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Mark Ellse: Grammar schools get the best results because they get the best kids


School exam results are a few weeks past now and we can look at them a little bit more dispassionately. Over the next few weeks, parents will be looking at 2014 school exam results, the latest ones available before they make choices of secondary school for their children.

Just imagine that you live in Bexley. Your 10-year-old child is in Year 6. You think a lot of your child. Which school should you choose for them?

Looking through the Department for Education ‘School and college performance tables’ for Bexley, there is an obvious ‘best school’ for your child. It is Bexley Grammar School. Like other grammar schools in Kent it is a hangover from the dark ages of educational selection. Goodness knows why it is allowed to exist. Every Labour supporter in the area would have it abolished – except for those with children who they want to go there.

Bexley Grammar School is the epitome of educational excellence. Well, not exactly. But it is certainly OK. Last year 96 per cent of its pupils achieved five or more A*- C GCSEs including English and maths. Staggering!

Bexley Grammar School is an ‘academy converter’. That means that it is technically a new entity. But, in 2011, Ofsted (raising standards: improving lives) was ‘pleased to provide some important information’ about the school. It kindly informed parents that ‘Ofsted Inspectors judged your child’s school to be outstanding’ and as a result it will ‘not be subject to routine inspection’. Sounds fine then!

One of the alternatives is Bexleyheath Academy. That’s an ‘Academy Sponsor Led’. It must be getting better because it is an ‘Academy’. But let’s have a look at the results.

Bexleyheath Academy is clearly not a patch on Bexley Grammar School. You can tell it straightaway from the results. A mere 49 per cent of children achieved five or more A*-C GCSEs including English and maths, less than half that of the the Grammar School. And if we look at the Ofsted report, it’s not a bad school but its ‘good all round’ compares unfavourably with the Grammar School’s ‘outstanding’. Really there is no choice at all.

Except just for one tiny little matter.

Bexley Grammar School is selective. It takes the very best children in the area. And Bexleyheath Academy picks up what is left. How on earth can you compare two schools which accept completely different types of children?

The Department for Education has some bright and fair minded people on their staff. If you talk to their statistics department they understand fully that the bald comparison between a selective grammar school and an unselective comprehensive school is not fair. They have a way of comparing schools that is a better comparison. It is called added value.

Added value scores compare the ability of pupils before they start secondary school with their best 8 GCSE scores the at age 16. For an average school the added value is a convenient 1000. It’s worth comparing the added value scores of Bexley Grammar School with Bexleyheath Academy.

In 2014, Bexley Grammar School had an added value of 1009.1, barely above average. On the other hand, Bexleyheath Academy had an added value score of 1013.8. That comprehensive school, only good (certainly not outstanding), which only got 49 per cent of its pupils to get five good GCSEs, actually did better than  the ‘outstanding’ grammar school.

Selective grammar schools are no miracle. They achieve excellent results because they take the best kids. If, one year, as an experiment, one sent the best kids to Bexleyheath Academy and the rest to Bexley Grammar School, it’s pretty obvious that Bexleyheath Academy would get the best GCSE results. Of course some schools are a little better than others, and some are a little worse. Some teachers are great and some are not so good. But the same is true for solicitors, cleaners, carpenters and all the rest. Like most workers, the vast majority of teachers do a pretty good day’s work.

There is a myth about good schools versus bad schools. In practice the differences are relatively small. Those schools that get the best exam results are those that get the best pupils. It is, I am afraid, as simple as that.

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Mark Ellse
Mark Ellse
Mark Ellse is a physicist and author. He is a former headmaster, independent school inspector and A level chief examiner.

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