The selection debate

The launch of ‘The Ins and Outs of Selective Secondary Schools’ a collection of essays on selection published by Civitas was an opportunity for advocates and opponents of selection to revisit familiar arguments. The debate was mostly good natured but we heard little that was new. The chasm which separates us is still pretty wide.

My own contribution, ‘Unlimited Potential’ can be read in two parts here and here. It is an attempt to summarize the moral, philosophical, political and pragmatic case against selective practices in education from an egalitarian standpoint.

On the pro-selection side, David Davies MP mounted a stout defence of grammar schools arguing that the fall in social mobility is directly attributable to the death of the selective system in much of the country. Other advocates of selection from both grammar schools, faith schools and fee-paying selective schools chimed in with accounts of their successes and suggestions for new ways to extend selection or make it more ‘efficient’, such as providing more opportunities to select at different ages.

Fiona Millar, Margaret Tulloch, Henry Stewart and others made a robust case for a comprehensive approach and offered evidence that this is both fairer and more successful in providing opportunities and meeting the needs of all students.

Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt MP came across as something of a fence-sitter on this issue. He did not feel that the extension of grammar schools was the best way to extend opportunities but made no commitment to end selection at 11 where it exists. His most constructive point was that schools should work in partnership and be judged more by their aggregate achievements, for example with students who receive free meals. However, he was clearly open to the idea of selection at 14 and his ‘technical colleges’ sounded very much like a form of segregated provision resulting from a selective mind-set which labels students as ‘vocational’ or ‘academic’. This was far from the unambiguous defence of the comprehensive principle which his natural supporters would have liked.

I think the problem with this debate is that it is fixated on the institutional level and the success or otherwise of particular institutions, notably grammar schools. As some speakers pointed out, this fails to recognise the bigger question about what we want from the whole system. Grammar schools don’t exist in a vacuum, their existence requires the existence of secondary moderns, however you dress them up or rebrand them. Every other form of institutional selection also has consequences which reverberate throughout the system.

The debate should therefore be located at the level of the system. We should be asking ourselves what we want from the system and how it can ensure the best opportunities for all young people. Once we shift our focus to this level, it becomes obvious that policy, planning, resource allocation, quality improvement, accountability and inspection all need to take more account of the experience and opportunities of every young person in every school, locally, regionally and nationally.

So, rather than our current worst-case coupling of ‘hands-off’ at the macro-level and excessive interference at the micro-level, Government policy and interventions should be designed to promote whole-system thinking, to incentivise area collaboration, to develop system leadership and accountability and to reward whole cohort improvement.

However, shifting our gaze towards the whole system would also require us to call into question the prevailing market philosophy which regards schools as atomised providers, or chains of providers, competing in a (far from perfect) market where the success of the few is predicated on the failure of the many.

We can argue about all the selective practices used to label, classify and segregate young people and skew the market. But perhaps we should move beyond the debates about different types of school and consider instead what our shared aims and values are for the whole? This might give us some chance of creating an education system in which all schools can thrive and every young person flourish.


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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