Selective thinking

For all that we are the heirs of an honourable profession that dates back to Ancient times, I sometimes wonder whether we have really advanced very much at all. In fact, the modern profession of teaching often feels less mature than its ancestor might have, though to be fair, debate over the purpose and practice of education is hardly new.

But one might have hoped that an acceptance of the inevitable plurality of belief would be something we could have reached by now – in effect the conclusion that we will never reach a ‘conclusive conclusion’, at least in matters of human affairs where there probably is no such thing as an absolute answer.

In recent weeks, I have experienced several ways in which the current education system, far from tolerating diversity, seems actively hell-bent on eliminating it at least from within its own ranks. The irony is, of course, that we generally continue to preach tolerant ideals to our pupils while widely failing to get anywhere near them in our own professional discourse.

The case in question is a meeting I attended this week whose subject was the Growth Mindset. Not surprisingly, the supposed limitations of a fixed mindset were also examined, and during this, the issue of selective education came up, because of the fixed mindset it supposedly represents. It was taken as given that there was unanimity in the audience about the undesirability of selection, and I know for a fact that this caused genuine indignation for several who hold well-considered views in favour of selection.  And there are those of us who went through grammar schools ourselves, for whom such right-think comes close to invalidating our own education.

I am not intending to mount a defence of selection per se here, because my own views are genuinely ambivalent. But I do know that dismissing a view simply because it is not popular is unjustified, and that doing so amounts to ignorance of the fact that education can never be anything other than a matter of social and intellectual judgement. The claim of any one side to hold absolute virtue is both unrealistic and a betrayal of the considered, intelligent thought that we supposedly espouse.

In several recent encounters, the defining experience has been the reductivist nature of the argument, whereby all views and facts except those that supported the desired conclusion were either ignored or dismissed, no matter how relevant they might have been to reaching a more sophisticated, considered conclusion. It is the repeated and widespread tendency of the education sector to do just this that is why I suggest it is still far from being a mature profession.

By means of example, here are a few points from the selection debate that seem salient to the matter, but which to me seem to receive little coverage thanks to the blanket-bombing of the selection-is-bad contingent.

  1. Selective schools are not all the same. There is a huge difference between the ‘high-church’ ones that look and feel like wannabe private schools, the more mundane small-town grammars such as was my own experience, and the complacent one I once visited that was trying to do a good imitation of Summerhill. I suspect that many of those who are opposed to grammar schools have never been in one, and are blind to the differences between them.
  2. The social context of selective schools varies as much as for any other. The notion that they are packed with pre-tutored middle-class kids may be true in some cases, but it was most certainly not the case in the experience of both of my parents. They attended grammar schools in resolutely working-class parts of the country, where there was little middle-class to do the packing. In those cases, grammar schools provided a route away from the limited opportunities of small-town mining communities for those with academic ability – some of whom went on to be eminent practitioners in a range of fields. If that is not a story of improved opportunity, then I don’t know what is. (My own experience a generation later was somewhere in between, with a clear middle class, but plenty from other backgrounds).
  3. The removal of grammar schools may actually widen the divide.  Despite their principles and amid great family scrimping, my parents sent my sister, who post-dated comprehensive reorganisation, to the local small independent secondary rather than the sink comprehensive to which she had been allocated. She eventually went to Oxford. How many others did – and do – the same?
  4. There is a difference between the act of selection on educational grounds and the process whereby it is effected. Even many in grammar schools accepted that the Eleven-Plus was flawed, but it is not logical to dismiss the whole idea of selection as a result. There are other criteria and other mechanisms by which selection can operate, as I have seen in Switzerland. The opportunities for hard-workers to access academic schools at various points can be created, and I have met numerous Swiss pupils of various ages who have worked hard and achieved that transition. Likewise, poor performers in academic schools can be transferred out if they do not earn their keep.
  5. We need to accept that the whole issue in the U.K. seems irrevocably connected with class advantage and ‘opportunity’. While we cannot and should not ignore this, it is a different issue from educational selection per se. The reason the practice is less contentious in Switzerland, and I think, Germany, is that access to academic schools simply does not come with the social connotations. It is seen simply as a matter of individual ability and/or aptitude.
  6. Talking of aptitude, we could perhaps envisage a situation where pupils could opt for schools depending on their inclination rather than a crude test of ‘ability’. This, after all was roughly the intention of the 1944 Education Act, whereby the tripartite system would cater for different aptitudes. It failed for lack of complete implementation and an inability to escape those self-same social snobberies. In the mining town where my mother grew up, there was a very successful and popular technical school. It worked. There is a lot to commend a system that allows people to opt for different types of education according to their values and priorities rather than crude ability. In this way, bright-but-lazy students might not block access for keen but less able ones.
  7. Even in current times, we seem to have little difficulty with the notion of specialist education for talented sports-people or those of theatrical inclinations. We also venerate those who supposedly have exceptional talent. We even have some tolerance of those whom the system permits to self-select on account of their wealth – and even the fact that this is buying them access to better schools. And yet, we refuse to allow those of exceptional intellectual ability to enter institutions where this can be nurtured. Because for all the claims to the contrary, I am afraid that I have yet to encounter a comprehensive school that has managed to cultivate the same general atmosphere of quiet studiousness that my own modest, small-town grammar managed.
  8. There is the difficulty of potential division within the teaching profession. I suspect that this is a bigger issue than many will admit. Again, in the past it came down to class-ridden perceptions of the social superiority of grammar school teachers. But it is also true that the grammar school teachers of my experience did have a different mindset. Most importantly (and allowing for the different era) they had a different view of learning from the current norm – it was not a matter of competitiveness but more a matter of individual discovery. I am not convinced that those who promote the winner-takes-all, maximalist view of education understand the real nature of the beast, let alone the needs of those of high ability. High achievement does not need to be a competition, especially not an economic one. What is needed here is an acceptance of the equal validity of all types of education, a horses-for-courses view if you will, and again this seems to prevail on the continent. Given the enduring class-envy in British society, I am not holding my breath.

In the above, I am not setting out a one-sided argument in favour of selective education; as I said I am genuinely ambivalent. Crucially, I respect those who disagree with the above, including it has to be said some colleagues who themselves attended grammar schools: the matter is simply not cut-and-dried. But there are genuinely important factors that simply never get a hearing and as a result, the debate is flawed. The above list simply offers some of them.

While we have an incumbent clique that insists on imposing pseudo-consensus, claiming its right-think has a monopoly on truth and virtue, thereby preventing an open debate on such issues based on educational rather than socio-political merit, we will be none the closer to becoming the inclusive, mature profession we need to be. When I entered teaching, I hoped for better.


5 thoughts on “Selective thinking

  1. Really well written post. I share completely your frustration at the bewildering lack of plurality in evidence in the education debate. To my mind, there is no more compelling evidence of the need for greater flexibility in our education system than 5 minutes spent perusing edu-twitter.

    • Thanks – plurality doesn’t make it easier to find useable answers, but I’m not sure that simplifying the problem ad absurdum really helps either. And I’m not sure that the motives are always that honourable either. There’s a good reason I’m not on Twitter!

  2. You may not be entirely surprised to note that I’m on the opposite side of the fence from you – I completely oppose selection by school (rather less bothered by selection within school).

    You say that the debate is shut down because of “right-think”. However, I think while that can be the case in some areas of education,for this issue, it’s shut down because the evidence against the validity or usefulness of the grammar school concept is very strong, and the claims often made for grammar schools are usually easily contradicted by evidence – particularly the issue of social mobility for example. Chris Husbands covers the ground here :

    So I don’t think it’s right-think, as such. I think it’s one of those rare things in education : a policy or theory in which there is fairly substantial evidence on one side, and a collection of views on the other which might be sincerely held, but are supported only by anecdotes, and are often easily disprovable.

    When you have normally ideologically conservative Policy Exchange types joining forces with Union General Secretaries to cite evidence which contradicts fact-free assertions from Grammar school proponents, then you’ve got a situation where it’s not some kind of political correctness which is closing down the debate, it’s overwhelming evidence.

    • Thanks for your comment – and indeed I’m not…except for the fact that you’ve jumped to conclusions about my views. I expected some of that with this topic 😉

      My post is not about the merits or otherwise of grammar schools but about the poverty of debate. This was just the latest example of many where consensus has been falsely assumed. I concede your points regarding the social mobility argument over selection, and as I said I am myself ambivalent – aware of the many arguments against selective schools but for obvious reasons also with some sympathy for the ‘pro’ side.

      If I *was* advancing an argument in favour, it would concern the diversity of experience that it offered, which experience suggests to me cannot so easily be fostered within single, homogenous institutions. The potentially insidious selection process can be neutralised by adopting different mechanisms, as I indicated – and by making the system permeable in both directions.

      The fact that selective systems are still used by some of Europe’s most educationally successful (and socio-economically less divided) societies might also tell us something…

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