Hoorah: David Cameron on the 11-Plus

by Tom on January 9, 2006

The BBC are reporting an interesting speech by David Cameron in which the leader of the Conservative party describes the rough shape the British education system might take if he were to be elected as Prime Minister.

The chunk of the speech I’m going to focus on covers Dave’s views about the future of selection:

Mr Cameron, distancing himself from Conservative sympathies for the grammar system, said: “I want to say absolutely clearly, the Conservative party that I am leading does not want to go back to the 11-plus, does not want to go back to the grammar school system.”

And he dismissed the “backwards looking” arguments over admissions and selection – arguing instead that instead of debating school structures, the central issue was raising standards in state schools.

The mechanism for this would be to increase the use of “setting”, in which pupils of different abilities would be taught in different groups within a school.

Well, I say hoorah to that old bean, and a round of champers to you and all your pals.

The fight over Grammar schools vs Comprehensives is one of the great symbolic rucks of British political life. I’d bet reasonable money that if you were to buttonhole a randomly selected member of any Conservative Association in the country the probability would be that they’d be hard-pressed to choose between the return of the 11-plus and that of the birch as their most favoured policy measure; and on the other hand, that the utterances of the average member of the Labour party when asked for their views about Mr Tony’s obvious preference for Grammar schools would not be printable on a family blog like this one.

I’m pretty firmly on the Comprehensive side, which is why I welcome Cameron’s comments, and like the Deputy Prime Minister, I have some autobiographical explanation for my gut feeling on this score.

I was a relatively late developer academically, and spent most of my early years looking for the pencil I’d just lost. (I don’t think my first teachers would have been at all surprised that I ended up pursuing postgraduate studies in philosophy given my evident talent for staring abstractedly out of the window.) I was fine with words, but couldn’t seem to get the hang of maths at all. I’m told that it’s a very strong possibility that I might easily have failed the 11-plus given my complete lack of interest in the whole numeracy thing at that age.

As it happened, I had some very good maths teaching when I was in my early teens, which got me through my ‘O’-level with a respectable mark after a lot of diligent slogging. And at the same time, I had some absolutely inspirational, life-changing teaching in History and English that set me on course for Oxford. Because in the school I attended I could be placed in a top set for the latter subjects and a much lower one for the former, I was taught at a level which, in each case, pretty much fitted my aptitude. (Later, when I came across the branch of maths called Logic, a different side of my brain started to wake up a bit.)

The relevance of this bit of personal detail is that I had the good fortune to attend an excellent Comprehensive school in a small English market town. It was genuinely comprehensive in that my classmates really did include the children of doctors and dustman. There was no real reason for anyone to send their offspring to the private school down the road unless they were trying to buy an accent, so very few did.

There was a pretty decent school orchestra in which I played the viola astoundingly badly, an excellent cricket team which they were quite right never to let me anywhere near, and most of the other accoutrements of what we may as well call a good school, including a pretty horrible uniform. Amongst my peers I can count a reasonable smattering of City solicitors, NHS consultants, and architects. I take it that by conventional standards, this counts as success.

Now, I know very well that things can be different in big cities, and that the Comprehensive ideal has fared less well in large parts of London, for instance. I know good-hearted people whose gut instincts are pretty much mine, but who face a pretty nasty dilemma when they consider how they should handle their own kids’ education given the state of their local schools. Since I don’t have children of my own, I’m certainly not going to judge their choices.

But I do feel that it must be a particularly good thing for the Conservative leader to be both blowing the whistle on the 11-plus and insisting that the way forward is to figure out how to tailor teaching to individual pupils in the context of a single school.

I’d add that the party that proposes making the rhetoric of parental choice real by assigning pupils to schools in a particular area by lot will have a serious claim on my vote.



nik 01.09.06 at 3:05 pm

I’ve a lot of sympathy for what Tom has written. But I’m a but more sceptical of the politicians…

Both Blair and Cameron keep no saying that they’re opposed to “academic selection”. But that’s basically a distraction, as they support other forms of selection and are trying to bring these in. They don’t support the 11-plus but they’re still proposing something that’s far removed from the comprehensive system.


Tom 01.09.06 at 3:13 pm


I really don’t trust Cameron one inch, but the part that got me thinking was the sentence in the BBC piece stating that he wants ‘pupils of different abilities [to be] taught in different groups within a school’. That’s a pretty incendiary thing for him to be telling his party, and sounded a lot like Comprehensive schools plus setting by ability in particular subjects, which is pretty much what I favour.

I should try to find a transcript of what DC said to find out exactly what they’re summarising at that point in the report.


Tom 01.09.06 at 3:19 pm

OK, from the Conservative Party website:

“I want no child held back, so my priority is not selection by ability between schools, but setting by ability within schools, because every parent knows that a high quality education means engaging children at the right level.”

The context is pretty clearly that he’s pushing setting and telling off Tone for not having insisted upon on it, but he could have made that point without making the ‘single school’ argument, so maybe there’s something substantive here. We’ll see.


otto 01.09.06 at 3:28 pm

“hard-pressed to choose between the return of the 11-plus and that of the birch”

And yet France, Germany and Italy (and for all I know lots of other continental countries) do explicitly divide their school age students by aptitude age 11-14 or so, without bringing back corporal punishment or rejecting the welfare state (far from it) or producing poor educational outcomes. Only in jolly old England is this uniformity seen as a sign of progress or liberalism.

As for the rest of this post, “my own experience” is not evidence for much, and certainly not for policy effects on aggregate outcomes.


Daniel 01.09.06 at 3:41 pm

I think it was Matthew Turner who pointed out the fundamental dishonesty of people who, in arguing for the return of an educational system in which 15% of children went to grammar schools and 80% to secondary moderns, call it “the grammar school system”. It’s rather like my saying I had salad for lunch, as there was a lettuce leaf by the side of my pie.


Daniel 01.09.06 at 3:43 pm

by the way I’m not sure that France does “select” students (in the sense of physically and socially segregating them, as opposed to streaming them within the same schools which is not what we’re talking about) until the age of 16.


Tom 01.09.06 at 4:28 pm


I don’t think I suggested any logical connection between those views. And I accept that most European countries manage things differently. If we were starting from something closer to a blank slate, Britain could doubtless do so too.

But we aren’t, so we can’t. Instead we have the remnants of a very powerful class system, and, I suggest, an ethos in which inequality is much more easily tolerated than it is elsewhere.

Given the politics of the situation, I just don’t believe that selection on anything like the old model would lead to anything other than resources being diverted firmly away from the majority who get into the non-academic schools.


Bob B 01.09.06 at 5:25 pm

“I think it was Matthew Turner who pointed out the fundamental dishonesty of people who, in arguing for the return of an educational system in which 15% of children went to grammar schools and 80% to secondary moderns, call it ‘the grammar school system’.”

C’mon. The more usual labels were “selective education” or the “11-plus sytem” and btw the average selection of the grammar schools was c. 25%, not 15%. My recollection is that only in Gateshead was the selection for the grammar schools there down at 15%. In some places, it was possible to have several goes at the 11-plus examination if there were grammar school places remaining after the initial trawl.

David Cameron’s announcement leaves unclear what is to happen to the remaining 164 “grammar schools” in England. Hopefully, they won’t disappear as they have maintained high education standards often in environments otherwise hostile or indifferent to educational values. It is easy to overlook now that Attlee’s Labour government of 1945-51 implemented and defended 11-plus selection as an egalitarian measure.

It was said, with much truth in those times, to be a means of ensuring that those with aptitudes for an academic education had access to the schools with the capacity to deliver an academic curiculum. In Britain, we do tend to look at policy options in a curiously insular way – as best I can gather, there are no current threats by the respective central governments to abolish lycee schools in France or the gymnasiums in Germany.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating thereof. It happens I live in a London borough which has retained a cluster of outstanding single-sex ex-grammar schools which usually feature in any list of the best 200 schools in England judged by examination results. No one is forced to apply for entrance to these schools. Stand outside the school gates at the end of the school day – or go on buses serving routes by the schools as I often do on my way to shops – and the schools are anything but ethnically Waspish.

The instructive and surely conclusive point is this London borough has regularly featured at or near to the top of the local education authority league table for England for the last ten years and more based on the average points scored in the school leaving exam results. On the evidence, retention of the grammar schools has meant consistently high average exam results across all the schools in the borough since the early 1990s.

In fact, there is nothing especially innovative in the stance being taken by David Cameron. Leicestershire County Council – when a high Tory council – approved a policy document in 1957 for adopting comprehensive education. It was a pioneering initiative proposed for thoroughly pragmatic reasons. All the indications at the time were that the county was experiencing unusually high population growth and that this was likely to continue through into the 1960s. In that context, attempting to preserve selection education was untenable. The scheme of comprehensive education proposed was to change pre-existing grammar schools into 14-18 high schools while what were “secondary modern” schools became junior high feeder schools.

In the normal course of events, all pupils would proceed from their respective primary schools to local secondary modern schools and from there to the high schools at the age of 14. In due course, new schools would be built to accomodate the needs of an expanding population.

In the course of careers I have encountered university professors who almost boasted that they failed their 11-plus.


Gabe 01.09.06 at 9:26 pm

I don’t think he has ever cared about civil liberties – he sees his job as protecting us, not protecting our liberties.


dave heasman 01.10.06 at 4:36 am

“My recollection is that only in Gateshead was the selection for the grammar schools there down at 15%.”

And my recollection is that in parts of Wales the proportion selected was about 9%.
My primary school in Romford in 1957 got about 25% of the cohort through the exam (only one of the two classes were allowed to sit it) but my wife’s school in Richmond, Surrey in 1964 only got 4 children out of 75 to pass. Obviously working-class children in Richmond in 1964 were 6 times as useless as working-class children in Romford in 1957.

*While it was operative* it might have been referred to as “selective education” or the “11-plus sytem”, but once Thatcher had destroyed it it most certainly was referred to as “the grammar school system”. Mostly by Tories.


Bob B 01.10.06 at 5:48 am

Hi Dave, I had in mind a local education authority (LEA) in Wales where it was possible to get second opportunities to take the 11+.

The effective height of the bar at the 11+ varied hugely from one LEA to another, basically because of local autonomy. Rab Butler’s 1944 education act accorded wide discretion to councils to set secondary education structures according to local preferences, which was how a Conservative controlled Leicestershire CC could pioneer comprehensive schooling starting in the late 1950s while a mostly Labour-controlled Leicester City Council was intent on preserving its local grammar school through to the reform of local government in the early 1970s.

However, you are right about Mrs T. As education minister in the early 1970s, she signed off hundreds of approvals for the conversion of grammars to comprehensives. There is no doubt that the 11+ was generally unpopular but that opens up deeply puzzling questions as to why some city councils – like Leicester and Birmingham – were so intent on preserving their selective schools. Was it just pig-headed obstinacy or did they have a substantive rationale?

I have met and talked with committed Labour voters living on council estates in cities who were staunch defenders of grammars and the 11+ because they knew that structure offered the only opportunity for their kith and kin to escape from the otherwise constraining influence of neighbourhood cultures and the neighbourhood comprehensive. We should pause before taking an entirely insular viewpoint. Why have lycees been maintained in France and gymnasiums in Germany? We have the fascinating case of Alastair Campbell who moved from Yorkshire to Leicester in the early 1970s where he could attend the private, fee-paying City of Leicester Grammar School.

I live where I live now essentially because of my son’s schooling needs when the family moved to London in the late 1980s. It came down to having a choice of school, contingent on entrance exam results, or no choice of school at all in the neighbouring borough – inquiries with them established that he would have been sent to wherever the local bureaucracy saw fit. The residential location decision wasn’t difficult to make. It was only after he had left the school down the road to go on to uni that I learned that was the school Chris Woodhead, the notorious inspector of schools, had attended in his schooldays.


An American 01.10.06 at 9:43 pm

I hope that you realize that the “setting” system sounds just like the “tracking” system that has been used for the last several decades in high schools in the United States.

In the US system, students are assigned to classes based on their interests and past academic performance. There are typically two or three levels (or “tracks”) in each subject. For example, there might be a general education track, a college-prep track, and an honors/advanced placement track. Students are often placed in different tracks in different subjects. e.g. a student might be in honors track in math/science but on the college prep track in English and history.

The huge advantage of this system is flexibility- students can progress at different rates in different subjects, and “late bloomers” can step up to a higher level track if they’ve done well in earlier courses.

For example, I started off in the honors track (top 15% of the students) in math and science and the regular (middle 60% of the students) college-prep track in history, English, and German. After a year of this, it became apparent that I was not being sufficiently challenged in the regular track, and I was moved up to honors and advanced placement courses in all subjects.

The problem with this system is that in the US we now expect virtually everyone to go to college while standards in the lower tracks aren’t high enough to prepare students for college.

Some educators argue that “tracking” should be eliminated because of this. I’d argue that the correct solution is to raise standards in all of the tracks.


Mrs Tilton 01.11.06 at 3:20 am

And yet France, Germany and Italy … do explicitly divide their school age students by aptitude age 11-14 or so, without … producing poor educational outcomes.

Up to a point, Lord Copper, at least with respect to Germany. The system varies from Land to Land, and some (Bavaria, for example, though they might be changing soon) are exactly what you say. In most states, though, there is a system of comprehensives (Gesamtschulen) in parallel to the old tripartite division of Gymnasium/Realschule/Hauptschule.

And in my state at least, even the Gymnasien are forbidden to select explicitly on ability, nor is there anything like an 11-plus. The Gymnasien do try to make choices based on what clues they can gather, primarily the recommendation of the child’s Grundschule-teacher, but in the end they cannot keep a child out whose parents insist on her attending Gymnasium. (Though they can give her the boot pretty quickly if she attends against her previous teacher’s recommendation and finds herself foundering.)

Finally, a lot of parents in Germany wish they could share your assessment of the German educational system’s excellence, especially after the Pisa study. Even most Gymnasien are at best mediocre these days. (Our son is lucky to be in a half-decent one, but its demidecency is down to the engagement of indvidual teachers and administrators, plus the fact that there’s no mass rush these days to schools where Latin and Greek are still mandatory.) The most telling, and worrisome, indicator is the increased interest in fees-paying schools. In Germany these have not traditionally played the role they do in Britain. The default ‘prestige’ option would have been a state Gymnasium; with a few impressive exceptions, private schools have been viewed as places for rich thickos who will not get their Abi without massive intervention. Nobody goes to a private school here to buy an accent. And yet the decline of the state schools has been sufficient that demand for private-school places is now way up.

None of which is meant to refute your argument (or Tom’s, for that matter). I wish merely to note that there all sorts of ways for a schools system to suck.


Bob B 01.11.06 at 7:57 am

“nor is there anything like an 11-plus [in Germany]. The Gymnasien do try to make choices based on what clues they can gather, primarily the recommendation of the child’s Grundschule-teacher, but in the end they cannot keep a child out whose parents insist on her attending Gymnasium.”

I’ve several comments of a factual kind. Selection for the remaining grammar schools in England, or for the new Blairite “city academies”, by interviews worries some more than a formal 11+ exam, partly or mainly because of the greater likelihood of social class bias in selection. Indeed, I suspect that is why the Attlee govt after WW2 really did regard the 11+ exam as an more egalitarian and fairer way of ensuring that those with academic aptitudes got to the schools capable of delivering an academic curriculum. Good state-sector schools of almost any kind tend to be over-subscribed so some selection is virtually inevitable. Random selection by lot is doubtless fair but is likely to be wasteful of (scarce) resources.

Large parts of the recurring malfunctions of the education system in Britain are: (a) persistent under-provision in quantity and quality of education and training opportunities in non-academic, vocational themes; (b) successive surveys showing that c. 20% of school leavers emerge with literacy and numeracy problems; (c) the percentage of 17-year olds in full-time education or training is lower than in almost all other OECD countries.

The noise made about private sector (or independent) schools is arguably disproportionate to their true significance. The percentage of school pupils in private sector, fee-paying schools is only about 7% of the total. While much is made of the disproportionate share of undergraduate places gained at Oxbridge by pupils from independent schools, we have this illuminating piece of research from Warwick University: “Schooling effects on subsequent university performance: evidence for the UK university population.”

Among the conclusions are: “We estimate that, on average, a student who attended an Independent school is 6.9% to 5.4% less likely to be awarded a `good’ degree compared to a student who attended an LEA (state-sector) school, ceteris paribus.”

“The UK’s most expensive private schools are producing pupils who achieve the worst grades at university, according to research. An eight-year study of graduates’ results by researchers at the University of Warwick suggests that the more parents pay in school fees, the less chance their children have of getting a good degree.”


Bob B 01.11.06 at 3:39 pm

Personally, I incline to the view that this news in Wednesday’s press is of rather more significance than a fanfare proclaiming that 11+ selection will not be reintroduced:

“At least 1m children are being taught in sub-standard schools, according to parliament’s spending watchdog. The figure was calculated by the National Audit Office in a report which reveals today that nearly a quarter of secondary schools in England perform poorly. . . “

As suggested above, good schools tend to be over-subscribed so there is an unresolved question about how the entry of good schools in the state-sector – be they comprehensives, academies or grammars – is to be selected. It seems that much effort is presently being made to fudge that issue.


Urinated State of America (M.A. Cantab) 01.12.06 at 12:32 pm

“And at the same time, I had some absolutely inspirational, life-changing teaching in History and English that set me on course for Oxford.”

“The relevance of this bit of personal detail is that I had the good fortune to attend an excellent Comprehensive school in a small English market town.”

Excellent? When you got sent to Oxford? Sue for negligence on the part of your teachers, old bean.

On a more serious note, the 11-plus is firmly enscounced in Northern Irish society. On the , you’re telling 70% of the population they’re failures at age 11, which is pretty awful.

On the upside, there is markedly more upward mobility in NI society than I’ve noted in English society, particularly amongst NI Catholics. I believe that the ready availability of excellent academic education is a component in this.

It’s also notable that private secondary education is almost non-existence in Norn Iron; I only know of one (Campbell).

The social mobility might be a transient thing, based on Norn Iron not having much of a middle class prior to the 1960s (especially amongst Catholics); still, I think the 11-plus has played a role creating this mobility.

It’s certainly preferable, IHMO, than the hierarchy of private- and public-schools in England. (And Tom, being Oxbridge, will know that the worst snobs weren’t the Etonians, Harrovians, etc., but those from the lower-tier private schools.)

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