A brief twitter conversation on grammar schools, with Peter Hitchens

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Peter Hitchens is a very successful columnist – opinion writer and of that there is no doubt. Largely I disagree with him on major issues, but that does not mean I don’t recognise his skill, his passion and his ability to put forward his view.

On the issue of grammar schools he is adamant that their demise is like removing a bridge’s keystone, the whole thing (our education system) collapses.

He is happy that Theresa May is planning to bring back grammar schools.

I am not.

In a recent, brief ,twitter conversation we exchanged views. It began with a direct tweet from me.

His reply?

His reply was, in my view, rather off-hand and denied the undeniable, that comps as a whole are not ‘duds’.

It seemed to me that he was unaware of any of the evidence (and there is rather a lot) that disputes the value of grammar schools as either good vehicles for improving social mobility or as better schools for the most able (the hypothesis being that the most able children would not achieve their ‘best’ in a comprehensive non-selective environment). I asked Mr Hitchens another ‘direct’ question:

To be fair, from what I can ascertain from his wikipedia entry (and I know such entries can be rife with inaccuracies) he certainly didn’t attend a comprehensive in the 1960s, but there again, neither did he attend a grammar school. His academic pedigree is that of an independent (private) education and then a degree via Alcuin College at the University of York.

From ‘Dislike’ to ‘Hatred’ in one Tweet

Suddenly, I then become a ‘hater’ according to Mr Hitchens,

To be fair I did state that I had attended a grammar, didn’t think it provided a good education, that my father had done so as well – not progressed to a university, but became a shopkeeper. My ‘better education’ I maintain, came via the comprehensive school I attended for most (6 out of 7) years of my secondary schooling. Of course there then came the inevitable tweets from a range of others about ‘personal anecdotes’ not being evidence etc. which, if any of them had bothered to follow the conversation I admitted in the very next tweet.

I do not hide the fact that I did not like my grammar school, but I do know how to check bias by looking very carefully for evidence that is independent and which may confirm or deny my position. As a scientist by initial degree, I see evidence over opinion as the standard for debate in cases such as this.

There was a missing word in that tweet it should be ‘evidenced based opinion’. Mr Hitchens cites ‘1000 people’ he has met with anti-grammar views being just like me.

OK, firstly, this is not ‘evidence’ but anecdote. Secondly, who’s the ideologue here?

Evidence Matters – It Really Does

And now we get to the really interesting part of this conversation.

Mr Hitchens asserts (with no evidence) that grammar schools are better and if you don’t see that you are an ideologue. He didn’t even attend a grammar, but ‘knows’ they are better. The best form of defence, of course, is attack and so the following tweet from him ‘demands’ evidence for my position, though seemingly no evidence is necessary for his position.

The fact that I confessed to a ‘personal prejudice’ is the killer of course, designed to undermine my whole argument. I offered to send him the evidence via email if he provided a DM with an e-mail. I can understand that such a ‘famous’ person may not wish to divulge their e-mail to a mere lowly academic like me so that was not forthcoming.

OK tweets it is then.

The Evidence Against and For Grammar Schools

My first tweet was this – note, as a ‘starting point’, by no means all the evidence and not even a peer reviewed publication.

Mr Hitchens swiftly (he must be a fantastic speed reader) as, within 3 mins, he dismisses this as-

In response to my request for evidence ‘for’ grammar schools his response was simply this:

This is not evidence, but his opinion (and that of many others I agree).

But hold up, what, if he and others are correct? What if the exam system had ‘collapsed’?

Even if the exam system is poor, what has that to do with the teaching in grammar schools? Grammar schools do not set the exams and the quality of the exam system is NOT the quality of the school system, it is ‘one’ measure of the quality of the system (and perhaps not the best measure).

If the exams were that poor surely schools could get 100% A* passes in no time at all leaving plenty of time for the important things like a ‘real’ education, independent of the exams.

Even if every school was a grammar school we could still have a bad examination system. To be fair he later backed this tweet with an article written in 2004, again not what I would call evidence but I do agree that the examination system was (and still is) not fit for purpose.

So what evidence did I provide against grammar schools?

I provided links to all the following:

Gorard, S. and See, BH. (2013) Overcoming disadvantage in education, London: Routledge, ISBN 978-0415536899

Crook, D, Power, S, and Whitty, G. (1999) The Grammar School Question
A review of research on comprehensive and selective education London: Institute of Education

Jesson, D. (2013) The Creation, Development and Present State of Grammar
Schools in England York: University of York

Burgess, S, Dickson, M and Macmillan, L. (2014) Selective Schooling Systems Increase Inequality Department of Quantitative Social Science Working Paper No. 14-09 May 2014

Harris, R and Rose, S. (2013) Who benefits from grammar schools? A case study of Buckinghamshire  Oxford Review of Education Volume 39, 2013 – Issue 2

So far, silence from the other end of the conversation. It could be that Mr Hitchens is reading these as we speak, hence the silence, but I doubt that somehow.

My conclusion – when you are called out to provide evidence, do so. But don’t expect the same level of detail or rigour back from a journalist or an opinion writer – their opinion, it seems, is their evidence.

My advice on evidence to journalists?

1. Your opinion, no matter how deeply held, is not evidence
2. Another newspaper article is not evidence
3. If you ask for evidence and get it be gracious, say thank you and read it, don’t ignore it or dismiss it within 3 mins.

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