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Thinking about education policy research

Helen Gunter

Education policy studies has benefited greatly from work that interplays documents and interviews, where meanings and explanations are generated from the critical deployment of conceptual tools. Forensic work that backward and forward tracks from policy to ideas, people and political processes is what I have always found fascinating. One recent method that I have adopted is to write to my MP. Recently I have asked for the research evidence underpinning the current May government’s plans to expand grammar schools. This method is one that I have not seen outlined in policy research, and it is proving to be of great interest.

So I am left asking: is it the case that social class no longer determines educational achievement?

As an 11+ failure and beneficiary of the comprehensive school reforms in the 1970s I am interested in whether and how the research evidence that was used to make the case that the secondary modern school I attended should become ‘common’ to all does not seem to be credible anymore. For the May government’s policy to be robust then the questions asked about grammar and secondary modern schools, and addressed through reorganization into comprehensive schools, would no longer be appropriate. So I am left asking: is it the case that social class no longer determines educational achievement? Is the 11+ examination now tutor and parent proof? Does ‘academic’ segregation of a few children no longer have a detrimental effect on other children? There are more questions to ask, and so I wrote to my MP with a request for the evidence base for the May government’s policy.

I received a letter with information provided that focuses on four themes: academic success; social mobility; parental demand; and driving up standards. Details of the evidence supplied, and the alternative ‘missing’ evidence is in my own blog:

The ultimate privatization: grammar schools

The evidence I was supplied with is partial, selective and highly problematic. It is quite clear to anyone who cares to undertake a basic search that there is no evidence that the current 164 grammar schools should exist, and certainly should not be expanded. The new grammar school initiative means that the social injustices of the past are being reworked and enabled in new ways, and it is as if all the work on the curriculum and pedagogies that are inclusive of all have never happened. The most damning evidence is in Sibieta’s (2016) neat summary for the ESRC:

“It does appear that those who attend grammar schools do, on average, somewhat better than similar children in the comprehensive system. Grammar schools may thus be a way of improving the performance of very bright pupils. On the other hand, those in selective areas who don’t get into grammar schools do worse than they would in a comprehensives system. And as children from poorer families are significantly less likely to attend grammar schools, the expansion of grammar schools in the current form would seem more likely to reduce than increase social mobility” (p18).

So what is going on? Is it okay for some children to do better at the expense of others? This is important to ask because evidence does show the potential for all children:

“Our findings suggest that comprehensive schools were as good for mobility as the selective schools they replaced” (Boliver and Swift 2011 p89).

“…the highest performing school systems in the world, according to the PISA tests, are comprehensive. So are England’s highest-performing boroughs and counties – especially when you look at results for poorer children” (Cook 2016 unpaged).

What my focus on grammar schools illuminates is a form of belief-determined policy and practice. It seems that personal views and the calculation of what difference this makes to the self (and others who you approve of) actually matters more than what the evidence says, or what new project evidence might present. This is what privatization is actually about.

The idea of the autonomous school providing a branded product in a segmented market is resilient, but contemporary history shows that the types of schools that this generates tend to fail. So experiments have and are taking place in regard to CTCs, GMS, Academies, Free Schools, UTCs, with regular media reports of failure and closure. So the schools may fail but the underlying belief in the ideas that generate them are sustained and produce new school products. The grammar school restoration project by the May government needs to be seen in relation to this: grammar schools have failed, they are failing and they will continue to fail. But that does not stop them being promoted, adopted, funded, and ultimately replaced by new school or educational products.

What does this mean for your letter to your MP? By all means ask for the evidence in support of the grammar schools policy, it would be really interesting to compare the responses (including silence). But also lets ask for something more. I have written back to my MP to ask how grammar schools expanded within and/or introduced into the constituency might impact on other schools both in the locality and also across borders. In other words, the modelling of the impact of the change needs to be done and our field has the skills and knowledge to do this. Perhaps as researchers we might make more demands of our political representatives, and in doing so we are not asking for much: that policy is evidence informed, and that policy trajectories are scoped and considered.



Boliver, V. and Swift, A. (2011) Do comprehensive schools reduce social mobility? The British Journal of Sociology. 62 (1), 89-110.

Cook, (2016) Why not bring back grammar schools?

Accessed 9th September 2016

Sibieta, L. (2016) Grammar Lessons. Society Now. Autumn 2016, Issue 26. 18-19.

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