in his book, ‘The Blank Slate

I find it surreal to find academics denying the existence of intelligence. Academics are obsessed with intelligence. They discuss it endlessly in considering student admissions, in hiring faculty and staff, and especially in their gossip about one another. Nor can citizens or policy makers ignore the concept, regardless of their politics. People who say IQ is meaningless will quickly invoke it when the discussion turns to the execution of a murderer with an IQ of 64, removing lead paint that lowers a child’s IQ by 5 points, or the presidential qualifications of George W. Bush. 

For those that are interested in further exploration of these arguments I recommend the ‘Afterword’ by Charles Murray in the ‘The Bell Curve‘ (R.J. Herrnstein, C. Murray, 1994). This book gained notoriety mainly for a section on racial and ethnic variations in IQ. While I disagree with the authors about the plasticity of cognitive ability of which, not being educationalists, they  appear to be ignorant, I judge their book to be a work of great scholarship and moderation on the question of general intelligence. It is unjustifiably reviled by many on the left of politics.

In an email to me of March 2012 Philip Adey, now sadly deceased, wrote the following:

you are right about the intelligence problem; the left are frightened by it and the right give it too much credence. I have been trying to argue for years that once you accept that general intelligence is plastic, it ceases to be the bogey-man ushering in racism etc. and becomes a great opportunity.

The main theme of ‘The Bell Curve’ is that intelligence matters, individually, collectively and nationally. It sets out in detail, with powerful supporting evidence, how higher IQ is positively linked with the vocational performance of all workers in all fields, including those involved in manual labour.

Like many towns, our local refuse collection service is now outsourced to a private company whose vehicles display a notice, ‘WARNING – OPERATIVES AT WORK’, suggesting that an education that develops general intelligence through providing studies in academic subjects would be wasted on ‘operatives’, whose function is merely to do as they are instructed as fast as possible. In our town this includes having to run alongside their vehicle in order to keep up with it.

But as well as earning a living, ‘operatives’ have to make choices about how and where they live, their purchases, diets and lifestyles. It is obvious that not only are such choices of profound importance for the individuals concerned they also have ramifications for the quality of our national life and our prosperity. It is not patronising to recognise that in a market economy exploitative predators lurk, seeking to trap the unwary into making irrationally unwise decisions.

‘Operatives’ may also be parents. It is well established that the children of better educated parents do better at school.

‘Operatives’ also have the vote. See my article about the educational implications of the EU referendum.

But won’t an academic education be wasted on children whose cognitive ability is less developed? See the story of ‘Helen’.

What is value of an academic education to children whose cognitive ability is less developed? It is because of its potential for making ‘less able’ children cleverer and wiser. This is true at all levels at which academic studies are taught. Not only would the UK benefit from a better educated general population, but why shouldn’t we have cleverer, wiser and better informed refuse collectors, plumbers, electricians, bus drivers, care workers etc?

What does ‘non-academic’ mean? How is ‘academic’ to be defined and measured? The results of the cognitive ability tests (CATs) used by Academies to regulate their admissions display the classic bell curve continuous ‘normal distribution’. There is no distinctive level of performance in such tests, or any other tests, that could validly divide a population into academic and non-academic streams.

All you can say is that pupils with lower scores generally find academic studies more difficult. But does this mean they shouldn’t be allowed access to them? Pupils are ‘turned off’ learning by poor teaching using inappropriate and undifferentiated teaching methods, not by the subjects themselves. What about technology and the arts? Are these subjects academic or vocational? Are we to assume that our most academically able pupils should be directed away from cooking, dance, drama and art, or that less academic pupils don’t need to study and understand history, geography, literature, science and a foreign language?

Section 2.3 of ‘Learning Matters’ is entitled, ‘The creation and growth of a cognitive underclass’. In the context of my book I outline the causes of the growing English cognitive underclass as being rooted in the neoliberal marketisation paradigm that is driving the English education system. When I wrote my book, bringing back grammar schools was not on the government’s education agenda. They had enough problems promoting their wretched and failing Academisation and Free School policies, which were also damaging social mobility.

So we come to the crux of my argument against grammar schools. Every new grammar school creates at least three similar sized secondary moderns. How can these schools still meet the GCSE ‘C’ grade performance thresholds imposed by the government? Only by abandoning any serious  attempt to provide a cognitively demanding, broad and balanced education, through developmental teaching methods. Such empowering education will be replaced by training and the teaching methods of behaviourism will dominate. This already happens in comprehensive schools that have an intake cognitive ability profile skewed towards lower CATs scores.

These teaching methods do not result in cognitive development and will not make our school leavers cleverer or wiser, which is what is really needed.

Even when the marketisation and competition model is finally abandoned along with the ‘Tyranny of testing‘ required to drive it, secondary modern schools will find it more difficult to provide a full, broad and balanced curriculum for all pupils.

Part 4 of ‘Learning Matters’ is a case study of ‘Mossbourne Academy’ and the Hackney LA’s policy of ensuring all-ability intakes in its secondary schools, LA maintained and Academies alike. I argue that the main factor in the success of Mossbourne Academy is down not to its Academy status, but to its all-ability intake. The first Principal of Mossbourne Academy and the current (2016) Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, is very clear about the superiority of all ability comprehensive schools compared to a mixture of grammar and secondary moderns. This is from a Guardian article of 14 December 2013.

In comments that put him on a collision course with education secretary Michael Gove, who has expressed support for grammar schools. Wilshaw said: “Grammar schools are stuffed full of middle-class kids. A tiny percentage are on free school meals: 3%. That is a nonsense. What we have to do is make sure all schools do well in the areas in which they are located.

But will degradation and impoverishment of the education available to 11 plus failures be more than made up for by ‘grammar school excellence’ for the more able? The following questions are crucial.

  1. Is the quality of teaching better in grammar schools than in comprehensives?
  2. Do grammar schools support the learning of bright children from poorer homes better than comprehensives?

There is no evidence that either is the case. As Head of OfSTED, Sir Michael Wilshaw should know.

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