Selective education – what’s not to like?

Britain's Home Secretary Theresa May delivers her keynote address on the second day of the Conservative party annual conference in Manchester, northern England September 30, 2013. REUTERS/Phil Noble (BRITAIN - Tags: POLITICS SOCIETY) - RTR3FFSM

Theresa May is already experiencing turbulence in her administration as she struggles to defend the contentious reintroduction of selective grammar schools, and it does not appear to be settling. At the Labour Party’s annual conference last week, shadow education secretary Angela Rayner announced the launch of a nationwide campaign against the popular policy of grammar schools. In their third encounter at PMQs, Corbyn gave May a mock congratulations for uniting the education and parliamentary establishment against these recent policy proposals. It is safe to say the political divisions are deep, with even the Cabinet reportedly split on the issue.

Yet amid the noise of the fighting over grammar schools’ efficiency this debate has exposed an even greater issue in today’s standard of educational discourse and, if unchallenged, its impact could be profound. The discussion is threatened to be undermined by a creed that is becoming increasingly common, and that is the repudiation of reason and truth for emotionalism and pretence. Objectivity has been made subservient to subjective morality at the cost of individual self-development and productive conversation, and this harms students most of all. We are expected to oppose grammar schools because they are unfair; unfair because they teach kids that they are not in fact equal in ability but diverse in their potential.

Granted, many commentators have rightfully made reference to the inability of the grammar school system in Kent and elsewhere to boost academic opportunities for the disadvantaged. To clarify, this article is not offering a defence of grammar schools as they exist today. Arguably the current system offers only palliative remedies to the shortfalls of social mobility and critics have supported this position with credible empirical evidence. Yet the supposed unfairness of selection has been just as much of the target of critics as the grammar school system itself, and this threatens to thwart the possible success of a reformed scheme of selective education in the future.

Opponents are eager highlight the perceived divisions and inequality that is fostered within this structure. It is the classic ‘equality of outcome’ versus ‘equality of opportunity’ debate. Essentially they want a system that treats failure as illusory, and not one that recognises the diverse range of ability of students and awards those who can and do achieve. For the most part the response to the prospect of selective education has reflected this trend.

Former education secretary Ed Balls has repeatedly warned against telling kids that they are “second best” if they fail the selection process for grammar schools. They should be spared the upset of failing to be admitted into academically rigorous schools as doing so could destroy their self-esteem and doom them to a future of repeated failure. Heaven forbid they should score anything lower than the top grades in a regular exam. Likewise, the current shadow education secretary Angela Rayner favours the loaded term ‘segregation’ to describe selection by ability.

The professed parallels between an education tailored to the individual and something akin to the racial segregation of the United States are dubious, yet these comments illustrate the shameful moral posturing that many opponents engage. That they would make such comparisons reveals an attempt to unload a moral burden on defenders of selective education and make their positions untenable.

There can be no losers, only winners; either all receive or none receive. It is the typical emotionalist response, and rather than consider the potential benefits of selective education, such as greater choice for parents and a system that celebrates individual talent, it dismisses it as being unfair and harmful. This shows the profound condescension towards individual self-determination by emotionalists. The individual is depicted as a portrait of fragility and vulnerability; incapable of surviving disappointment or failure. We must challenge this mentality, argue that our students are stronger than that and recognise that fairness is not about equality of outcome but getting what one works for and deserves. Sure we must offer everybody a ladder but we cannot expect all to climb it, and do not take it away from those that can.

It is an attitude based on the anti-meritocratic dogma that ‘if all cannot succeed, then none must succeed.’ Proponents of this line of reasoning do not object to selection because of its limited impact in helping the disadvantaged; shortcomings of the current system can easily be reformed. Rob Leitch, deputy leader of Bexley Council, offered several potential reforms that could address the current problems that worry opponents whilst still maintaining selection. Whilst expansion in the number of school places would plausibly end the middle-class monopoly of oversubscribed grammars, implementing new measures for academic potential would help disadvantaged pupils whose families cannot afford private tutoring. Reforms like these have worked.

James Handscome, Principal of Harris Westminster Sixth Form, highlighted the success of his school, a selective school, in admitting a substantial number of children from deprived backgrounds and seeing them win places at the top universities. He notes that the percentage of pupils in receipt of the Pupil Premium at his school is greater than the national average, and just under half of all students we admitted into the Russell Group. The success was ensured by reforming the selection process so that the entrance exam was tutor proof (i.e. testing students on their ability to learn, rather than what they have learned) and by prioritising students who receive Pupil Premium.

Conditions such as these present an opportunity for Theresa May’s government to return to a reformed system of selection that offers the best education for all; but its success cannot be scuppered by the prejudices of emotionalists. Failure can be an unpleasant thing, but rather than evading it we should encourage everyone to see it as an opportunity for further learning and personal development. Once we challenge this misguided notion that others cannot succeed unless they are working at the same level as their more-able peers, we can work to establish a transformed system of selective education that works.


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