The ‘G’ word

Our new Prime Minister seems to have ruffled a few feathers with her mention of the G-word. I have read several people in the past few days who were working themselves up into a quite a lather about the possible return of grammar schools, which while (probably) unlikely, appears closer to being on the agenda at present than it has been for many years.

One writer (source lost) went as far as to claim that there are no good reasons for grammar schools whatsoever. Well here, from someone of relatively modest background who went to one, is one – albeit in hypothetical form.

Just suppose it could be proven beyond a shadow of doubt that selective systems delivered the best educational outcomes. We can modify that to ‘best outcomes for able pupils’ or ‘best outcomes for all pupils’ as preferred.

We would then be in a situation where those who on the one hand trumpet their devotion to such outcomes but on the other vehemently oppose selective education, had a difficult choice to make. Try it: Are the best educational outcomes for individuals worth securing at the expense of (supposed) equality of access for all, or should we accept lesser individual outcomes for the sake of (supposed) social integration and equality of access?

I don’t think that dodging the question on the grounds that it is a false dichotomy is really a satisfactory response here; it is given as a hypothetical test.

The choice modifiers I offered might be important. If the good outcomes were for only the grammar school pupils, then I suspect many in education would be prepared to sacrifice that on the grounds of equality. On the other hand, if the outcomes were ‘proven’ to be improved for all children, where would that leave the objectors? If the choice is still for equality, then what price the worthy calls for educational excellence?

I am as sensitive to the issues around social exclusion and equality of opportunity as anyone else in education, and were I to let it this could give me endless sleepless nights. But when I read comments such as the one mentioned above, the suspicion reawakens that this debate is less about good education than personal/political agendas. Even as a society, we need to decide whether we prefer educational equality to excellence, and failing to make an active decision only leads to a default one. For several decades, the choice has been for equality, and given this country’s insidious, engrained privileges system, then I can well understand why. But to refuse even to debate the issue, let alone on level terms, strikes me as utterly foolish, particularly as inequality has still got worse over that period.

This is not even to consider the wider issues. For example, were I a parent, I would be facing a dilemma of my own: whether to deny my child the formal academic education I would wish it to have, or to do whatever was possible to secure it, even if that meant going private. We then face the issue of whether the absence of grammar schools has actually led to a more divisive system with more people going private, as indeed my own parents did for my sister when faced with the alternative being a very poor comprehensive. I wonder where this division too leaves the ideologues, even before challenging them to explain to me why as an adherent of formal academic education, only I should be denied the one kind of opportunity that I might prefer.

So we might pose another dilemma: would you prefer academically selective education or economically selective education? Personally, I have a clear answer to that, which is made clearer still if it is emphasised that academically selective education should be available to all, irrespective of their social or economic circumstances.

I know it can be argued that in an ideal world, comprehensives should provide as good an education as the grammar schools. But it is not an ideal world, and the experience of forty or more years suggests that in the round, very few manage to do this. If we are going to wish away the real-world failings of the comprehensive system on ideological grounds, then there is no reason not to do the same for the alternatives. We might also remember that the much-desired social mobility is relative: in order for someone to rise, someone else has to fall; how acceptable is that?

What is more, it is merely a value-judgment that education should be first and foremost about social engineering; personally, I reject that as I prefer to see it as a matter of cerebral development and cultural transmission. Much of the ‘proof’ being offered that selective education does not increase social mobility depends firstly on the assumption that that is what education is intended to do – and secondly on the means (mostly financial) by which such things are being measured.

I suspect that many who oppose selection have never been near a grammar school themselves, let alone spent long enough in one to appreciate how the culture of such places tends to reflect an entirely different value set from those that are unavoidably compromised by the disaffected or uncommitted parts of the population. Even my own highly-rated school increasingly suffers from this, despite its having in the past traded on the ‘non-selective grammar school’ claim.

Opponents of selection should perhaps reflect more on the imperfection of the world, and decide which is the least of the available evils. I am not suggesting that grammar schools are a panacea, but selective education of some form or other still features in many (though not all) of the countries that out-perform this one in international comparisons. As I have suggested before, however, one particular knot to unravel is whether opposition is really to the idea of selection per se, or the means of selection, which I oppose as much as any. There are fairer ways (at probably better ages) in which to make such choices than a sudden-death exam at a young age. I suspect that changing this process would dilute many of the tricks deployed by the more-advantaged to pack such schools with their own. I would also suggest that a failing of past selective education in Britain was the often-poor alternatives on offer – but that is another issue entirely, and is certainly not internationally universal.

We might reflect on whether the loss of strictly academically-focussed education has had a wider effect on the country. As I have mentioned before, I encounter fewer and fewer people, even amongst those who hold multiple bits of paper, who really strike me as being intellectually awake, who delight in cerebral activity for its own, entirely conscious self. I wonder whether they simply never had it awakened. And I feel that the country’s collective culture is ever more debased, in contrast to that which I see elsewhere, where commercial depredations seem to be having less of an effect. Perhaps we have abolished the values and outlooks that tended to anchor such things? And that is before the shortfalls of skilled labour and workforce productivity from which we suffer.

This leads to me to a final dilemma, which concerns another ‘G’ word. I wonder how many of those who oppose academic development based on ability are also in deep despair at this country’s Gold medal-haul in the recent Olympics. Even an utter non-sportsman like me takes a degree of pride in it – and the wider benefit for society of elite sporting success has already been discussed. The country’s massive turnaround in the past decade has clearly been a result of the much-improved resourcing for such people, even though sporting participation amongst wider society has not grown nearly as much.

Maybe we should have denied those people what they needed on egalitarian grounds that everyone ought to be able to run equally fast, or have access to equal training facilities? A similar approach to industry has been proposed in the wake of Brexit: we need to get much better at backing our best talent and giving it the extra resources it needs to grow, even if some do fall by the wayside or receive less in the process. It’s a matter of best-targeting scarce resources, as well as catering for specific needs.

It is worth remembering that the perception of exclusivity from outside supposed elites is not in itself evidence of restrictive practices to entry. So why deny society the benefits of those – from whatever background – whose high intellectual speed needs nurturing in the same way, if only for the disproportionate benefit that they ultimately bring to everyone?

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