Unlimited potential (part 1)

Unlimited potential (part 1)

Part 1 of my chapter from The ins and outs of selective secondary schools (Civitas, March 2015)


In this brief chapter I have tried to make a moral, philosophical, political and pragmatic case against educational selection. I first outline the scale of selective practices in education and summarize the egalitarian position I am adopting in contrast to notions of fixed ‘potential’. I then examine 3 key arguments made in favour of selection and the curriculum and structural implications of selection and the way that selection and marketization reinforce each others’ divisive impact. I touch on the issue of selection at 16 which is widespread and increasing, the politics of selection and some of the most recent research evidence available about the performance of selective systems in England and internationally. I conclude by making the case for a revitalised and modernised comprehensive national education system as the best way to promote excellence for all.

1. The context

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; by prior academic achievement, by faith group, by gender, by wealth, class and ability. 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.

In this context, I want to question our acceptance of selective practices and ask: why support institutional segregation? If we take the perspective of the rejected, the question becomes: why support education practices which exclude them? From this standpoint, advocates of grammar schools also become advocates of secondary moderns. They are not championing opportunity but shutting it down. This perspective can be applied elsewhere in education and I will argue that academic selection at 11 is not the only type of selection which needs to be challenged.

If we agree that the state should shape the kind of education system we have, then we can also probably agree that such a system should broadly value the things we value and reflect the type of society we want. 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 then I think we need to start by consigning academic selection to the dustbin of history.

“Education is the protest against present forms that they may be reformed and transformed.” Dwayne Huebner.

2. Key ideas

The case against selection is based on an egalitarian outlook:

“We want no excellence that is not for all.” Elbert Hubbard

If you had the choice before birth of the type of society to be born into but didn’t know your status in advance – what type of society would you choose? No doubt most of us would choose a more egalitarian society if only to minimise the risk that we might face insurmountable odds against living a good life.

The American philosopher John Rawls in his Theory of Justice1 invites us to adopt this ‘original position’ and imagine ourselves behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ about the personal, social and historical circumstances we might find ourselves in. He argues that the most rational choice of society for anyone in the original position includes the basic rights and liberties needed to secure our interests as free and equal citizens, equality of educational and employment opportunities and a guaranteed minimum income to pursue our interests and maintain our self-respect.

To many of us already born, the moral and political case for a more equal society is very strong. A large and enduring majority of people; 73 per cent in 2004, agree that the gap between rich and poor is too large2. If we need convincing evidence that more equal societies are better for everyone, this can be found in Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level 3. Amongst many other benefits of more egalitarian societies, they argue that “it looks as if the achievement of higher national standards of educational performance may depend on reducing the social gradient in educational achievement.”

“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.

The case for selection is based on notions of fixed, measurable potential

“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.

The idea that ‘intelligence’ is a single attribute which is fixed and measurable has been widely discredited despite its regular revival, most recently in genetic or neuro-psychological forms. However, even when advocates of academic selection don’t rely on IQ tests or fixed measures of ability, they replace the idea of measurable and fixed ‘ability’ with something equally fixed called ‘potential’. 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 leads to practices which gradually close the doors to certain opportunities for human flourishing to certain people rather than keeping all doors open. 

“Not knowing when the dawn will come, I open every door” Emily Dickinson.

3. Some arguments for selection

“Selection plays to people’s strengths”

This is the argument that academic selection simply supports the institutional specialisation needed to help everyone flourish. Being academically selective is: “just like being the Royal Ballet school or a football academy – we need to identify those who have demonstrated the potential to benefit from a specialist education. We are simply playing to people’s different strengths.”

This is the flip side of the ‘one size fits all’ charge which implies that advocates of comprehensive education seek forced uniformity rather than universalism and collective standardisation rather than individual flourishing. It ignores the opportunity for specialisation, diversity and pluralism present and practised in comprehensive schools and colleges. Young people can and do develop as expert dancers and footballers within a comprehensive system and without being segregated from their peers or having other doors left open to them.

When Richard Cairns, headmaster of fee-charging and selective Brighton College, said “we must get away from the idea that we can successfully deliver both vocational and academic courses in the same school”4 he offered no evidence for this assertion. The achievements of thousands of students every year in the many successful colleges which offer both types of course make the eloquent case to the contrary. The desire to segregate is strong but once we start to draw such arbitrary lines, why stop there? What about the idea that we can successfully deliver science and art courses in the same school? Or history and engineering in the same university?

“Selection becomes more acceptable as students get older”

“It is never too late to be what you might have been.” George Eliot

The case for specialist and differentiated offers becomes stronger the further along the educational journey one travels. Different students clearly need a range of different experiences based on the educational and career journey they’ve chosen. Clearly everyone is not the same and increasing differentiation is needed.

We need to distinguish between differentiation and selection. The range of needs is wide and overlapping and therefore the range of educational offers to meet these needs should be made available within a common system rather than requiring us to invent a new type of provider for every need. The arbitrary divisions in a binary or tripartite system are simply too crude to reflect the diversity of student needs.

The fact that in England academic selection is permitted and resurgent post-16 makes it more likely that advocates of selection at 14 or 11 will reason in reverse; making the case that if it’s fine to select at 16, why not do so at an earlier age. If there’s no principle at stake, what difference does a few years make?

“Selection is meritocratic, allowing poor bright students to be rescued from mediocrity and become upwardly mobile”

The promise of greater social mobility within a meritocracy is a distortion of the egalitarian impulse. This essentially offers equality of opportunity to get on within a stratified and unequal society while failing to question existing profound inequalities. While ‘getting on’ is a valid aspiration such approaches can actually function as palliatives; justifying inequalities by providing high achievers with the sense that they deserve their place at the top of what remains a grotesquely unequal society.

When a new selective sixth form college was created in our area, it was described by its founders as a ‘lifeboat’, presumably because it was going to save poor bright students from drowning in mediocrity. Sticking with the analogy; by setting high entry requirements and offering a narrow curriculum the lifeboat in question was cherry-picking the saved very carefully, leaving most to ‘drown’ and subsequently pushing quite a few of the chosen back into the water if their grades were not high enough half way through their course. Surely, a genuine lifeboat would aim to save everyone by providing appropriate routes for all students, including those who have achieved less well at school. The reality is that such selective practices depend on the existence of more inclusive, comprehensive providers to act as the real lifeboats, picking up the rejected.

The comprehensive school or college improves social mobility by keeping students’ options open, allowing movement between different pathways and at different rates while also promoting social cohesion by creating a single community where everyone’s aspiration can be nurtured and everyone’s contribution valued.

4. Systemic selection and chaotic selection

Separate but equal: a divided curriculum for a divided society

The existence of selection by performance implies the need for a different curriculum for different ‘types’ of student. These different curricula reflect fixed assumptions about the different aspirations and trajectories of different groups of students as sorted by ability. This division generally boils down to some variant of the academic / vocational divide which sees young people belonging to one of two basic types; those with academic ‘potential’ and who can cope with abstract and theoretical concepts and those who can’t and need more applied, practical learning. This gross simplification of knowledge, skills, learning and motivation does everyone a great disservice.

We need an egalitarian vision of the content of education as well as its organisation. In the same way as the Nuffield 14-19 Review5 set out to define the educated 19 year old we need to ask as a society what should we wish for in an educated young member of this society. Our egalitarianism should not restrict choices or promote uniformity of ambition or talent but should aim to offer the best to everyone. We might even take a tip from what the elite choose to pay for in the fee-charging private sector. If a broad and enriched liberal education is good enough for those privileged young people whose parents pay for their education then surely it’s good enough for everyone. A popular version of that curriculum could be a good starting point for what we could offer all young people. Shorn of the trappings of snobbery and exclusivity it could be described as elite culture without the elitism. Our version of egalitarian education should not be based on ‘dumbing down’ for some, but on ‘wising up’ for all.

A new tripartism?

In December 2010, Wellington school headmaster Anthony Seldon in his Sir John Cass lecture6 advocated a return to selection and the tripartite system. In this attempt to reignite the debate on selection Seldon told his audience:

“let me tell you straight – our schools and universities no longer know what they are doing.”

Ignoring all the success, good practice and innovation taking place across the system, he went on:

“…government should divide schools into three streams at 14, an academic, technical and vocational stream, each roughly a third in size: the academic stream would ensure that all pupils who have genuine academic ability and interest could be again stretched at school. The technical stream in the middle would offer a blend of an academic and vocational curriculum. The third element, the vocational stream, would consist predominantly of practical-based learning.”

Seldon also proposed an equivalent tripartite split for universities. He wanted the state to withdraw from the running of education, but he also wanted it to impose new rigid and hierarchical institutional divisions, a very contradictory position for a libertarian to take. Seldon was proposing the re-creation of a discredited mid-20th century model as a solution to 21st century challenges. It is difficult to see how a return to selection would achieve his aim that schools should “open minds and hearts” and “educate for 21st century life in all its unknowable dimensions”. The system he proposed makes unfounded assumptions about the innate ability and aptitudes of young people, the roles they might play in society and the proportions of various strata. How did he conclude that only a third of young people have “genuine academic ability and interest”? This closing of options is the very opposite of the liberating and stretching experience which he claims to want for all.

When Seldon came to outline who would oversee the content of the education offered by each stream, the stratification becomes clearer. Universities (presumably not the technical or vocational ones) would look after the academic stream, the professions the technical stream and the employers the vocational stream: a classic vision of social reproduction where every 14 year old will be clear where they are heading. Seldon made no comment about the means for selecting young people for these streams but claimed that this would not lead to the recreation of secondary modern schools as a “dumping zone for children of low ability”. Would the academic stream engage with any practical learning beyond playing sport or music? How would he ensure that the vocational stream is seen as a “flourishing option”? The plan was riddled with contradictions and elitist assumptions but would nevertheless appeal to the independent sector, the grammar school lobby and those promoting separate vocational studio schools or ‘university’ technical colleges from age 14.

While he claimed not to be attacking the state sector he was clearly attacking the comprehensive principle upon which much of the sector is based. In parts of the speech he was inclusive: “all children should have the chance to learn musical instruments” and “students in all three streams would have to pass a diploma in which they showed proficiency in physical activity, the arts, volunteering and personal skills”. However, the core proposals were highly exclusive and Seldon was adamant that “nothing less than the tripartite division beginning at 14 will provide the solutions that Britain needs.” Confronted with the challenges of 21st century education, Seldon has provided some good diagnosis but offered us a highly toxic prescription.

This embracing of selection goes well beyond anything that Michael Gove has said. In fact, the Secretary of State has been at pains to say that introducing selection where it does not already exist is not on his agenda and he has framed his market reforms in a non-selective context. Neither academies nor free schools are allowed to overtly select on ability pre-16.

Bi- or tri-partism and selection still have a strong following. Anthony Seldon’s speech was just one salvo in a fresh attempt to reintroduce it in public education and the ideology of selection is alive and well in more recent proposals from bodies such as Policy Exchange and the Sutton Trust.

Selection operates within a market system

Selection and marketisation go hand in hand. Selection is a way of rationing choice within a system which worships choice. It encourages hierarchies, reproduces inequalities and creates scarcity and elitism where they are not needed. In a market, schools and colleges feel obliged to say: “we’re better because we have something others don’t” and the selective ones need to add: “apply to us because we might not let you in”.

Market selection puts greater power in the hands of the institution doing the choosing rather than the individual ‘consumer’ who thinks they’re doing the choosing. Decisions about the basis of selection are taken by people in power; a highly conservative process where judgements about what skills or knowledge are valued and what are good measures of ‘potential’ reproduce those already valued by the current system. In effect, the decision about where and what you can study is taken by others and the existing power structures remain unchallenged.

Even if selection operated without a market system, it would still be reproducing inequalities. If the basis for selection was regarded as fair and legitimate and people were given second chances to get in to selective providers (eg: at 11, 14 and 16) there might be fewer ‘errors’ or ‘wastage’ but the effect is still the same.

Some Conservative politicians, including Michael Gove, claim to want a more equal society. In discussion with Richard Wilkinson on Radio 4’s Today programme (1st Feb 2010) he praised The Spirit Level saying its analysis was “fantastic”.

“More equal societies do do better…we need to make opportunities more equal in this country and….action to deal with inequality throughout life.”

Gove is convinced that more market choice and diversity of educational providers will promote this policy aim. All the evidence is that markets have a poor record of promoting equality. Unless purchasing power is heavily weighted towards the poorest, the better off will always have a head start in any market system. Does the government have the courage to regulate the market they have created to prevent it from widening the educational opportunity gap between rich and poor or will they continue to tolerate a divided system with unequal outcomes?

We need to reverse the marketisation and commodification of social goods such as educational opportunities. Public service values are undermined when public services are treated more and more as commodities with a commercial value and in some cases subject to outright market forces and privatisation. For instance, young people are encouraged to value educational qualifications in terms of the alleged additional earning power they attract and to equate higher level skills to labour market advantage. The individual student is increasingly regarded as a consumer making individual choices based on calculations of personal advantage and in effect competing against fellow students for the limited opportunities the labour market has to offer.


  1. A Theory of Justice, John Rawls, Harvard University Press 1971
  2. Public Attitudes to Economic Inequality, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, July 2007
  3. The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, Penguin, 2010
  4. Richard Cairns, Daily Telegraph, 19th August 2011
  5. Education for All: The Future of Education and Training for 14-19 year olds, Routledge, 2009
  6. Fourth Cass lecture, Anthony Seldon, 8th December 2010

Part 2 available here

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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2 Responses to Unlimited potential (part 1)

  1. Very well argued. I agree with you completely. You would like my new book where you will find much more to support your arguments.



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