Thursday, November 16, 2006

Everything You Learnt About Schools Is Wrong

Are grammar schools liberal?

I ask because it rather bizarrely came up on Question Time when Ming was on and it prompted him into one of his leftier rants about social divisiveness and so forth. (I also ask because I enjoy sticking grenades under bits of policy we hold as sacrosanct, but that’s just my own particular perversity…)

The principal argument against grammar schools has remained unchanged for quite a while now; that by forcible dividing pupils at age 11, grammar schools established a fundamental divide between those who passed and those who failed, and that these attitudes dogged those who failed throughout life. Which is all very fine and splendid, but then it does raise another question;

In what way was any of that the fault of the grammar schools?

It should always be noted that the original specification of the 1944 Education Act had three tiers rather than two. The catastrophic nature of the failure to adequately fund the Technical Schools as an alternative to the Secondary Moderns cannot be overstated. In a three-tier system, your position in the grand scheme of things can be considered to have some connection to your ability; in a two-tier system, your position is the result of some arbitrary line in the sand that will never be acceptable to people, and with very good reason.

So let’s rephrase the question; is selection by ability liberal?

Now that is a relevant question, since what we are being offered at the moment is the very opposite, i.e. selection by anything but ability. First there were the specialist schools, designed to allow some selection by aptitude. Now let’s be very clear, specialist school status is bullshit; I’ve known this ever since Katharine Lady Berkeley school (taught French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian and Chinese) was refused Language College status in the same year my own school (taught French and German but was a grammar and a Beacon school) was granted that status. The net result is that specialist school status exists not to improve bad schools but to improve good ones.

Then Blair and co. come marching in with their big size nines and load on City Academies, Trust Schools and now Faith Schools. Again, let’s not beat around the bush; City Academies exist to give a mechanism whereby government can foist PFI rebuilding on any school that’s even so much as mediocre, to which I refer you to my previous comments about rail privatisation and how making the trains look shiny never solved the fundamental issue. Trust Schools exist to allow the schools that were good in the first place to ensure that status by letting them cherry-pick, and since in order to placate Prescott that cannot be by academic selection it will almost certainly be on the basis of teachers liking the look of people or liking the look of where they live. And as for faith schools, well, let’s just say, anyone stupid enough to come up with that idea deserves everything they get…

Thankfully, that whole system is so legally unworkable that it will collapse around the government’s ears. I can even tell you exactly where and how; it’ll be somewhere in East Lancashire or West Yorkshire, when a Muslim family with a son with a gift for cricket discover that their local Specialist Sports College is the local Roman Catholic High School. The cricket angle will get them pro bono legal work from some crusty old barrister who just happens to be an MCC member and the whole edifice will end up in the European Court of Human Rights.

In a way, we as a party have the solution already, in that we support full implementation of the Tomlinson Report. And yet Tomlinson remains an incomplete article in that it fails to consider the downstream implications of its own suggestions; ultimately, Tomlinson breaks the final division in education, that between academic and vocational subjects. The importance of that cannot be understated, not least when you consider it in reference to Bernard Woolley;

“Who wanted comprehensive education? Parents? Pupils? No, the National Union of Teachers wanted it.”

My point is, if there ceases to be a stigma around vocational subjects, then not only can pupils be allowed to specialise but teachers can be too. Once that happens, does it make any sense to coop them up in the same building as the Oxbridge candidates?

And yet, the best argument I can give against the idea that grammar schools are inherently socially divisive is my own. As I said, I went to Sir Thomas Rich’s School, one of the remaining state grammar schools. And yes, it was quite middle class as things go, but it was middle class in the 80’s way, middle class through people who had worked their way up not banked on the fortunes of others. In sixth form, a good proportion of people had done GCSE’s at comprehensives (including the worst of the lot, one so bad it’s now become a faith-based City Academy) but they’d met the standard and moved up.

But here’s the clincher; many of the best and the brightest were from Gloucester’s Asian community. Had I gone to one of my local comprehensives, I’d have had little to do with any of them, because I lived in the suburbs and they didn’t and catchment areas exist. But my school (which, by the way, had a strong moral ethos, a strong Christian ethos at that, but never felt the need to be badged by it) didn’t care if they were black, white, asian or anything; they only cared that they were talented. A world of faith schools, trust schools and city academies will ghettoise everybody; a system that was allowed to be truly meritocratic would not.

And there’s the rub; a grammar school system, with a full system of tiers, is ultimately the only truly meritocratic system going. It’s the only system that allows people to concentrate on and improve their talents in the right way for them, individually. Try and tell me that that’s not liberal? I shake my head, I really do…


Anonymous said...

Restricting selection by ability to within schools is less socially divisive and less of a brain drain.

Auberius said...

I'm yet to be sold that selection by ability within schools delivers the same benefits; it's better than nothing but it still requires teachers and school facilities to generalise.

As for brain drain, in what way do you mean the term?

phil said...

Excellent article, and you echo exactly my experiences attending a grammar school in Birmingham which was far more socially diverse than my neighbourhood comprehensive would have been.

Anonymous said...

I fully agree with you.

Peronsally I'd prefer to have a middle school system:
First schools are small and comprehensive, its mostly too early to start streaming on ability, but those who need/merit special attention can get it.
The Middle School is bigger and streaming within the school can happen. This is where you can start specialising a bit, have your basic academic subjects but opportunities for vocational ones.
Then for GCSEs and beyond we can have the Upper Schools which are as big or small as they desire, selective on ability and specialising (without government labels).

I'd also add in a voucher system, allow non-state run schools to accept it and offer real choice (how much more liberal can you get?)

Personally I think we'll move towards a system whereby private, selective schools will select their pupils based on ability but give bursaries on the basis of need. Although this still won't be 100% meritocratic as richer pupils can afford tutors...

Liberal Neil said...

What is illiberal is assuming that you can group children together into those who are academically minded and those that are not.

The problem with any of the various systems of schools you have described is that they all, to one extent or another, are based on doing this.

That means that at age 11, or whenever the cut off point is, you inevitably close down a range of options for each child.

The aim of the comprehensive system was to provide the whole range of opportunities within each school.

This obviosuly does mean taking account of each child's ability in each subject, but allows flexibility for a child who may, for example, be good at maths but not humanities, or is talented at woodwork and languages but not maths and science.

The result of comprehensivisation, alongside the expansion of Higher education and grants, was a significant increase in social mobility.

Now clearly there were problems, the comprehensive system was never funded to the level necessary to turn the ideal into reality, but overall it confounded the critics and did not lead to a collapse in standards. By and large the children from those homes who were always going to 'do well' at school continues to do so while many of those who had not traditionally done well also thrived.

One final point - if you were educated in an area that had a Grammar School and 'comprehensives' then they weren't really comprehensives at all.

Joe Otten said...

I must say, as someone who has bought their way into a district with good schools, I would be furious if that kind of selection were suddenly taken away, unless it were replaced by something else that still allowed my children the better kind of education.

But, anyway, I suspect a binary divide based only on selection by willingness to work would be quite effective. AFAICT The talented kids in tough schools are hurt most by the disruption of lessons.

Adele R said...

Very interesting and incredibly well thought out be I have to disagree with you. This is particuarly poignant as that idiot Chris Woodhead had written a load of rubbbish in the Sunday times.

Grammar schools are not meritocratic. They give people an unequal start in life. They give those who develop early on a better education, which is simply unfair. They are divisive and lead to segregation. Theres no way I could have passed the 11 plus but does that mean I should have to go to a bad school. Luckily my area had a fantastic state school and that is sort of what I want everyone to have the chance to do. Its all about levelling up. The comprehensive ideal is in the soul of every good teacher and I happen to think that there is something inspiring about it.

This is coming from a labour party member who thinks the latest education bill is one of worst things that labour have done since coming to power. Worse than Iraq in fact. We don't need private shools, grammar schools, faith schools, academies. They just serve to divide people. Segregation is so wrong and makes a mockery of the idea of equality of opportunity.

Nathan said...

Like most debates on selective education the argument here is based on a number of assumptions and while they may well be wholly valid they still need to be mentioned in your discussion. The first is you assume that all children who come to sit the 11+ will have had the capacity to rise to a similar intellectual standard before hand – in short you argument assumes that for the 11+ to operate effectively the primary school system must operate effectively. In addition you assume all parents will take an equal interest. If they don’t then all the 11+ will really prove is who has the most ambitious parents.

Secondly you never actually consider what the 11+ will actually contain. The form of selection used will have a radical effect on the nature of the grammar school they create. If you base it on English, reasoning and maths (as my 11+ was) what do you do if someone is excellent in two of the three disciplines but poor in the last? Why do those three subjects dictate what it is to be intelligent? Consider the famous (although almost certainly fictitious) story of a mathematician trying to teach Mozart algebra and giving up as he hadn’t a clue what he was doing. Are you going to try and use an IQ based system and what about the arguments then that IQ doesn’t consider the person’s potential to apply the intelligence they possess? Will all Grammar Schools in the country set their own admissions standards or will there be a national exam and if there is what will happen in certain areas of the country where the average intelligence may be lower. Would students who would have failed the 11+ in one area be allowed to go to Grammar Schools in others? There is a real risk that the selection system could be open to both legal and ethical challenge.

Finally, you talk about the specialisation of teachers. What exactly do you mean? Specialised according to subject or according to the talent of the pupils they teach. What form of opportunities will be available in technical schools? If someone there wants to learn about differential calculus, even though they have not proved especially mathematical will they be allowed to or will the range of subjects be carefully fixed? This is an extreme example but it does mean that there is a real risk that the Grammar Schools will be seen to be teaching learning for learning’s sake and the Technical and Secondary moderns teaching for employments sake. This means that any attempt to remove social stigma will fail (regardless how illogical the stigma may be)

One of the people I met when I left Uni was a Swiss economics graduate called Derk. He’s very talented – he was sent to the USA for a year to study, but he always says one of the best things that ever happened to him was when he was sent to do his National Service in the Swiss Army. After 25 years mixing only with the intellectual elite he had to sit in a hole with a bunch of other people from around his town armed with a gun and they had to get on together. It was, to quote him, like a kick up the arse, and it taught him how to deal with people. That is as much a function of a school as anything on the curriculum and if you only meet people you consider your intellectual equal you are missing one of the core functions of education.

My personal opinion, for what it is worth, is that the best form of education is through large comprehensives, which accept students of all abilities and then divide them into different sets by subject. The purpose of the grammar school was to provide the more academic with an opportunity to be taught. That occurs in a classroom, not in the sports hall or the canteen and I fail to see why selection on academic ability should affect anything that does not relate to it.