In Becoming a growth mindset school I argue passionately for the promotion of school cultures which are founded on the belief that all children can achieve. The selection of students by “ability” at age 11 runs counter to this belief. I wrote the end of chapter 2 in the summer of 2017, when Nicky Morgan’s emphasis on character education was gone, and in its place were opportunity areas and a renewed interest in selection. Here’s what I wrote in the book:
The subsequent green and white papers issued under Prime Minister Theresa May and Education Secretary Justine Greening, entitled Schools That Work For Everyone, made no mention of the character initiatives either. In place of the emphasis on character came, instead, a proposal to lift the ban on new grammar schools which select students based on educational ability. There are many things to take issue with in this policy, and one of them is the threat that selection poses to the development of growth mindset approaches to education. Of the top performing school systems internationally surveyed by Lucy Crehan in her excellent book Clever Lands, Finland, Japan and Canada all operate fully comprehensive systems up to the end of secondary school, having moved away from selection to improve both equity and equality within their schools. Only Singapore operates a selective system, and as Crehan explains this leads to families taking leave from work to coach their children through the Primary School Leaving Examination (or PSLE), paying for private tuition, and heaping excessive pressure on to young children to perform in a one-off high stakes test at age 12. Crehan also eloquently points out that the premise of the selective system operating in Singapore is based on an “outdated and inaccurate understanding of intelligence” – that a test at age 12 will identify “able” or “intelligent” children and act as a reliable predictor of academic potential. This belief – that you only get a set amount of “ability” or “intelligence” which is defined by heritability and which does not change over time – is the definition of the fixed mindset.
The proposal to allow the expansion of selection at aged 11 in England therefore ran completely counter to the development of growth mindsets in our young people. In its simplest form, a growth mindset is the belief that your intelligence and ability can grow over time. We know that children develop at different rates, and that whilst some will excel in primary, some will only flourish towards the end of secondary school. Current thinking suggests that intelligence develops and improves in surges, rather like growth spurts. Labelling children at the end of primary school either “can” or “cannot” clearly creates a problem for those many children who “fail” the 11+. How are we to help them believe that they can achieve, that they can learn, that they can grow, when the test which meant they ended up in your school, rather than the one they wanted to go to, acts as a permanent marker and reminder of the fact that they have already failed? Quite aside from the fact that grammar schools – like the selective schools in Singapore – are predominantly the domain of those wealthy enough to be able to pay for extra tuition and whose family backgrounds provide the kind of academic support required to succeed in the test, the very notion of streaming students in this way acts as a brake on the positive self-belief of the majority. To become a growth mindset school, the school needs to teach a challenging and demanding curriculum to all children, not just the few, assisted by a culture predicated on the belief that all children, not just the few, can achieve.
I am used, by now, to the vicissitudes of education policy and the fluctuations that occur as successive Secretaries of State use their office to advance their own particular agendas. Under Nicky Morgan, there was a sense of alignment between policy and evidenced based practice that seemed to offer a positive way forward to developing growth mindset approaches in UK schools, supported by funding. In the political turmoil that followed the EU referendum, that momentum was lost and replaced by a policy position that seems predicated, instead, on fixed mindset thinking; that too was further consumed by the hung parliament following the snap general election in 2017, and the shelving – for now – of the proposal to further extend selection. It is my hope that schools and school leaders continue to define the ethos and approach of their own institutions to develop character despite, rather than because of, changes in policy direction from central government.
Since I wrote that, Damian Hinds appears to have rowed further back on Nicky Morgan’s 2016 policy position that all schools will become academies. Justine Greening confirmed the legislation had been dropped in October 2016, but Hinds’ speech to the NAHT conference on May 4th this year went further still to remove the threat of forced academisation. Vicissitudes and fluctuations indeed.
Hinds’ £50m backhander to allow the remaining 163 grammar schools to expand may only add 3,500 new grammar places to the system, but it breathes new life into the zombie of selective education in the face of the evidence that it harms social mobility:
See my previous post: My thoughts on the grammar schools policy
Buy Becoming a growth mindset school: