Thanks to the prime minister, it seems that educational selection is back on the agenda again. The grammar school issue in Kent and elsewhere is one aspect of the debate but it’s worth remembering that the segregation of learners by ‘aptitude’, ‘potential’, test or exam score is widespread with the 11+ being only one of a broad spectrum of selective practices.
Education in England is riddled with selective assumptions and practices from top to bottom. Learners are routinely selected and segregated into different provision, particularly at secondary and tertiary level. We have never had a national education system, let alone a fully comprehensive one. What we have is the result of a tension between comprehensive and selective tendencies operating in a context of market competition between unequal schools in an unequal society.
The case for selection is generally based on notions of fixed, measurable potential. Despite its regular revival, most recently in genetic or neuro-psychological forms, the idea that ‘intelligence’ is a single heritable attribute which is fixed and measurable has no scientific basis. Even when advocates of academic selection don’t rely on IQ tests or similar measures, they replace the idea of measurable and fixed ‘ability’ with something called ‘potential’ which is just as fixed. Both these concepts start from a deterministic approach to learning which implies that an individual’s ability to learn and to achieve academically is substantially pre-determined and unchanging. This view often leads to practices which progressively close the doors to certain opportunities for human flourishing to certain people rather than keeping all doors open.
Selection can operate at a whole-system level, providing different types of school for different ‘types’ of student as determined by some kind of assessment of their ability, aptitude or potential. It can also operate at the intra-institutional level with such practices as rigid streaming or limiting curriculum options to particular ‘types’ of student.
The prime minister has expressed his support for grammar school expansion in Kent. He says this is because ‘good’ schools should be able to expand. However, this fails to recognise that grammar schools are not isolated ‘good’ schools, but part of a system which has selection at its core. If you think a system of selection at 11 is wrong, then you cannot really argue that it is OK to keep, let alone expand, grammar schools. If you think it is right…well, then you would be arguing for it everywhere else too, like UKIP.
If academic selection and the 11+ are back on the political agenda then many of us will want to defend the comprehensive principle because we believe that the common school, college and university, like the NHS, are part of the foundations of the good society.
The comprehensive school is a successful and popular expression of equality of opportunity which transcends all social differences. The idea that children and young people should be educated with their neighbours and their peers in a learning community which reflects the composition of the geographical community they live in is still valid, even if some have abandoned it. A comprehensive system discourages competition for positional advantage by school, and seeks to ensure that every school and every student can flourish.
If we agree that the state should shape the kind of education system we have, then we can probably agree that such a system should broadly value the things we value, reflect the type of society we want and offer the best available to everyone. Do our current arrangements reflect this? Do they serve all young people well? If we want a cohesive and open society where everyone can develop and flourish as citizens, workers and community members and an education system that works well for everyone, perhaps we should consign academic selection to the dustbin of history.
“The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.” Jane Addams.
“One of the great tragedies of the last 100 years has been our failure as a nation to take on the essential concept of human educability and thereby challenge the idea that children are born with a given quota of ‘intelligence’ which remains constant both during childhood and adult life.” Clyde Chitty.