Arguments against selection

grammar schoolsIt looks like the ‘grammar school debate’ is about to be revived within government, so it seems a good time to dust down the case against selection. Here are links to 4 of my posts on this from last year, including ‘Unlimited potential’, the chapter I contributed to The ins and outs of selective secondary schools (Civitas, March 2015)

Secondary selection in England

The problem with this debate is that it is mostly fixated at the institutional level and the success or otherwise of particular institutions, notably grammar schools. 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.

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 this to 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.

Unlimited potential (part 1)

This makes the moral, philosophical, political and pragmatic case against educational selection. Summarises selective practices in education and the egalitarian position in contrast to notions of fixed ‘potential’. Considers some of the arguments made in favour of selection as well as curriculum and structural implications including the way that selection and marketization reinforce divisiveness.

“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. We need to question our acceptance of selective practices and ask: why support institutional segregation?”

Unlimited potential (part 2)

Considers 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. Concludes with the case for a revitalised and modernised comprehensive national education system as the best way to promote excellence for all.

“The comprehensive school is a successful and popular expression of solidarity 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.”

From the conclusion:

“What does a genuinely egalitarian approach look like in relation to education? It means rediscovering and proudly championing the virtues and achievements of universal public services. The comprehensive school or college is a place where citizens experience equality. People are treated with equal respect, meet and work with others on equal terms and have their individual needs met regardless of their starting point or ability to pay. It’s time we saw our successful comprehensive schools and colleges as the benchmark even if they don’t top the performance tables for raw exam scores. By doing a great job for all students, they pose a daily challenge to more selective providers to justify segregation. It is the advocates of more selection who need to explain what their proposals are for the education of all those students they keep out. Surely they should be raising their game rather than simply picking the low-hanging fruit?

Like other public services at their best, state-funded education providers model the social relationships of a more equal society. As Basil Bernstein rather depressingly reminded us: “education cannot compensate for society” nevertheless the fact that people’s experience of equality in one sphere is not mirrored in every other aspect of their day to day experience should be a source of anger and action rather than a reason for giving up on the egalitarian ideal. People clearly do not all engage with education from the same starting point and many face enormous barriers. However, the right kind of public education can challenge injustice and give people a lived experience of more equal social relations and practices so it is worth trying to compensate for society.

I absolutely agree with Anthony Seldon that “schools should be places of delight, challenge and deep stimulation where all the faculties that a student possesses can be identified, nurtured and developed” and this is precisely why people oppose selection. We need a broad liberal and practical curriculum for all young people, one which offers challenge, choice, depth, breadth, stretch and progression for all, which values both knowledge and skill and provides something to build on throughout life.

This is not a theoretical argument. When parents and potential students experience what being comprehensive means, in all its diversity and ambition, they respond very positively and continue to support the practice.

English education has yet to have its NHS moment but the founding principles of a single universal health service which meets the full range of people’s needs can be applied just as well to a national education system.

Schools, colleges and universities for everyone are better placed to promote excellence for everyone. The challenge is to renew and reshape the comprehensive system rather than abandoning it.”

From ‘Resisting selection’:

“The prime minister [David Cameron] 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.”


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
This entry was posted in Education policy, Politics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s