To select or not to select? That is the question

The decision by the government to allow the creation of new grammar schools has predictably caused a storm on Twitter. I attended a grammar school myself and currently teach in one. Both my parents failed the 11+ and attended secondary moderns. Surprisingly, you might think, they were passionate believers in selective education, particularly as we lived at the wrong end of town and could not afford to move to the good end. I suppose I am one of those who is grateful for the education I had at a grammar school and would like to see more academic education available to children from poor families, although the question as to what happens to children who do not get into a grammar school needs to be answered more “comprehensively”! by pro selection campaigners. I have taught in countries which operate selective systems and other countries which operate comprehensive systems and am uncertain as to whether either system is in fact “better” than the other. I think it all depends on context.

The evidence against selective education is quite impressive. It seems that poorer children do perform worse in areas with selective education such as Kent, where I grew up. Moreover, it does seem to be the case that grammar schools currently take very few children from less well off families. But is this an inevitable feature of academic selection?

When I drove into my local town this morning, I was astounded at the congestion on the roads. After sitting in a traffic jam for 5 minutes, I assumed there must have been an accident. Then I realised. It was 11+ day. The congestion was caused by hundreds of parents driving their offspring to sit the 11+ exam at one of the town’s grammar schools. Interesting, I thought. Why aren’t the children sitting the test at their primary schools, as I did back in the 1970s?

It seems to be the norm nowadays that parents apply for their children to sit the eleven plus at the grammar schools themselves. Unlike in former times, primary schools refuse to have anything to do with 11+ testing. I wonder whether anyone has done any research into whether such arrangements for the 11+ favour children from certain backgrounds?  Whether it might be different if the 11+ became universal in all primary schools? Maybe it would make no difference. But I would say it is something worth looking into.

I have never been to Knowsley but recently came across this article about its schools. Wow! £157 million pounds spent on trying to make the comprehensive system work for Knowsley. And it failed. I can’t see that setting up a grammar school in Knowsley would have such a deleterious effect on the life chances of children there. Judging by the article (and I am aware the press frequently get things wrong!), the comprehensive system, whatever its successes in some areas, has failed the children of Knowsley.  For poorer areas which have struggled for years, sometimes decades, to make the comprehensive system work for them and failed, surely selection is worth a try?



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4 Responses to To select or not to select? That is the question

  1. Pique Boo says:

    I think one of the big problems with the debate is that it’s inevitably framed in terms of FSM vs. a stereotype of a middle-class who can compensate for anything. In my experience the majority live somewhere in the space between FSM and the type of middle-class who can afford £20-30K per annum for an independent, £100K added to a mortgage for a house near that shiny comp, tutors, the time to d-i-y (assuming they know how) etc.

    My child is in Y9 at the comp so this stuff isn’t going to change her life, but right now I think she is at a distinct disadvantage compared to a similar child in a grammar. If she were younger I would not be happy with more grammars in other places, because they’d simply increase the odds against her in competitions for university places and the like. What makes a poor child in Knowsley more deserving of state assistance to reach some shiny future than any child living somewhere else?


    • fish64 says:

      I guess the government response would be that currently children in Knowsley have no choice other than to attend a school which is inadequate or requires improvement, whereas most other areas have some good to outstanding comprehensives (to use Ofsted terminology!). Given that they have tried to make the comprehensive system work for Knowsley and failed, it makes sense to try something else in that particular authority, to give children from that area the same opportunities as those children from areas where all schools are rated good or outstanding


  2. ijstock says:

    Interesting – the exam change had not fully registered with me either. I had the same experience as you.


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