A modest proposal.
The Government’s plan to reintroduce grammar schools as a way of giving children from low or modest income families an escape route from poverty is missing a trick. If grammar schools help bright children from ordinary working families become more socially mobile, then why wait until 11? Why not front load the advantage by creating primary school grammars? We already know that many children of the most disadvantaged families are set up to fail by poor language skills; see for example Save the Children’s Ready to Read report. One third of all children growing up in poverty leave primary school unable to read well, correlating with the one in three five-year-olds that do not have the language skills expected of children of their age. A child with weak language skills at the age of five is much less likely to be a strong reader at the age of 11 than a five-year-old with strong language skills.
This relationship between early language acquisition and poverty is not confined to the UK. In 2003 Betty Hart and Todd R Risley published ‘The Early Catastrophe: the 30 million Word Gap by Age 3’. So if we are serious about enabling social mobility and extending opportunity, surely 11 is too late?
Imagine the time and energy in ordinary primary schools that must go into trying to reduce this gap. And then imagine that you are one of the two thirds of children growing up in poverty that does have age appropriate language skills. Indeed, imagine that you’re actually – somehow – ahead of the game. And yet you have to spend the next 7 years of your schooling surrounded by your language deprived peers, who are much more likely to exhibit behaviour problems. (Cohen et al, 1998). Your teacher’s attention will be disproportionally focused on your more troubled classmates. Apart from the teacher, you will have little exposure to the rich models of language you are unlikely to hear at home. And as the teacher is constantly having to dumb down her language so that the others can have even half a change of understanding, even that avenue is closed to you. In a classroom where many children have delayed language skills, the teacher’s sense of what is typical or average can shift – pupils appear to be developing in line with their peers when in fact compared to what is typical nationally, their progress may be well below average. This norm shifting leads to the teacher having lower expectations of everybody – you as well as those with genuine difficulties.
Imagine then, that instead, you pass the selection from a grammar primary. For the next 7 years you are surrounded by language rich, articulate peers. Your teachers are not constantly weighed down by the effort of trying to teach both the bright sparks and those still learning to express themselves in full sentences. Soon the whole class can read fluently, so you are exposed to a rich diet of stimulating literature that further enriches your vocabulary. This engenders your own love of reading, so you soon begin to read for pleasure. Before long, you are an avid reader. Your vocabulary sky rockets. Because everybody learns easily, the school does not have to prioritise English and maths and can widen your general knowledge though a knowledge-rich humanities curriculum. Here, you and your peers debate, justify and rationalise their opinions, becoming increasingly eloquent. There is plenty of time for the arts, for PE and sports. Everyone wants to come to your school so the roll is full. Lots of parents are better off, so the PTA raises tens of thousands of pounds a year to supplement the budget. And if you are eligible for free school meals, they even get pupil premium too. By the age of 11, you are up there with the best of them and more than ready to pass the test for your selective secondary school with flying colours.
Meanwhile, those left behind at the ordinary non selective primary can concentrate on early language development without having to worry about stretching the more able children. Their curriculum can be tailored more effectively to the needs of their children, without hindering the flourishing of those with academic potential.
The Government’s consultation document ‘Schools that work for Everyone’ suggests that new or expanding grammar schools could establish a primary feeder school in an area with higher density of lower incomes. It does not explicitly state that these feeder schools should themselves be selective – grammar primaries – but surely this makes sense. What’s the point of establishing a feeder school if half of the pupils can’t feed into your secondary grammar because they have failed the test? Given the relatively small size of primary schools in comparison to secondary schools, what we need is for secondary grammars to either open several selective grammar primaries or open as all-through schools selecting from 5.
Indeed, is 5 young enough? Blanden in 2006 found that vocabulary at 5 was the best predictor of whether children who experienced deprivation in childhood were able to ‘buck the trend’ and escape poverty in later adult life. Children who had normal non-verbal skills but a poor vocabulary at age 5 were, age 34, one-and-a-half times more likely to be poor readers or have mental health problems and more than twice as likely to be unemployed as children who had normally developing language skills. (Law et al, 2010). If we are really serious nurturing talent, promoting social mobility and overcoming privilege, we have to reach these children, who, let us remind ourselves, had normal or better non verbal skills aged 5; already their intellectual capital is being squandered for wont of an enriching language environment. At 5 years old, their educational and economic destiny is dangerously close to being set in stone – regardless of the opportunities potentially available 7 years later. 11 years old far, far too late to offer any sort of escape route. Indeed, that is why the plans for expansion of socially inclusive grammars are bound to fail. As Tom Sherrington, former headteacher of King Edward’s Grammar School writes, if his former school wanted to offer say even 10% of places to FSM children, it would need to offer placed to students many hundreds of places down the 11+ rank order for the school and doing that would render selection – and its benefits – meaningless.
So maybe the answer is grammar nurseries?
The obvious objection to this would be the difficulty in assessing potential this early. However, cognitive development continues throughout childhood, and well past 11. As the table below clearly shows, success in the 11+ has no correlation with success in GCSE, so we should not worry overmuch about whether or not we get our assessments exactly right, whether at 3 or 11.
Indeed, inaccuracies in the selection process could be mitigated against by having a series of ‘crossovers’ where children would swap from one kind or provision to another, thus rectifying any mistakes. So if specially trained health visitors made the first assessment, at a reinstated 2-year-old check-up, toddlers with strong non-verbal intelligence could be directed to grammar-crèche, even if their language development was poor. This two-year-old check would have the added benefit that it would be insusceptible to middle class coaching; no gaming! Surrounded by language-rich peers and with an academically orientated though age-appropriate curriculum, these two-year-olds would soon come on linguistically in leaps and bounds. This would then be followed by competitive entrance tests into grammar nursery with the 3+, open to all comers. Some children would move from grammar-crèche to mainstream nursery while some would enter the grammar stream for the first time in a grammar nursery. A second crossover point would follow on entry to reception, and then a year later, those who achieved ‘exceeding’ in the early learning goals would be eligible to sit the 5+. A year later the phonics check could provide a fourth crossover point and the end of ks1 sats a fifth. So some children might cross back and forth between standard and grammar provision several times in their early years! Then, as the green paper wisely suggests, further crossover points should be available at 14 and 16, as well as 11, with pupils swapping between grammar and non grammar provision depending upon their success, or otherwise in selective exams. This would have the added bonus of keeping the key stage 3 grammar school population on their toes, knowing that in 3 years time, they would be competing against pupils in other schools to keep their grammar place. Non selective ordinary schools would compete for the honour of having the highest proportion of children leave them at the end of year 9 for grammar school, whilst welcoming those for whom the rich grammar diet had all been a bit too much. Perhaps having a high proportion of ‘grammar graduates’ leaving you could be made into some sort of accountability measure? Non selective schools would develop an expertise in rehabilitating children who, as their failure in the 14+ clearly indicates, learn in a more pedestrian fashion than grammar schools are able to offer, by offering a nourishing yet simplified curriculum, rich in the basics.
This would go some way to mitigate against the criticisms of the 11+ and ensure that the grammar school experience was not weakened by the presence of those wrongly identified at 11 as having solid academic potential. Those who found the experience too challenging could move to a setting more suited to their needs.
We could of course argue that even 22 months is too late. Jean Gross, at the Communication Trust points out that by the age of 22 months, a more able child from a low-income home will begin to be overtaken in their developmental levels by an initially less able child from a high-income home. More than half the children starting nursery in socially disadvantaged areas have delayed language – while their general cognitive abilities are at least in the average range. By 22 months, the gap in language skills already gapes. Nascent academic potential is already evaporating. Why should children have to suffer a poor communication environment at all? If poor language at 2 is highly predictive of poor language at 5, and poor language at 5 is highly predictive of poor reading at 11, and poor reading at 11 is highly predictive of poor qualifications at 16, early pregnancy, involvement in crimes and poor mental health, leading to intergenerational cycles of poverty, then maybe trying to tinker around the edges by establishing grammar schools at any age should be called out for what it is: pissing in the wind.
If you’ve just read the last few paragraphs with a rising sense of incredulity and anger; it was meant to be a parody of the Government’s position, a reductio ad absurdum. I intended it to be hilariously funny, but didn’t find much to laugh at when I actually sat down to write it. It all sounded far too plausible. Mad, but plausible.
Because poverty does not have to be destiny. It is not poverty per se which matters most; it is the young child’s early communication environment that makes all the difference. It is exposure to activities that enrich language such as children’s early ownership of books, trips to the library or to museums, and attendance at quality pre-school provision, that make a difference (Roulstone et al, 2011). These things are much harder to do for families who are just about managing, let alone not managing at all. How parents use language around their child is also very significant. While living in poverty does not automatically mean that the home learning environment is also impoverished, the stresses associated with struggling financially can make it harder to offer the same level of engagement as better-off parents. Parents in poor households are more likely to have low levels of formal education and may struggle with language or literacy themselves. But the cycle can be broken through early intervention for all children who need it. Rather than patting ourselves on the back for saving a few clever deserving poor through grammar school provision whilst throwing everybody else to the wolves, how about doing whatever it takes to help all children thrive?
There is good evidence that initiatives that bring together a range of agencies across a community in a disadvantaged community to help families enrich the early language environment can be very successful. For example, the Stokes Speaks Out initiative reduced the percentage of three to four year olds with significant language delay in the area from 64% in 2004 to 39% in 2010. There is substantial evidence that good quality early education can have a very positive impact on language development that can last through to secondary school – for example the EPPE study (Sylva et al 2014). However, today we hear that the Government are raiding the childcare fund for poor families in order to pay for extra childcare hours for the better-off. Grammar nurseries by stealth. My parody turned into policy.
Well funded, quality primary school provision also makes a huge difference. Reading England’s Future clearly shows that schools in some areas are much more effective at enabling children from disadvantaged backgrounds to read well, in some cases all but eliminating the gap between FSM and non FSM children. Poor children in London for example do very well – both in early language development and in reading by 11. London schools receive disproportionally higher funding than other regions facing similar challenges – although the National Funding Formula would end this; no doubt putting an end to this success too. Rather than fund all schools adequately so that they are all able to do the sorts of early intervention work that promotes language acquisition, the same pot of money will be divided up differently. Whist not disputing that the present situation is unfair and needs changing, robbing Peter to pay Paul isn’t going to work. Some schools will be better off and able to do more, others worse off and having to cut excellent provision: a zero sum game.
Schools that work for everyone, not just the privileged few; every child able to go as far as their talents will take them. Nice rhetoric, shame about the policies.
Blanden, J. (2006) Bucking the Trend – What enables those who are disadvantaged in childhood to succeed later in life? London: Department for Work and Pensions.
Hirsch (1996) The Effects of Weaknesses in Oral Language on Reading Comprehension Growth cited in Torgesen, J. (2004). Current issues in assessment and intervention for younger and older students. Paper presented at the NASP Workshop.
Law, J. et al (2010) Modelling developmental language difficulties from school entry into adulthood. Journal of speech, language and hearing research, 52, 1401-1416
Roulstone, S. et al (2011) Investigating the role of language in children’s early educational outcomes DfE Research Report 134
Sylva, K., Melhuish, E., Sammons, P., Siraj-Blatchford, I., & Taggart, B. (2014) Students’ educational and developmental outcomes at age 16. London: DfES / Institute of Education, University of London