Sunday, January 29, 2006

Unnatural selection

Back in the early 1990s the satirist Chris Morris, in his Radio 4 parody of the Today programme, ‘On the hour’, announced that 'under new government reforms, school headteachers will have to fight each other in the playground for the right to teach the brightest children'.

Satire can often be uncomfortably close to reality and it gets close to the heart of the current education debate. The government have at the same time tried to claim that their education proposals are far reaching and that they are in keeping with Labour traditions. But as Martin Kettle pointed out in yesterday’s Guardian, both these things can’t be true.

Insofar as school admissions policies are concerned, it is hard to see why anyone would want to give schools more control over who they admitted if it isn’t an attempt to bring in selection by the back door. Schools will inevitably want more intelligent, well-behaved children who will get lots of A-Cs at GCSE and fewer who display challenging behaviour and who are likely to push up the truancy figures. In today’s target culture, this pretty much stands to reason.

Education in general, and secondary transfer in particular, is about the only policy area where I retain pretty unreconstructed left-wing attitudes. Hearing Tory John Redwood on Question Time last week reminded me why. Whatever he actually said, what he appeared to mean was that grammar schools are good because they get state school children into Oxford and Cambridge. For many on the right, elitist grammar schools are a feeder for elite universities and this is about the only education worthy of the name. Universities like the ones I went to (Leicester and Birkbeck, London, since you ask) should call themselves mechanics institutes and teach practical skills like woodwork and not get delusions of grandeur.

From such a viewpoint, although a return of the 11+ is not practical politics, anything that inches the school system back in that direction is a good thing. I suspect Labour go along with this as a kind of electoral calculation – those who take a real interest in school selection policies are likely to favour selection on ability and are the constituency worth courting.

To me, any progressive and liberal policy should regard it as important that local rather than central government should be responsible for education. We should strengthen not weaken LEAs. Of course, I am not totally unreconstructed. I do believe that comprehensives can become a bit monolithic, that diversity is a good thing, that parental choice, as far is it is possible, should be encouraged. It is right that schools should have OFSTED inspections so that there is some guarantee of standards and incentive to improve. But selection by the front or back door, NO!

My wife, who taught in comprehensive schools in Hertfordshire for many years, always says that no evidence is ever produced to show that comprehensives let down bright children – just flat assertion. I suspect that comprehensives find it harder to match the hothouse atmosphere of schools that get lots of students into Oxbridge, but leave more people equipped to go to the Leicesters or Birkbecks or to take educational opportunities in later life than was the case with secondary moderns.

How do we resolve the vexed selection question? Not by giving schools more control over admission policies. In south-west Hertfordshire, where the more popular schools have by hook or crook always kept a stranglehold on who they admit, the result is that schools lower down the pecking order struggle to get a balanced intake, no matter how good their facilities or teaching staff.

My former political colleague in Leicester, Robert Pritchard, used to argue mischievously that all children should be given their first choice of school. If that meant that the popular schools ended up teaching classes of 100 then so be it. Parents would soon get the message and the intense battle for places at the so-called 'best' schools would end.

In the absence of any other fair way of deciding school admissions, I have always thought a ballot is the answer to oversubscription. Since secondary transfer is so contoversial in my neck of the woods I have kept this view to myself – ‘Lib Dem councillor wants to make a lottery of your children’s education’ etc. Then a couple of years ago a writer in the New Statesman wrote an article promoting exactly this idea, making me think it was not as eccentric as all that. Perhaps I should try promoting it within the Lib Dems, I thought. But the following week I was brought down to earth when the first person to write in saying this was a stupid idea was a leading Lib Dem county councillor and education expert from the midlands.


Joe Otten said...

I get the odd off the wall idea on this one too. The problem is a hard one. We have plenty of selection already, by house prices.

A fig leaf the current system employs is to threaten a loss of a place in your local school if you apply to a better one further away. Applying principles of transferable voting to this, we could say this shouldn't happen - then the true demands would be more apparent. It still doesn't solve the problem of course of limited places at the better schools. It doesn't make it worse - it just makes it more obvious.

Probably the most significant difference between typical good and bad schools is that the bad ones have the bad luck to have a percentage of very disruptive children. Nothing to do with quality of teaching or leadership. Hence the idiocy of closing 'failing schools' - the next door school gets the difficult children and fails in turn.

This suggest to me a form of selection, based not on ability, but on willingness to learn, might be productive. Those unwilling to learn would have to be found something else to do.

Angus J Huck said...

Iain, you say that a return to the 11+ is not practical politics.

Well, actually, in many parts of the country the 11+ remains a reality. The whole of Northern Ireland, for instance, the whole of Buckinghamshire, and all of Kent bar the Medway Towns.

Moreover, the government has made it clear that where selection presently exists, it will not impose a comprehensive system. And recall how Lib Dem administrations in Kingston and Sutton backed away from commitments to end the 11+ in the teeth of vocal local opposition.

The better off in Watford are lucky. The town is ringed by independent schools (Merchant Taylors, Royal Masonic, Haberdashers, Aldenham, Berkhampstead, St Albans). If you cannot get your offspring ino the comprehensive of your choice you can always fall back on the private sector.

In other parts of the country, however, affordable private schools are in short supply. In Guildford, where the only independent school for boys is the old grammar school (there are two for girls), no-one in their right mind buys a house in the NW quartile because the local comprehensive is an infamous "sink school" serving a huge council estate.

A really worrying development is Blair's espousal of so-called "faith" schools, where children are indoctrinated with religion at the state's expense.

Fostering separate identity, based on religion, race or whatever, is dangerous and undesirable, and the government is very foolhardy to go down that route.

As a Party, we have little connection with the urban working-class. Only two MPs (Simon Hughes and Paul Holmes) draw their support preponderantly from this section of the community. In such circumstances, the evil of the selective system can very often seem dimmed (especially when mail-bags are filled with moans from parents about the failings of the present system).

I think we should be more proactive in defending the comprehensive system. We should note that in Wales, which went exclusively comprehensive in the early 1960s, there is little or no clamour to bring back the 11+, and there is evidence that children in Wales are marginally better behaved than elesewhere in the UK.

It needs also to be emphasised that getting rid of secondary moderns actually raised standards. Recall,that many secondary moderns did no 'A'-level work at all.

My father went to the same (grammar) school as David Davis, then to St Johns College, Cambridge. But at both stages, he had to sit a scholarship exam. This was effectively a filter to ensure that only the very brightest working-class children got through to higher education. The 1944 Butler reforms widened the filter by introducing the 11+. Butler was an acknowledgement that the elite had to extend its gene pool in order to prevent the inbreeding which had destroyed the royal houses of Europe; and also a compromise which ensured that the very best talent got through without actually displacing the less competent scions of the elite.