Blogging from the Highlands of Scotland
'From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step' - Diderot

Wednesday 16 May 2007

Conservative volte face on grammar schools

It's happened; I've obviously been asleep for many years and suddenly awakened to a world where some dystopian nightmare is being played out; it's the equivalent of the Conservatives choosing to redefine the meanings of words as if they had suddenly decided that the colour hitherto known as 'white' will henceforth be known as 'black'.

David 'Two Brains'(*) Willetts has spoken these words, which one must presume reflect his current beliefs:

"We must break free from the belief that academic selection is any longer the way to transform the life chances of bright poor kids.

"We just have to recognise that there is overwhelming evidence that such academic selection entrenches advantage, it does not spread it."

(*) But amazingly so often 'no sense' and gaffe-prone to boot!

This is at complete variance with the facts as I have experienced them. How many members of the Shadow Cabinet (or the Cabinet, for that matter) send any school-age children they may have to the local school within their catchment area? Not very many, I think!

No doubt in localities with relatively small populations it is sensible to have only one secondary school and perhaps to 'stream' by ability within that school, but in larger population centres the differences between secondary schools (i.e. comprehensives) have come to reflect in practice the social position and level of affluence (or lack of it) experienced by those living in the various schools' catchment areas. If you live in a 'poor' area you tend to have a 'poor' school and children, of whatever academic ability, are less-likely to be exposed to people from different kinds of backgrounds. In more affluent areas it is likely that parents will be more aggressive in ensuring that the local comprehensive in their area provides a 'good' education for their children and because they will probably tend to be better educated themselves will have more ability to have their voices heard. Affluent parents can afford to buy property within the catchment areas of 'good' schools so perpetuating the social divisions politicians of all parties say they wish to diminish - but it is noticeable they take very good care that their own children have the opportunity to receive the best education, often by using their own resources and often outside the state-funded educational system.

In my own case I passed the dreaded '11 plus' barrier and so was eligible to go to one of the three selective schools in the city I lived near at the time (Aberdeen); two of the schools are no longer 'selective' (the two where no fees were payable) since the introduction of comprehensive education. I did not come from a 'poor' background, but I did come from a 'modest' background, but going to a grammar school gave me not only a good education, but equally importantly allowed me to mix with school-friends some of whom came from much more affluent backgrounds than I did. Quite frankly it opened my eyes to what was possible in the world and gave me aspirations to 'better' myself - that there was a wider world out there which I could participate in to the full extent of whatever abilities I might have. In my adult life I have been able to mix pretty easily with a very wide range of people, whether viewed from a social, ethnic or economic perspective and the fact that I spent many years working abroad amongst people of different cultures to my own only added to my social mobility. I believe my 'life chances' would have been severely affected had I been consigned to the local secondary school where I would inevitably have failed to find the intellectual stimulation I could have benefitted from amongst my fellow pupils and the teaching staff there

The affluent in society will always organise themselves to ensure that their own offspring receive a 'good' education. Less affluent people often have similar aspitrations, but find themselves trapped in their own areas and by the lower-quality educational opportunities that are often the only ones available in their catchment areas.

However this idea that 'selection' is somehow wrong is not only harmful to academically-gifted children, but to children who are not so academically-gifted, too. They too need an educational regime geared to their particular capabilities, not to be judged to have somehow 'failed' because they don't have high academic abilities, so it doesn't really matter what kind of second-rate educational opportunities they have available; this was the stigma associated with failing the '11 plus'. Undoubtedly the world needs nuclear physicists, doctors, accountants, teachers, etc., but it also needs engineers, mechanics, designers, hairdresser etc. (and yes, shop workers or call-centre workers, too), where conventional ideas of what it means to be 'intelligent' are not necessarily appropriate. And adequate resources need to be devoted to their education, not simply the 'leavings' after the educational needs of the more academically-gifted have been accommodated - I'm afraid it is this idea that somehow the less-academically gifted are 'failures' that led to the resentment which in turn led to grammar schools being almost completely abolished. All this has led to is a catastrophic skills-gap in the UK, where the be-all and end-all has become a university degree, sometimes of dubious quality and worse, low-value in the employment market. At the same time we have ended up with a situation where people with skills that society badly needs (plumbers, electricians, proper nurses, etc.) are in short supply. Normally in a market-led economy such shortages would lead to such people being able to command higher rewards and indeed this has happened in some respects with people such as plumbers where more people have been attracted into such trades because of the lucrative financial rewards that have become more prevalent, but the state-funded occupations (nursing, teaching, etc) have badly-distorted normal market mechanisms.

However the fundamental problem is that some occupations are seen, even by 'socialists' nominally devoted to the concept of equality for all, as 'high status' and others as 'low status'. Frankly I can live my life quite confortably with a shortage of certain of these highly academically-gifted people, but if I need an electrician or an engineer and one isn't available life becomes uncomfortable quite quickly. We really do need to re-assess how we look at tradtionally low-status occupations, even where essential to the smooth functioning of society, and reward them accordingly both financially and terms of the status they are accorded. My feeling is that soon enough market forces would then correct the shortages which currently exist.

I really don't think the Conservatives latest 'wheeze' for short-term sound-bite gratification, by pretending that selection is 'damaging' to the poor, is at all convincing; if their own children had to live with the consequences of the damage this kind of thinking has wreaked on British education in the last 30 or 40 years then I don't think they would be making such absurd policy proposals based on a flawed analysis.

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