The British government has produced a Green Paper detailing new ideas for education. There are proposals such as universities only being able to charge more fees if they set up schools, new obligations for independent schools in order to keep their charitable status, but the big news is the return of selection in the form of allowing grammar schools to open or expand and encouraging them to do so with 50 million pounds of public money.
I have always been of the opinion that a good school is a good school and I am uninterested in the structures and systems. There are good and bad things about all schools but in the end it does seem to be the teaching and leadership that count the most. However, I am uncomfortable with selection, as this is the best way to make some schools succeed and some schools fail. Your intake is the best measure of how successful your school will be. This would probably place me as an opponent of grammar schools but actually I am not, simply because I am more against the hypocrisy of the whole debate on selection.
Selection is rampant in children’s lives. It always has been. It might even have something to do with evolution as we naturally rank other human beings in so many facets of life. We select in sports teams, swimming galas, maths Olympiads, debate teams, eisteddfods, head boy/head girl, chamber choirs, beauty in beauty pageants, plays, ballet, sometimes even the school council. Schools select streams of ability and set. Even the ones that say they don’t still select by questioning, gender, race and even age. We want to say our school systems are fair but they are not. In reality adults select children and children select children and these decisions can have profound effects on our lives.
The BRIT school of performing arts in Croydon selects by attitude. This is close to selection by mindset. What is the difference between selecting via an examination where only your paper is seen and an interview where you are on show? Which is the fairest? And if we didn’t select for the Brit would we have got Adele and Amy Winehouse and the host of other successful alumni from the school? People may argue that selection on musical ability is different to selection on academic ability. My question is why? Why is one OK and the other not? The main argument is that we want to allow our most gifted musicians the best possible facilities and opportunities and the Brit certainly does this. If you go to the West End theatres and look in the programmes you will certainly see performers who originated from the Brit and the Sylvia Young schools. But surely that is the same argument for grammar schools, to allow our most academically gifted students the best possible path to academic excellence as it is not only advantageous for them but also to us as a nation.
The next point that people may say is that eleven is too young for academic selection. But we allow auditions way below eleven for many television shows. Why is it OK to select by acting ability at eight but not OK to select by academic ability at eleven? If you are going to select by ability when is the opportune time? Is eleven just a problem because of the historical compulsion element of selection from the 1944 Butler Act? In some ways it makes perfect sense because almost all children change schools at the age of eleven, so that would be the most sensible time to select.
I still think a fully comprehensive system is the ideal but let’s not kid ourselves. We have a lot of selection in and out of school and the most important thing we can tell children is that the systems are not fair, adults make mistakes and not to base any of our opinions of ourselves or others on what happened to us for the short time we were in school.