A man he may grow

Michael Rosen’s written a long and thoughtful piece about his experience of the grammar school system in the 1950s. I don’t know if it’s going to appear in print or on a higher-profile blog, but at the moment it’s just a post on his own blog – and he’s such a prolific poster that it’s going to roll off the bottom of the front page at any moment.

So catch it while you can – it’s a must-read for anyone who’s interested in the debate around grammar schools, or interested in debates about selective education, or secondary education in general. And anyone who’s got kids at school, has kids at school or is ever likely to. And anyone who went to a grammar school, or a selective school, or a comprehensive, or a secondary modern… Basically, you should read this.

It rings so many bells, both positively and negatively (really? we didn’t do that) that I’m tempted to live-blog my reactions to it, but that would be rather self-indulgent. I’ll just mention one small detail of Rosen’s story. He mentions that he was born in 1946, his mother’s second son, and that she died in 1976, aged 55. My own mother had her 55th birthday in 1976; I had my 16th. The coincidence of one date, and the differences of the others, raise all sorts of questions. I can’t begin to imagine my life if my mother had died in her 50s; it was hard enough when it did happen, thirty years later. Then: is it easier for an adult to lose a parent who dies relatively young? Then: easier than what?

But back to school, and a detail of Rosen’s story that sparked off a problem-solving train of thought. He writes:

the pass rate for the 11-plus wasn’t the same for boys and girls and it wasn’t the same from area to area. That’s to say, it panned out at the time that girls were generally better than boys at passing this exam. However, the places for boys and girls was split evenly between us. Somehow or another they engineered what was in reality something like a 55-45% split into a 50-50% cent split. Clearly, some five per cent of girls were serious losers in this and some five per cent of boys some kind of gainers – at least as far as the system thought of us.

But that last sentence can’t be right.

Say for the sake of simplicity that the children taking the test were evenly divided between boys and girls, rather than being 49:51 or 48:52. Then we want to know how many kids passed, and then how many were pushed up or down to even up the figures. Another thing I learned from Rosen’s post is that the pass rate varied from region to region(!), depending on the availability of grammar school places(!!), but let’s forget that for the moment and assume that about one in five passed the 11-plus (in fact the proportion ranged from 30% down to 10%).

So we’ve got, oh, let’s say 10,000 kids, made up of 5,000 boys and 5,000 girls, and 2,000 of them are going to Grammar School, the lucky so-and-so’s. Now, 55% of those 2,000 – 1,100 – are girls, and only 900 are boys. So we need to balance things up, and we skim off the dimmest 100 girls who passed and promote the brightest 100 boys who didn’t (each and every one of whom is officially less bright, and hence less able to benefit from grammar school, than the 100 girls we’ve just sent to the secondary mod, but we avert our eyes at this point).

So that’s 5% of girls demoted, 5% of boys promoted? No – it’s 100/5000, or 2%. When you massage that 55% down to 50%, the 5% that’s lost is 5% of the cohort that passed the exam (male and female), not of the girls (passed and failed). You could also say that the really serious losers – the ones who have been unfairly discriminated against even by the system’s own standards – are 100 out of the 1,100 girls who passed: roughly 9.1%. The serious gainers, on the other hand, are 100 out of the 4,100 boys who failed, roughly (reaches for calculator) 2.4%.

So there you go: applied maths for real-world problem-solving.

Clearly, some two per cent of girls (or nine per cent of the girls who passed the exam) were serious losers in this and some two per cent of boys some kind of gainers – at least as far as the system thought of us.

At which point I feel a bit like Babbage correcting Tennyson, but it’s right, dammit. And besides, without the maths I wouldn’t have arrived at the figure of nine per cent – for the girls who passed the eleven-plus but were artificially failed to even up the numbers – which is pretty shocking.

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