“Is state-sanctioned psychometric segregation of 11-year olds, whose developmental variation can be substantial, ethical?”FLICKR: Comedy_nose

Columnist Angus Groom recently argued that with suitable reform, the grammar school system could contribute to a more “meritocratic” education system. Given that 2017 cycle admissions statistics indicate that 23% of home admissions were from state grammar schools, despite them only educating 5% of all state school pupils, this issue is particularly relevant to Cambridge.

I understand the key argument in favour of the benefits of grammar school as expressed by the system’s proponents. Coming from a state comprehensive school, I can attest that more able pupils are often not challenged as much as they could be. Limited resources and the never-ending task of controlling pupil behaviour mean teachers in comprehensives are sometimes unable to prevent more able pupils from becoming bored and frustrated. It seems inevitable then, that grammar schools can offer a more stimulating academic environment for more able pupils than comprehensives. Without my two years in a superb state sixth form college, and encouragement from my family, I may never have considered Cambridge as a realistic option.

Resources would be better spent on large state-run training institutions instead of reforming the grammar school system

It seems likely that the insufficient challenging of able state school pupils contributes significantly to Cambridge’s access problem, as an equally able student in a grammar school would have been pushed further, and is thus perhaps more likely to perform well and be admitted. Furthermore, grammar schools may also exacerbate socioeconomic privilege. Groom acknowledges this: only 2.4% of grammar school pupils qualified for free school meals, compared to 8.9% of all pupils in local areas with grammar schools.

His argument suggests that meritocracy is the principle upon which an improved, fairer grammar school system could be built. Yet, if meritocracy, as he envisions it, is mass psychometric segregation of state education, leaving behind millions of 11-year-olds who don’t score highly enough on one exam, is it really as virtuous as he assumes?

There is growing evidence that cognitive ability tests are predictive of wealth or career prospects. A study published by the New Scientist found that while there is no explicit dependence of wealth on performance in cognitive ability tests, there is a huge implicit dependence. This is to say that when a large number of factors such as marital status and line of work are held constant, measured IQ had little effect on wealth. However, without these factors controlled for, people who scored 100 (the average IQ test score) had less than half the median net wealth of people who scored 120 (one in nine people score over 120). Crucially, although the results have no power to attribute cause, they do have predictive capability: a cognitive reasoning test can predict someone’s socioeconomic success surprisingly well.

It is well established that there is a strong correlation between academic success and cognitive reasoning tests. What this means is that if the 11+ exam became truly ‘meritocratic’ (i.e. based on academic ability alone), it would undoubtedly fill grammar schools with people who score very well on tests of cognitive reasoning. For supporters of grammar schools this would seem to be desirable: after all, as they may well argue, it is part of the purpose of a grammar school to provide higher quality education than a comprehensive.

However, is state-sanctioned psychometric segregation of 11-year olds, whose developmental variation can be substantial, ethical? This is a vital consideration given that evidence overwhelmingly points to grammar schools improving career prospects. Cambridge’s admissions statistics show this. Even the most ‘meritocratic’ of grammar school systems would further stack the odds in favour of those for whom this is already the case.


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Mountain View

Rather than abolish grammar schools, we should harness their meritocratic potential

People who perform less well in academic tests are every bit as worthy of support, especially given that most are likely bright young individuals with valuable skills in other areas. It is these people who are in danger of being left behind in a supposedly ‘meritocratic’ system, which is why I believe resources would be better spent on large state-run training institutions instead of reforming the grammar school system. These would run courses in a variety of trades for those whose skills lie outside the classroom. Otherwise, we risk creating a sharp social divide and condemning large numbers of skilled young people to unnecessarily bleak prospects.

As Cambridge students, it is crucial for us to consider our place in this issue. Our education gives hugely improved career prospects, including a chance to influence future policy. As the job market becomes more complex, the dominance of those who excel at a relatively narrow set of cognitive skills is an increasing cause for concern. I am not opposed to selective schools in principle. I just urge everyone in Cambridge hailing the benefits of grammar schools to consider their potential to add fuel to a fire that already needs urgent attention.

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