Selection and Despair | @68ron

image1@68ron is a teacher living and working on the south coast. He likes to think he can see educational issues from a number of different perspectives, teacher, parent, governor and (teaching) trade union officer. His 16th birthday present was a Labour Party membership card (when it still had Clause IV written on it). His greatest moment in teaching came while listening live on the ‘wireless’ to Mrs Thatcher’s defenestration while sitting in the smokers’ staff room during morning break.

If there is anything that crystallises my sense of despair with the national political situation it is the government’s latest attempt to expand academic selection.

In the first place it is a very bad idea. There is zero evidence that selection advances social mobility and substantial evidence it entrenches social immobility. If you want to be reminded of this see Chris Cook’s excellent analysis of selection that he wrote for the FT a few years ago. We’re supposed to be living in an era of evidence-based policy aren’t we?

Secondly, it reminds me of the failures of previous Labour governments to abolish selection when they had the chance to – a notable failure of Labour governments from 1997-2010. The irony is that when Margaret Thatcher was Education Secretary more selective schools were abolished than under Labour.

Another reason it fills me with despair is that the debate is still framed as if it is about the merits of grammar schools rather than the problems of secondary moderns and de facto secondary moderns. With selection more kids fail than pass – so why do we name the system after the destination of the minority of children? Why are others allowed to frame the debate in this way? Why are more people not challenging this?

Which leads me to my final point…Labour. I could weep. This debate should be led by us. It’s one we can win. We should be building alliances with others on this including Tory MPs. But we can not. How can we credibly build alliances with others when we can not even build alliances within our own party. We are too busy indulging in an internecine war to put the case for comprehensive education. Frankly as a party we should be ashamed.

One thought on “Selection and Despair | @68ron

  1. I think you are right about selection at 11 plus and about the PLP’s ineffectiveness in making alliances which could defeat this measure. Having attended a grammar school myself and having taught in grammar, comprehensive and secondary vocational schools in Britain, France and Hungary, I think we need to examine this both in historical and comparative contexts. Historically, the Labour Party only became fully committed to full comprehensivisation in the 1970s. Even in Coventry, which built some of the first ‘comprehensive’ schools, in response to both immigration and bombing of inner city schools, the initial concept which was agreed upon was a ‘tripartite’ one, i.e. that it was more efficient to have all children attend the same ‘site’ on the outer city estates, sharing resources, but that they would be ‘streamed’ into ‘grammar’, ‘vocational’ and ‘technical’ sections, according to ability/aptitude. It was, again, much later that it was agreed across politicians, administrators, parents and teachers, that a more flexible and comprehensive system of ‘setting’ according to subject area was the way forward. It was only during Harold Wilson’s second government that Shirley Williams and others won their ideological argument for fully comprehensive schools. However, many grammar schools maintained selection and streaming at eleven within segregated school buildings, as they were forced to become ‘comprehensives’ in name only. This is exactly what happened to my school the September after I left in 1975. As Deputy-Head boy, I was at the public meeting where this was announced. Of course, before this enforced ‘transformation’, the Labour Party had supported grammar schools as the way forward for aspiring working-class families.

    Looking to the continent, there are many different state schools operating diverse systems of streaming, setting and grouping. The main difference with the UK systems is that any selection takes place at 14, not 11. Every teacher knows the difference in child development between these ages. Also, selection is done through school-controlled aptitude tests and interviews, not by national testing. The most comprehensive form of education I have observed, and my son has taught in, is the ‘Gesamtschule’ system in some of the German ‘lander’, where students of mixed abilities work together in small groups. In Hungary, the tripartite system discriminates mainly according to aptitude, and is largely self-selecting. Secondary technical and vocational schools contain pupils whose practical abilities in languages are suited to bilingual education, and they are just as successful as more ‘academic’ students who attend gimnázia. This prompts many parents and pupils to choose these forms of secondary education over gimnázia, certainly in the town I work in. They do not feel that they have been labelled ‘second best’.

    The problem is not with binary or tripartite division of schools, but with selection at 11. Even though I scraped through, under great pressure, my eleven plus, I was still discriminated against by the strict streaming system which denied me the opportunity to follow my two ‘best’ subjects at that age, Music and Latin. As a teacher with varied experience, I can see the benefits of a variety of schools with different approaches to selection by subject ability and aptitude. I hope the Labour Party will not fall into the trap of returning to a ‘one type fits all’ system, with over-testing at 14 and 16 (again, not present in continental systems), and a rigid national curriculum. Many former ‘Eastern bloc’ countries like Hungary remain more egalitarian than the UK because they have a school system which meets the diverse needs of both children and society. That said, the UK should do away with selection at 11. But opposing a modest expansion of ‘grammar’ schools for more academic children on ideological grounds is not likely to ensure greater equality, but rather a lack of diversity in skills and abilities. ‘Equality’ is not ‘Uniformity’.

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