When Theresa May announced a year ago that the Conservatives would support more grammar schools opening in the UK I expected that this would result in education academics doing some studies that would conveniently show that grammars are a bad thing. You could expect that process to take a year or so.
And lo and behold a year on and some such studies have started to appear, and be given favourable coverage in the media. Here’s one that I’ll talk about in this post: ‘Differences in exam performance between pupils attending selective and non-selective schools mirror the genetic differences between them‘. I saw this in The Telegraph here, The Times here (by Matt Ridley, but I can’t read it), and the Financial Times here.
Mostly of the researchers are from the MRC Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre at the Institute of Psychiatry at Kings College London. Normally this is the part where I point out that this is a Mickey Mouse outfit full of SJWs, but in this case I won’t, because this lab looks really good, and the Professor involved, Robert Plomin, is a proper heavyweight with a deserved reputation. And normally I say here that the paper is a joke, but I have to say that this paper looks well done. I had formulated a few problems that I expected the paper would entirely miss, but it mostly hasn’t, with a few exceptions that I look at below.
(I could also say something about the presence of Toby Young, the Toadmeister, in the list of authors, because as one of the leading proponents of free schools, which are non-selective, he has an obvious interest in doing down the selective grammar school system, the expansion of which would be a threat to his beloved non-selective free schools. But I won’t, because presumably his role was mainly to help provide access to some students, and also because I don’t regard him as a dishonourable man like everyone else does these days.)
The basic thesis of the article is that selective schools – both grammars and selective private schools — don’t themselves increase a student’s school marks compared to what that student would probably get at a non-selective school. Certainly the average result at selective schools is much higher than the average result at non-selective schools, but this is entirely, or almost entirely, explained by genetics, socio-economic status (SES) and previous academic achievement. In other words, non-selective schools do worse because they have a lot more average and dumb kids, and poorer kids, which the selective schools don’t have (they will have some poorer kids, but these kids will have more conscientous parents). The bright kids do the same at either type of school. So, the authors conclude, in most cases an intelligent kid will end up no better off academically if they go to a selective school rather than a non-selective school.
I haven’t read the paper in depth yet, and as I said it’s written by serious researchers who appear to have done a good job, so I’m not going to say too much here. But obviously one would want some strong assurance that we really are able to be so confident about the genetics. These authors do know their stuff, but still, these are strong theses.
Note that the authors are not saying that environment has no effect, they’re saying that a certain environment X (being at a selective school) has no more effect than a certain environment Y (being at a non-selective school). They do accept that school itself make a big difference. It wouldn’t be correct to characterise them as saying it’s all about genetics. But it would be true to characterise them as saying that genetics are more important than we realised, and certain environmental differences are less important than we thought.
The main topic I want to raise in this blog is that the paper seems to be not quite getting the point about parental input. The authors are well aware that higher SES scores generally mean more parental help. But here’s the thing. If you’re a bright kid who gets into grammar school, then your parents have to help you less, because the school will probably do a good job, and you won’t have misbehaving dummies around you. But if you don’t get into grammar school, either because there aren’t any around your area, or there are but you or your parents chose not to go, or you didn’t quite get a high enough 11+ score, then your parents will in many cases put a lot more effort into educating you at home after school and on weekends than they would do if you went to a grammar.
And I’ve heard many parents say just this: ‘If our kids have to go to state school then we’ll just have to make sure we put a lot of effort into educating them ourselves, because the school sure as hell won’t do it’. And they do. This doesn’t look a like a factor that has been controlled for. Indeed, it would be very hard to control for that. So that’s one prima facie reason I have for scepticism at this point. You can’t say grammar schools make no difference to these kids compared to (non-selective) state schools if what you’re comparing is not the same sort of kids educated by one type of school versus another, but one type of school versus another plus a load of parental help.
Of course, I can’t say myself for sure that this sort of parental help happens a lot, and is definitely a factor. But I’m not saying that. I’m saying that there is anecdotal evidence that it’s a factor, so the authors can’t make their claims unless they can rule it out. Which they don’t.
This is also one reason why parents are so keen to get their kids into a grammar school, or a private school, or even just a good normal state school. It’s not just that they think, rightly or wrongly, that their kids will do better, it’s also that it makes life easier for them. Or, should I say, it makes life so much harder if the kids don’t to go. Because then the parents have to do the state’s job for it. And that takes a lot of time. The sort of people who can afford to send their kids to private school usually don’t have that time. That’s why they pay a school to do it properly.
(More on this, and other grammar school articles, later.)