The 1966 Coleman report famously found that schools had a very limited effect on the academic attainment of children.
The education, income and social class of parents outweighed school quality as measured by class size, teacher experience, and school expenditure by a factor of 5:1 in determining pupil performance.
Subsequent research has largely supported these conclusions. Schools make a 20% difference to a child’s academic achievement, but parenting, inherited intelligence, and family circumstances are more important controls. So where does this leave the significant investment parents make in independent education? Private schools typically market themselves by concentrating on the perceived advantages of outstanding facilities and small classes. Yet the evidence suggests these bring limited benefits.
What does matter is the peer group effect. In selective independent schools the benefits inculcated by a peer group comprised of children of similar high ability and industry are considerable. Bright children thrive in the company of other bright children, they spark off one another, and encourage each other to even higher levels of attainment. Such children create a school culture in which it is cool to succeed and where learning is celebrated. This can be reinforced by excellent teaching and school leadership.
Research suggests that the peer group effect outweighs parental influence and is the largest control on educational outcome. However, if concentrating talented children in one institution works for bright pupils, the same cannot be said for grouping underachieving children together. There is a palpable ‘sink effect’, where weaker children live down to their label and learn bad habits from each other. Academic selection works at the top of the ability range, but not at the bottom.
Given that teaching is a graduate profession it is unsurprising that academic attainment in schools is highly prized. However we live in a world of multiple intelligences and academic success is not the only form of achievement. I have a twin brother. I did well at school academically; he thrived in practical subjects. We were both successful but in different ways.
All children have latent talents and schools have a duty to realise them. Selection by academic ability does not work for all, but selection by talents could. By concentrating academic, practical, and sporting children together in schools specialising in their strengths, formidable and positive peer groups are created. Children become excited by shared interests; they succeed in their specialisms and this positive feedback generates further enthusiasm and improvement.
Selection, so long the dirty word in British education could become the driving force for improvement. But it must be selection by talent and not just by academic ability. We must celebrate all forms of success, whether academic, practical, creative, emotional or sporting and recognise that positive peer groups of pupils who share common talents and interests will drive up standards. All children need a base level of academic education. Beyond that grouping by talent engages students, raises standards and realises potential.