Bad Grammar 2 – Missed Opportunity

To my mind, the greatest missed educational opportunity of the past century was the failure fully to implement Butler’s 1944 Education Act. Several of our more educationally-successful neighbours have had systems broadly similar to that which Butler proposed for a long time, and they arguably have an advantage over us in what they achieve.

I argued in my previous post that there is a perfectly valid egalitarian argument to be made for separating children according to the type of education that they and their parents desire. Perhaps Corbyn’s Labour Party needs to re-examine its opposition to ‘selection’ in its quest to attract new voters.

While putting the onus on families admittedly leaves the door open for neglectful ones to abrogate their responsibilities, just how much responsibility should the state be expected to pick up in such situations? While real deprivation is indefensible, I wonder how much of the lower-aspiring part of the population really is unhappy with its life  – and how much of the ‘problem’ is actually the projection of educated, middle-class ambition onto those who may not want it. I would argue that the best motivator for those who wish for something else is their own aspiration, and the job of the system is to make sure that it does not actively obstruct them. I would also argue that a truly free society is one where people are able to make such choices even if they appear undesirable to others; one could even argue that the determination of those who experience rags-to-riches lives might not have existed were it not for their starting point. I certainly see many affluent children for whom complacency is the main enemy.

Nonetheless, the comprehensive/selective dichotomy is actually a false one, a reaction to what actually came of the Butler Act rather than what was intended. There are other alternatives. This is not to say that the Act got everything right, or that it would still be right now, but had Butler been seen through I think we would be in a significantly better position now than we actually are.

I suspect that many in education in the U.K. only really value academic success because they perceive it as a mechanism for social change; that is why they push the under-privileged agenda so hard, when true intellectual development ought to be available to all irrespective of other circumstances. Their willingness to under-value bright children gives them away. The good news is, you don’t actually need to be rich to be a Thinker – but I hear relatively little in my day-to-day work about intellectual development for its own sake. It mostly seems to be seen as a means of delivering material gain.

The role of Government should be to establish the framework and prevent or correct abuses of the system, rather than attempting large-scale pre-emptive social engineering. While this might be seen as a right-wing outlook, there is nothing un-egalitarian about maximising people’s autonomy and opportunity so long as it doesn’t then adversely affect others. In fact, this is the Left’s dilemma: top-down dirigisme is incompatible with people’s sense of self-determination, and it needs to resolve this conflict. Yet this largely remains the way in which education is framed. In educational terms, opportunity and freedom should be expressed as increasing the genuine choice available to people rather than forcing everyone through the same mould; the role of government should be to ensure that the choices are equitably provided for, and (ideally) equally regarded.

So what might such a system actually look like?

To begin with, the tinkering of recent governments through various forms of school specialisation goes nowhere near far enough. Choice is meaningless when all available alternatives are actually purveying pretty much the same thing.

Had Butler been seen through, each locality would by now have had an academic school, one or more technical schools and some general schools. This would be the minimum guaranteed provision; the actuality would need to reflect local demographics. This would have presented real choice, provided sufficient capacity was available, which in turn would rely on funding that permitted a degree of excess capacity to persist.

Primary schools would exist very much as now, though their role might move further towards identifying children’s early aptitudes. While they would focus on core skills there would be no need to prepare for the Eleven Plus, since this would not exist – anywhere. They would however need to record each child’s development in a way that supported the important choice that was to come later. It is worth remembering that in most continental systems, children start school at a later age without adverse educational effects later on; establishing a secure home life is seen as more important for the very young, and the social security system promotes this.

There would be a policy decision to be made whether a child’s future pathway was to be chosen at eleven or later; there is an argument that it should be at fourteen, and this is the direction that continental countries seem to have taken – an age where preferences and aptitudes are becoming clearer. In this case, there would need to be some form of generalist middle school, which could perhaps be collapsed with later-years primary as indeed happened under the middle school system. Again, the focus is on securing the basics and preparing for the later stages of education.

A fourteen-to-eighteen upper school could then better reflect the educational phase that all young people now effectively experience anyway, at the cost of a little continuity. A consultation process would need to take place to establish not ability, but aptitude and preference for a particular path. This would need to draw on evidence from previous schooling as well as parental and pupil choices. While this may sound unworkable, it is effectively the system by which this phase of education is determined in Switzerland – a combination of track record, preference and school consensus, with no sudden-death, high-stakes exam for which the more-advantaged can be primed. It is worth noting that independent schools are seen, as a Swiss friend memorably put it, “Only for children who have something wrong with them” (!)

The advantage of such a system is that it would present greater real choice to individuals, while also making them responsible for those choices. Schools would need the ability to transfer pupils who had made inappropriate choices or who were otherwise not meeting requirements. An independent appeals process would also be needed.

I don’t think that the academic schools would inevitably end up as the most popular; technical schools could easily involve support from industry and might well end up better resourced than the academic ones. I suspect there would be considerable demand, not only from the less able; aged fourteen, I might have been tempted to take that path myself, and might have worked harder as a result. Academic schools arguably do not need so much hardware in any case, and would probably benefit from being smaller – but they would need to be highly academic (relative to pupils’ ability), in order to attract only those who really wanted that approach.

It is likely that general schools would be more numerous and hence closer to home for many; these might however be more problematic in terms of perception, but they could be acceptable so long as they were properly resourced and not publicly vilified – something similar to a community school. Or they might not be needed. I suspect that those who desired specialised facilities would be prepared to travel further so long as cost did not prevent.

This is of course only a theoretical outline and it would not be perfect. But by providing real choice, sharing responsibility between schools and families and removing the social stigma of the Eleven Plus it could work, as it does elsewhere. By focusing on individual realisation rather than socio-economic competition, it might start to tackle both the inequality and the snobbery that so infest the current system, in a way that overt social engineering has not.

There are other coherent cases to be made, but it seems to me that we help no one by confusing socio-economic arguments with educational ones – and while we point-blank refuse even to discuss some issues for purely ideological reasons, we may be overlooking workable solutions that lie beneath our very noses.

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2 thoughts on “Bad Grammar 2 – Missed Opportunity

  1. Have you heard of the Comprehensive Futures Conference coming up? Cheep tickets, in London. I’ll be there. Here’s my current take: At some point schools will be seen as what they are: Buildings for Educational Purposes. Nothing magical about them. No need for any student to be stuck in only one for 5 or 7 years of youth. Students will simply register at their local school and be free to attend classes at any school/other place they can organise themselves to access, alongside virtual classes/courses too. Awkward ways of measuring success will naturally fall away: League tables? (“your school’s ranked lower than mine” – what does that mean or say to students?) Student destinations? (far too delayed! Students who lose themselves tend to blame themselves and stay silent). Teachers will own their work the same way sports coaches and music tutors outside of formal education do now. That’s what I hope for. They put me in a grammar and it was a wonderful school; students were great, teachers were great… doesn’t mean it makes sense to be held in one school for all that time. Once teachers get a taste of the freedoms that educators outside of our formal system experience i.e. running their own courses for students they want to work with (and help) the most, they won’t go back to being assigned random groups of students and delivering fixed courses for a job.

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