Why group socialisation theory argues against grammar schools

My last post was written to explain why I thought ‘grammar schools for all’ was probably an unworkable idea. I introduced Judith Rich Harris’s group socialisation theory to support my arguments, but may have done so in a way which muddied the water. Katherine Birbalsingh picked up from reading my post that I was inadvertently advancing an argument which leant support to those advocating for more academic selection at the age of 11. Reading her response has helped to clarify my thinking and, to ensure that my arguments can’t be used in this way I feel I need to write a rebuttal to Birbalsingh’s blog.

Helpfully, Birbalsingh lays out 12 points in which she develops her interpretation of my line of reasoning. I refute them thus:

  1. Firstly, I don’t believe social mobility is the chief purpose of education (although it might be a happy byproduct, and neither do I accept that the transmission of culture should be education’s aim (although it is a necessary part of what education must do.) Instead, I argue that the aim of education is to make children cleverer. I’ve summarised my position here.
  2. I’m not arguing that we need ‘less good schools’, I’m arguing that ‘less good schools’ are an inevitable and undesirable product of academic selection.
  3. The effect of grammar schools is this: Able children don’t do discernibly better in grammars than they do in comprehensive schools. Group socialisation theory predicts that if you have a sufficient number (3-4) of academic, hardworking children they will form an in-group and increase their intelligence. Likewise, if you have 3-4 children of lower socioeconomic status in a selective setting they will define themselves in opposition to the hard-working mainstream. This is hard to see from looking at raw results because, obviously enough, grammars, on average, do a lot better than comprehensive. But then so they should – their students are selected on the basis of their academic ability. In order to understand why grammar actually do far worse than is immediately apparent you might need to read this post from the wonderful chaps at Education Datalab.
  4. Not all schools are excellent, but this does not mean that all schools cannot be excellent. I agree it’s hard to imagine a time when sufficient policy makers and school leaders renounced their erroneous ideas of what makes an excellent, but it could happen. I certainly don’t think we should give up just because it’s hard. Schools like Birbalsingh’s will lead the way and, hopefully, will start to win the argument. Interestingly, the arguments she advanced in her blog have led me to revise my position and I now I think we could use the idea of competition between schools to raise the bar. (More on that in #6.)
  5. Peter Hitchen’s point that selection by wealth is less fair than selection by ability is true, but does that mean we have to accept the lesser evil of selection by ability? This would only be true if there wasn’t an alternative where there were sufficient excellent schools for all parents to be able to send their children to them regardless of either wealth or ability. It might seem naive but just because I argued ‘grammar schools for all’ probably won’t happen, it doesn’t follow that it’s impossible.
  6. For an education system to be truly great we cannot accept that there are only a handful of great schools out there. One mechanism, supported by group socialisation theory, for growing a system where all schools are great is to engender competition between schools to be ‘the best’. If each school could follow Birbalsingh’s lead and strive to create an in-group who want to out perform all other schools then the ‘out-group’ will also consist of great schools. Obviously not every can be the best and there will inevitably a normal distribution of school performance but maybe we can move the bell curve to the right? Birbalsingh uses the idea of being “Top of the Pyramid” and says she takes the view that “We are the best. We are so damn good, we are going to give those boys at Eton who think they are the best a real run for their money. Think you are the best Eton? You haven’t met Michaela yet.” This will still lead to ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ but the competition to excel would be healthy for all, Everybody could be better with the result that all (or certainly a lot more) children are ‘winners’. This is, I think, how house systems work (when they do work, that it is) by creating healthy competition to be the best house in the school. 
  7. If we have more academically selective spread across the country each striving to be ‘top of the pyramid’ then the inevitable consequence is that neighbouring schools cannot maintain an ‘illusion of superiority’. The children in them know they have ‘failed’ to get into the grammars and it’s probably impossible for such school to successfully defy reality. More grammars guarantees more ‘losers’.
  8. Everyone should get to go to an excellent school. Everyone can – and should get the opportunity to – be cleverer. Education can have a profound impact in intelligence and in a system where there is healthy competition to be ‘top of the pyramid’ everyone, no matter their ability, gets cleverer and thereby enjoys a longer, safer, happier and more successful life. What can we do to stop parents buying their way into the schools currently at the top of the pyramid?
  9. I believe everyone can and should have access to a peer group who value success, hard work and excellence. The idea that those who are already the most advantaged either in terms of SES or IQ should be advantaged further at the expense of those who have least sits poorly with me. For that reason, I think a lottery system might possibly be the answer to the question of who gets to go to an excellent school. If as a parent you had less choice on where your children were educated there’d by greater pressure for every school to be excellent.
  10. If education is for raising the intelligence of all children then Hitchen’s argument that the most able should be the chosen few is a terrible one. In order for it to work for in terms of social mobility grammars could probably only admit 1 or 2 students from lower SES every year. All this would produce is a Matthew Effect where the rich get richer, the poor get stuffed and a tiny number of lucky poor but bright kids get assimilated. If, as this the case, poorer, less able children do better in comprehensive and the most able perform well where ever they go, academic selection must be resisted.
  11.  I don’t all think the ‘chosen few’ should be either wealthy or have push parents; I just think that’s an inevitability as things stand. Neither do I think the chosen few should be chosen randomly and unpredictably, I just think this is probably the best way to improve the system over time.
  12. This, at least to me, seems a logical and coherent argument, whereas Hitchen’s is illogical and incoherent.

I pause for a reply.

11 Responses to Why group socialisation theory argues against grammar schools

  1. You are more or less describing the current situation: a few schools excel and give an example to others; the system gradually improves due to healthy competition. I think that is the best we can hope for currently.

    It’s interesting to consider the question of admissions, though, and ways to counter the tendency for good schools to become selective by postcode. Lotteries are used for charter schools in some parts of the United States.

  2. Jude Hunton says:

    I’m glad that you wrote this because I didn’t think that KB had followed your argument as closely as perhaps she might with her remarks. Number 6 is very important and the house system reference is lovely, that’s supposed to be one of the advantages of houses isn’t it; houses chunk up the school to create identities that make it easier to build a supportive but healthily competitive culture. What is that, like a sanitised form of competition?

    Point 4 is pretty vital too! Surely that’s the point of free schools, a thousand flowers and those that bloom brightest… – ? I thought the government intention was to force system improvement. Grammars look like they mean fewer good schools in the system so if this is the case it pours a can of weedkiller over the UK education experiment.

  3. teachwell says:

    In terms of Point 9 – I don’t think parents having less choice would result in better schools all round, especially for poorer pupils. The education establishment used a situation where there was no parental choice to damage education 1970s and 1980s on a widespread scale, with parents who couldn’t afford to move or send their children to private schools bearing the brunt.

    Sowell would actually argue for giving poorer parents more of a say – the ability to remove their children (and therefore money) is the only means they have to deliver a consequence to schools which fail their children and groups in society repeatedly. There needs to be some overcapacity for this to actually happen.

    In the UK, just look at Education Select Committees report on Primary Assessment that came out today – based on the speculation and anecdotes of individuals who form part of the education establishment. Most of the recommendations would actually reverse recent improvements. The use of SEN children to dumb down the curriculum and advocate against testing is particularly disgraceful.

    I agree with you on much of this but we will never know who is capable of what while a two-tier system based on the ideological beliefs is allowed to continue giving an inferior education to the poorest pupils.

    • David Didau says:

      Your example isn’t sound. If we allow choice *only* for the wealthy – through moving catchment areas – than obviously the poorest get shafted. That’s why I’m suggesting a lottery that removes choice from the wealthy as well. Although, of course, they can still elect to go private.

      • teachwell says:

        Where have I suggested allowing choice only for the wealthy?

        The point was to give the parents of the poorest more choice without restriction to catchment area (it is up to the parents what distance is travelled which is acceptable. As it stands this happens where a place in a local school is not available). No such system would work without overcapacity however.

        I accept that a lottery system would be preferable however what choice would a parent have in that system if the school is bad?

        I think an unintended consequence of removing parental choice in the state system would be an increase in private provision (which happened after the introduction of comprehensives). Which would defeat the purpose of the lottery system.

        • David Didau says:

          I’m not suggesting you explicitly said that, just that it would be consequence of what you were advocating.

          You’re right that if a school is stubbornly refusing to improve, parents would be shafted; mu point is that the parental outrage would, sooner or later, force the school to get better. You might be right about more parents therefore electing for private education but there’s an obvious limit on this: the vast majority simply can’t afford at least £15K a year per child.

          • teachwell says:

            Parental outrage has had little or no effect in the past. Parents who fall for the progressive ideal are more likely to be promoted by ed establishment.

            Education is not as closed a shop as it was in the past which is a good thing. I just think that there would need to be some means for parents to express concerns about the academic side.

            I have a lot of faith in Speilman – her focus on curriculum could be the key here in ensuring standards in schools. However, she suffers the same problem as previous incumbents – her inspectors are those who made it in the system she is trying to change.

    • Michael Pye says:

      How does the report dumb down the curriculum and advocate against testing by using SEN children. i haven’t read it but I teach SEN at college level. There has been some mention of moving back towards non-accredited course at my level so I was wondering if this is linked.

      • teachwell says:

        I think the key phrase there is “I haven’t read it”.

      • teachwell says:

        Sorry – having re-read this I think my previous response was too curt.

        The primay assessment review is not linked to college reforms.

        There are arguments referring to difficulty of the new curriculum, criticising focus on grammar, punctuation and spelling (as it is apparently at the expense of creativity).

        The reference to tests talks of the difficulty of access for some SEN pupils. While I think we should everything we can for SEN pupils (and not all remain SEN or learn to cope with/overcome difficulties). I just don’t see how one can refuse to do what is right for non-SEN children- including challenging tests if necessary.

        There is no solid evidence given for any of the recommendations – just anecdotes that support the recommendations. If this report had been a starting point I would have understood. Instead it seems more like a political game with those on the Select Committee trying to exert themselves without thinking through the consequences.

  4. Michael Pye says:

    I recognise those arguments though they are different to what I am hearing about non-accredited courses at my level which was what I was wondering. I wanted to see if there was a general trend. I will add the report to my reading list.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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