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Bringing back grammar schools is a move against progress

ByCalum Lithgow

Sep 20, 2016

The government recently announced a half-baked idea to re-introduce grammar schools across England, immediately prompting fierce opposition from politicians of all stripes and colours and the vast majority of education professionals, armed with reams of convincing evidence from past research.

Nevertheless, pressing ahead with the exact opposite of evidence-based policy, Theresa May seems keen to bring back widespread selective schooling, either for political reasons (Brexit distraction?) or a simple love of social segregation. Who needs experts or facts when you have the hunches and anecdotes of older generations?

The premise of “bringing back” selective schooling is bemusing nonsense, of course. Britain already has a selective education system. Approximately 50 percent of people aged 18 to 30 enter some form of higher education, usually following secondary school exams. There is already widespread selection at the tertiary level.

Quaternary education (postgraduate study for a Masters degree or Doctorate) is rapidly becoming what tertiary education was several decades ago, in the past that nostalgic Tories wish to return to, when university was the uncommon pursuit of a select few. Attending university is now considered automatic for most academically gifted school-leavers. Translating, an undergraduate degree is the equivalent of the old A-levels, and A-levels now essentially fulfil the purpose of the 11-plus exam.

Rather than “bringing back” selection, the government merely proposes that instead of splitting young adults between an academic path and a vocational one at the tertiary level, the split should occur at the age of 11, to segregate children going into secondary schools.

The purported advantage is that lucky winners of the new system attend exceptional schools with their similarly exceptional peers and thus obtain a higher quality of education. And even if the education is not actually of a higher standard this privileged bunch still get a social status as the intelligent elite of their generation.

The converse, that the losers attend worse schools and are forever labelled as such, is apparently a worthwhile price to pay. The whole point of forced segregation is that not everyone gets alpha status, the majority get the beta label and the corresponding disadvantages.

This is clearly a terrible idea, not least because it is pragmatically impossible to accurately determine lifelong academic abilities at the age of 11. Intelligence varies over time, people mature at different rates and personalities and intellects evolve from childhood to adulthood.

Universities are increasingly seeking unconventional means to determine who is suitable for their degree programmes, finding that getting good grades at school is not always a reliable indicator. Even at PhD level the selection based on previous degree performance is arguably poor at picking out those with true academic ability.

Even if there was some hypothetical test that could reliably segregate children into alphas and betas, it is still inherently unfair. At age 11 “cleverness” depends heavily on upbringing, correlated more with home life, background and parental income than self-motivated hard work and dedication at primary school.

Furthermore, being able to study well, to assimilate abstract information and pass exams, is not an all-encompassing skill set. It is such a narrow definition of intelligence, and significant effort goes into modern degree programmes to broaden our skills and abilities beyond the purely academic. Removing children from a wide learning experience deprives them of valuable, intangible benefits. The grammar school system disadvantages everyone.

It is true that not everyone requires tertiary education, so selection there seems appropriate, but we learn more at secondary school than just long division and essay writing. Segregation in schools takes something away from both tiers of the system. The current, unsegregated, alternative – the comprehensive experience – is much better for everyone in the long run.

If teenagers desire a learning experience surrounded by their intellectual peers then there are two levels beyond secondary education, and at eighteen they can make the decision for themselves. As adults, they truly deserve what they achieve, and they are personally responsible for meeting the selection criteria for tertiary education.

Image credit: Flickr/ Newcastle libraries

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