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Selection for sixteen year olds?

Tim Montgomerie

Amid the furore over Cameron's unfortunate attack on Oxford, the media missed an important part of the story - indeed, the media and almost everybody else seems to have missed an important story for a few years... It concerns Gove's Free School policy.

GoveWoodPanelsBefore the election, Gove made clear that an innovation he wanted to see in proposals for Free Schools was different age ranges, such as ‘all through’ (4-19), 7-13, and 16-19. A few weeks ago the DfE published details of the new process for applying to start a new Free School. One of the elements was that the DfE is making various changes to simplify the system to allow 16-19 Free Schools to exist. Why is this particularly important? Because 16-19 Free Schools, like other 16-19 institutions, could select on the basis of intelligence and/or academic performance.

It is also the case that Gove has talked for years about the scandal of so few of the poorest children (those on Free School Meals) getting to Oxbridge.

It is also the case that the White Paper of November 2010 showed that the DfE intends to allow Free Schools (and perhaps Academies generally) to favour Pupil Premium children (i.e. FSM children) in their admissions policy.

It is also the case that Gove has spoken repeatedly about the fundamental importance of maths not just to the natural sciences but also increasingly to the social sciences, humanities, and to the economy (as IT spreads in industry after industry, so does the importance of maths). He has spoken of the need to change the maths and science curriculum so that future citizens are taught probability and can judge risk. We know how important maths in particular is to giving poor children a chance of the best paid jobs. It is DfE policy that state schools should be able to skip GCSEs for the most able children and focus on advanced curricula so they can teach subjects such as set theory or advanced calculus to prepare children for elite university courses.

So it is already the case that someone could apply to open a new school that a) is explicitly selective, b) explicitly sets as its goal the teaching of poor children the sorts of subjects they need to get into Oxbridge and c) has an admissions policy that targets poorer children.

All this policy has already been announced and it can all be done with the existing school system, but few have joined the dots.

Genuine breakthroughs in science and technology come from a tiny elite, and we know from a famous scientific study (the 'SMPY' study of the top 1% of ability in maths) that even a rather crude maths test at 13 has significant predictive power of future performance in maths, science and technology (a less crude test at 16 would be even more accurate).

The top 1% of a school year is about 7,000 children - so 14,000 children in the sixth form - which is about 70 200-child selective 16-19 state schools dotted around the country competing with private schools to get children into Oxbridge.

All those who regularly complain about the Cameron position on grammars (that was bodged together in the crisis of 2007) should be very happy about the Gove policy on 16-19 Free Schools and I suggest that instead of writing more pieces complaining that 'Gove/Cameron are not bringing back grammars', those people should pick up the phone, call a friendly maths whizz who is bored in his hedge fund, and get involved in opening a new school. It is not selection at 11 - and there are reasonable arguments that a crude yes/no judgement at 11 is a relic of the 1950s rather than suited to the Google age of ever more fine grained judgements -  but it is much more than many Tories thought they would get.

This policy is something that should unite not just the vast majority of the Tory Party, it is also accepted by the Lib Dems and by many in the Labour Party. Now we just have to see if people really do want such schools or not, because they can have them if they want them.


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