Is selection really the best way forward?

After a relatively quiet period over the school holidays, the government has just announced a major new policy that threatens to radically change the fabric of the current education system. Although exact timings have not been specified, the prime minister has announced plans to give schools the right to select pupils on the basis of their ability, effectively giving the go ahead to expand the number of grammar schools in England. Theresa May passionately stated that the current system actively holds the best pupils back from reaching their full potential, putting forth the following argument in a recent speech:

‘For too long we have tolerated a system that contains an arbitrary rule preventing selective schools from being established – sacrificing children’s potential because of dogma and ideology. The truth is that we already have selection in our school system – and it’s selection by house price, selection by wealth. That is simply unfair.’

Can the education system cope?

Grammar schools are state secondaries that select their pupils based on academic ability through examinations taken by children at the age of 11. The government has justified this transition by claiming that they are trying to improve the quality of education available in England. This comes at a time when the education sector is already experiencing fundamental challenges around the recruitment and retention of teachers, increasing pressures with an anticipated rise in pupil numbers and not to mention the transition of control away from Local Authorities into the hand of institutions run through academy and free school status. Is the sector really in a position to be distracted by this new policy direction?

Universal support?

A government source told a major national newspaper that the reintroduction of grammar schools was about ‘social mobility’, further adding that ‘if you’re a really bright kid you should have the opportunity to excel as far as your talents take you.’

The proposal has received strong opposition from a wide variety of sources. Martin Trobe, Interim General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, gives a balanced overview by saying: ‘grammar schools do a good job for the young people they educate, but we do not believe that increasing selection is the right approach to improving social mobility. The evidence suggests that increasing selection would in fact widen educational gaps, further constraining the life chances of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. We are therefore opposed to the introduction of new selective schools.’

This view point was supported by Sir Michael Wilshaw, the outgoing Ofsted chief, who told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that the policy would be a backward step and is worryingly ‘putting 20 years of progress in education policy at risk.’

Education secretary Justine Greening is clearly behind the policy and directly challenged Sir Michael’s criticism, suggesting: ‘this is not about going backwards, this is about a 21st century education system. Parents want choice for their children. There are some children that want and need to be academically stretched.  This is not a return to secondary modern schools which, for a long period of time, did not even set an exam for children as they finished their education in them.’

History of grammar schools?

Under the plans, any state comprehensive or academy will be allowed to convert into a grammar school as long as they fulfil certain criteria. First introduced in 1944 and peaking in numbers during the 60’s when there were 1,200 in existence, there are currently slightly more than 160 grammar schools in England educating about 160,000 students. Overall, they are making up a small proportion of the 3,200 state-funded secondary schools according the Department for Education’s latest figures.

Socially divisive?

When they were first introduced, it didn’t take long for strong opposition to challenge the existence of grammar schools, arguing that they were reinforcing a division in class across communities. This was supported in a recent report by the Sutton Trust, showing that less than 3% of entrants to grammar schools are entitled to free school meals – an important indicator of social deprivation – whereas the average proportion of pupils entitled to free school meals in selective areas is 18%1. As a result they were gradually phased out, and in 1998 the Labour government officially banned any new selective schools from being created.

The new policy is likely to require an Act in Parliament and, judging by the vocal debate taking place across the national media, it won’t receive universal approval. Is the government’s new policy one that progresses the current education system or simply harks back to a bygone era? Let us have your thoughts below…




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12 thoughts on “Is selection really the best way forward?

  1. Why the assumption that “really bright kids” are not currently stretched at secondary school? Should we not be looking at pedagogy to improve results, rather than introducing more rigorous testing of a pedagogical system we have deemed to be failing?

  2. Why are we assuming that a “really bright kid” will not be stretched at a non selective secondary school? Must the under funding of schools in economically deprived areas continue? Would it not be better to seriously address the problems of a pedaogical system we know to be failing than to test, test and retest to prove the failure?

  3. Why are bright kids not outperforming as they should? Because they are ignored in class with teachers concentrating attention on disruptive children or silent underperformers who, at the very least, are in the wrong stream. The biggest losers in comprehensive schools without academic streaming are bright kids from poor homes without books where the television is always on and whose parents regard school as a waste of time.

  4. There are people who do not know the value the Grammar School culture as they are too young. In my day we could sit the 11* or 13* examination to attend Grammar School, any child from any background! Those who did not pass however, received an excellent rounded education at a Secondary Modern School. Academic subjects were taught along with courses in Carpentry, Plumbing; Vehicle maintenance ; Electrical work; Hairdressing; Secretarial work; Fashion; Technical drawing; etc. These courses enabled pupils to try different skills and to progress in their chosen field. It prepared them for College later or maybe an apprenticeship. Companies were pleased to take on people who had already had training in the relevant trade. Nowadays we are producing too may chiefs and not enough indians! Please bring back the system which catered for all abilities. Thank you. Lindy Horton.

  5. I do not agree with this idea. Those who are classed as under achievers would get left behind, not Being able to go to a grammar school. Those who have dyslexia or autism can be clever bit just need one to one support to understand. They can learn but it takes them longer. I am one example. I went to school in the eighties. I was either clever or not clever. I received no diagnosis until I was 34 years old. I could achieve but not had the one to one support to do do. I got my maths and English GCSE after leaving school. Now everybody should be given the chance to achieve because there is hope for everyone. Done just need extra help.

  6. I’m surprised at the level of support for grammar schools. I have real problems with the sudden death nature of the 11 plus so that some very able students will be unsuccessful on the day. I also worry about the pull which grammar schools will exert on the best teachers. Furthermore, I am concerned about the morale of both teachers and pupils in non grammar schools.

    On the plus side more able students will find themselves in an environment where academic excellence is valued and where competition will improve the performance of the more able. Also I feel that students from poorer backgrounds who pass the 11+ will thrive when they might have not done so in a comprehensive.

    Comprehensives do not help themselves by having mixed ability classes, which tend to drag teaching to the middle of the spectrum, with any additional effort being directed at those who are struggling. Yes, I know personalised learning is supposed to address this issue but the whole concept is something of a platitude and fails to stretch the top end. I also feel that the new GCSE baccalaureate PI is not appropriate to comprehensive schools and that it is not their job to shoehorn students into studying foreign languages, when too many students are struggling to get a C grade in English.

    On balance I am depressed by the endless tinkering with the education system and the costs which this generates. Perhaps we need to look at the best performing countries and copy what they are doing rather than basing change on nostalgia.

  7. As a retired teacher from a working class background myself, I would ask shouldn’t the teaching union that is being most vocal check whether it is actually representing its members? Most of the Union activists I knew were working class beneficiaries of grammar school education.
    Apparently, my mother cried because she could not afford the school uniform for my brother. Theresa May has hit the nail on the head when she says those with least choice are those whose parents can’t afford to move to a ‘good’ school. To succeed, she needs to look at the even smaller amounts of money that parents can’t afford to pay, or won’t divert their money to. In the socialist stronghold in which I was brought up, the local authority’s reaction to extension of choice in education was to get rid of the free school bus pass for those who chose outside of their catchment. In an area where social housing estate, joins another social housing estate, then another, children do not have the social mixing that encourages aspiration. This lack of achievement and aspiration is not good for UK plc. Some children are cheaper to educate – schools where SENCOs and Educational Psychologists are rarely, if ever needed. Perhaps grammar schools should receive much lower per pupil funding – the excess being diverted to funding free school transport (for all?) Free school meals are questioned as the only indicator for compensatory funding. Many families struggle, but are not at this breadline level. We should always remember that compulsory state education was introduced because some parents would not ensure education for their children unless it was provided. The same can be said for the payment of transport and uniform costs. Children of these parents should be ensured access. That is best for UK plc. Lets face it, if teachers are arguing against comprehensivisation, perhaps it is because teacher parents are likely to have moved towards the good school catchments.

  8. I attended a grammar school in Lincoln. Those who were not successful at the 11 Plus examination went to secondary modern schools but theseems students who were then identified as ‘Late Developers’ were transferred to the two grammar schools, sat GCE ‘O’ Levels and on to ‘A’ Levels. The less academic secondary modern students followed practical courses. As such I feel that system operated successfully. The education process in this country has been hampered by Labour governments since the 1950s imposing too heavy a requirement for administration on those wishing to teach, which is demotivating and limits the time available to do the job for which they were employed.

  9. Politicians can tinker with the education system as long as they like, advocating change in order to bring about social mobility and to create equality of opportunity. The only real way to achieve these goals is to banish all fee-paying schools, for once and for all. Why should the bright and talented children of impoverished families be denied the vast range of opportunities available only to the wealthy – leading to the perpetuation of power and influence in government, finance and business? A society based on meritocracy, sadly, is unlikely to be supported by an complacent, powerful and prosperous elite, determined to maintain the status quo…

  10. Hi Mike

    I’m afraid in a free society you cannot ban fee paying schools or fee paying medical care or fee paying better holidays. Any government that tried would not be able to get this measure through Parliament. You could try to ban fee paying schools in England and Wales but then they would migrate to Scotland, Ireland and neighbouring countries on the continent.

    Another problem with such a ban, if effective, would be that all the students, who parents pay for themselves, would have to be paid for by the state, reducing the amount of money which is currently spent on existing pupils.

    A further problem would be the provision of extra teachers for these additional students, as not all teachers who teach in the private sector will want to transfer into the public sector.

    I understand your frustrations but we really must try to improve our state secondary schools and leave the private schools alone.

  11. By the time the majority of state educated children enter secondary school, those classified from age 4 years old as ‘low achievers’ lack the motivation to take advantage of the opportunities set before them. Apart from exams and fees, ‘mindset’ essentially is the difference between our three tier education system. Designed not to motivate your child to a higher level of learning, a fixed mindset educational framework believes that intelligence is set in stone from birth. But you know what? The system is wrong. Almost anyone can achieve great academic results with motivation and effort, tweet me @F3Scholarships

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