Dead Cat Bounce – part two.

Were I a parent, I would wish my children to have a traditional academic education, provided they were suited to it. Yes, I suppose I am educated middle class, but I am not knowingly part of any conspiracy – unless by that we mean my wish to preserve my own values along with the next person. My reasons for considering a selective education would not be to deprive others of the same, but simply to exercise a reasonable choice. But the reality is, strict academic education is probably only suited for – and desired by – a relatively small part of any population. History dictates that we try to foist it on everyone; we need to get real.

But I can see no reason why the fact that others’ needs lie elsewhere should deprive those who do value these things from having them – otherwise we are guilty of nothing more than another, equally insidious form of discrimination. What is more, the more difficult access became to what I desired, the harder I would be prepared to fight to secure it. This is why competition is so fierce for what grammar school places remain.

What we are forced to confront here is nothing less than the Social Contract: the relationship of rights and responsibilities between individuals and the society in which they live. In particular, the right of society to constrain or arbitrate the choices of individuals, the obligation of citizens to accept this – and the obligation on society to provide what they want in the first place. It has only become more complex as society has succeeded in educating and empowering a larger fraction of its members.

There are frequent calls from those who oppose selection to encourage the ablest teachers to work in the poorest areas. I am not going to decry that, so long as coercion is not involved, and there is reasonable evidence that people of certain talents can indeed make a huge difference in that situation. But what is being called for here is nothing more than another form of selection. This is a form of positive discrimination that the opponents of academic selection are often entirely happy with, and I suspect that if May had announced a different form of specialisation, that explicitly boosted the chances of the underprivileged – perhaps even providing preferential treatment for them – then the objections would have been far more muted.

So I would like those who might object to aspirations like mine to explain why, if it is right that if the opportunities of disadvantaged children should not be frustrated by others, it is then right that an especially able child’s prospects should be compromised in return. All this does is create a different fall-group.

True equality of opportunity should not mean its removal from those who already have it. And yet that is almost inevitably what it does mean. The most likely outcome of failing to nourish outstanding talent is that it will never fully flourish.

As I said in part one, the evidence of my eyes is that children who are indifferent or worse to academic subjects normally outnumber those who really take to them; it is not even fully a reflection of ability. This is true even in a school with a positive ability-skew, such as mine. I do not decry the non-academic: it is just that their needs are different, and in my experience, by default they normally take tacit precedence.I daily confront the problem of classes with reasonable numbers of willing children being compromised by the indifferent majority.

What is more, the claim that comprehensives encourage social mixing has only minimal traction. My experience is that children, too, largely self-select and stick with their like. In a school with a wide ability and income range, the effect is to stigmatise and disaffect the less-successful, or less wealthy, all the more. This point is often dismissed by proponents of comprehensives – but it too is what I see every day.

I cannot see that it is right that those with the values and aptitudes to benefit most from any rigorous, high-level opportunity should be deprived it because there are those who will not or do not. That should apply equally to vocational education – as it already does, uncontroversially, to fields such as elite sport. In all such situations, it requires deep concentrations of like-minded people to achieve this.

Here we encounter another of the fallacies of those who oppose selection: that it casts ‘the rest’ onto the scrapheap.

There is certainly potential for this to happen – but it is more about social attitudes and alternative provision than it is an inevitable outcome of such systems. In the past, the U.K was not good at this. One might cite Germany, where the majority of children opt for technical schools, and there is certainly little sense of inadequacy about them – or that country’s industrial and technical sector. Countries differ in their cultures, of course – but around Europe, there is no strong evidence that selective systems enhance social division, nor that non-selective ones do the opposite.

The failure to offer high-quality alternatives to selective academic schools is not in itself an argument against the principle of them, or of selection as a whole.

To me, it seems preferable to enable those from under-represented backgrounds who demonstrate commitment and/or aptitude to be admitted to places that will nurture it, than to deprive everyone of it simply because all cannot have it – or choose not to want it.

And while it is easy to argue for social integration in principle, many of those who do so would, I suspect draw their own lines at mixing indiscriminately with those they themselves deem unacceptable. In other words, the fine words mask a deep hypocrisy. Very few people make no distinctions whatsoever when it comes to these matters. I am unapologetic that in my own life there are those whom I find so disagreeable or destructive that I choose to avoid them. I can see no good reason why I should be forced to mix with them, if only for (perceived) self-preservation – though this is not to deny their right to exist.

One might argue that good influences will rub off – but my regrettable experience is that it is often the coarse, indiscriminate and ruthless who prevail, because they lack the restraints of conscience and empathy that others perhaps possess. I would go so far as to suggest that the ‘success’ of attempts to increase social integration can be seen in the increasing coarseness of our national discourse and standards of public life – even amongst those sectors of society who in past eras might have felt obliged to uphold higher quality.

 Society needs extraordinarily talented people – wherever they come from – not least because they provide disproportionately high returns on the extra resources invested in them. In the long run, this is to the benefit of all – but they need specialist provision.

This is why this issue is ideological: is it desirable to achieve social and educational equality even if that means levelling people down rather than up? There is no straightforward conclusion to that: it is possible to argue either way. For several decades, Britain, for understandable reasons has decided that it is, but globally, historic attempts to do so have all failed. And as with everything, there is a cost. In this case, it might be seen in the quality of our society – be that in the productivity and skills-base problems we face, the erosion of that part of society more inclined to uphold civil standards – and, one might add, the resultant increasing inclination of those who can, to  buy their way out of the system.

 One of the consequences of denying certain sectors of society what they desire is that they will look elsewhere for it. But the means they have to do so are rarely equal.

All social settlements are compromises, education included. Selective education is by no means a perfect solution, and it does have potentially serious downsides. But it is a mistake is to pretend that the same is not true of the alternatives. And then it comes down to which is the least worst.

This is not to argue for deliberate discrimination against the already under-privileged; it is true that we can ill afford to ignore their talents, and it is true that the most serious problem with selective education as it has been delivered in this country in the past, is the perception and reality of what happens to ‘the rest’. But that is an entirely different issue from whether education should be used as a social leveller – which is the actual agenda of those who oppose selection. What is more, acts of wanton destruction are being committed in its name: who for example can justify the dilution of a high-achieving school’s academic standards on the grounds of increasing equality of access. In precisely whose interest is this?

So far I have concentrated very much on one aspect of the debate here, at the expense of others.

But there is almost no discussion about the multiple geometries that might exist. The worst culprit is the conflation of selection as a whole with academic selection, followed closely by its conflation with the Eleven Plus exam. In both cases there are other possibilities – but as so often, this debate is reducing to black-or-white false dichotomies which do nothing to resolve such matters.

For example, there is no reason why selection could not be at least partly consultative: I would agree that in this era, the ability of schools unaccountably to pick and choose is neither democratic nor a reasonable distribution of authority. That said, schools (or some form of arbitration) might provide a more objective judgement than individual parents, who will largely fight for their own interests.

One might also have a discussion about the merits of selection by aptitude as opposed to ability; this would deal with the problem of academically-weaker but motivated children. But where is this debate? In this case, one can present a case for specialisation, whereby children could choose between various types of school according to their preferences as well as abilities. I suspect that much of the sense of injustice around selection comes from the fact that it is imposed – but this need not be so.

 The existence or otherwise of selective system is a different argument from how the selection occurs, and on what basis. Selection does not exclude a consultative process, nor the idea that it can be based on aptitude rather than raw ability. Neither need it inevitably occur irrevocably, nor only at eleven years of age.

I began by accepting that there are many very strong points against selection; I fully share some of them. Grammars are no more a panacea than anything else.

One might mention, for example, that my notion of what a grammar school is, was forever shifted from the modest but traditional one I attended by the experience of attending interviews many years ago at two in Kent. Both appeared poorly run, with widespread complacency amongst staff and pupils and with little challenge. This is simply not acceptable.

One might also accept that grammar schools are not what they were – the practice of tutoring and cramming is certainly much greater than it used to be, and this very probably plays to the disadvantage of those who do not receive it. But that might be seen as a symptom of a situation, or an expression of wider changes in society rather than an inherent problem, and there are ways to neutralise it.

My experience of parents facing the morality of the selection dilemma is not that they seek unfair advantage; it is that they are fleeing from what they see as poor alternatives elsewhere. That would be my experience too: I am simply not confident that even a good comprehensive could deliver the kind of education that I would want for a child of mine.

This situation already exists – but it is a free-for-all based on pushiness and wealth rather than anything fairer or more regulated. It is true that in such a situation, the less advantaged will probably lose out. But we need to ask why certain sectors of society have this perception to begin with. Trying to prohibit it will not work – as with all prohibition, it just tends to send the problem underground. Seeking to deny those people who pursue this course their choices will make no fairer society than denying any other sector their rights – but spreading the benefits more widely could.

It is also not wholly true that grammar schools are simply private schools on the cheap; this is another careless generalisation by their opponents. Grammar schools often provide for those who value academic education but lack the wealth to pay for it; in that sense they are part of the fight against the privileges of wealth, as embodied by the private sector. That is the error of understanding of those who unquestioningly oppose them. Education has been so portrayed as a simplistic fight against privilege that all the other arguments have been marginalised.

 The caricature of a grammar school as being packed with self-serving middle class types is not one I recognise. By no means all grammars are ‘posh’.Even if that is the modern reality, it may more reflect the shortage of desired provision, rather than a conspiracy. The presence of more such schools would weaken such sharp-elbow tactics, while the replacement of the Eleven-Plus with alternative methods would neutralise the ability to exam-cram. This is not an argument against the existence of such schools.

Even if middle-class pushiness is objectionable, in a fair society why are such people to be denied access to what they too desire, so long as this is not at the expense of others?

This is also in part the cause of the exam-factory education that we have today. In schools where reluctance is the dominant pupil characteristic and schools are judged on how well they overcome it, it is hardly surprising that sweatshop coercion has become the method of choice. The casualty has been any sense of education as being of intrinsic value.

For many, it may never be – but time after time, I encounter pupils who ought to have a wider appreciation – but don’t. And as a teacher, I earnestly believe that some of my own energies and aptitudes have been wasted because non-academic schools have no use for them – and I have been forced to become a conveyor-belt teacher, even though that does not best suit my temperament or abilities. Yes, I am myself a legacy of a grammar school – but the qualities they imbue, of which I hope I possess a little, are in severe decline in this country, to our repeated, collective disadvantage.


In Zurich, even the Gnomes use the trams. Certainly, one may observe a great cross-section of Swiss society on public transport; even buses do not carry the negative social connotations that they do in the U.K. Plenty of people in the more urban areas rarely use their cars.

I deeply sympathise with the instincts of those who argue that social cohesion needs to be strengthened, but I cannot see that this can be done by coercion. It is true that the worst problem of selection is what happens to those who are not selected. But the refusal to allow individuals and social sub-groups to exercise choices that reflect their own values results in a less free society, rather than the opposite.

In Switzerland, the people who do not send their children to state schools are seen as a curiosity. Very few people opt out of the system (which is selective, but consultatively so), just as people of all backgrounds use public transport and most residential districts are far less polarised in this country. But the only way to achieve this in a modern, educated democracy is to create a system that is so good that people choose to opt into it rather than the opposite.

 The way to increase social cohesion is to provide as many high-quality pathways as possible. This encourages people to opt in rather than out. Forcing everyone through the same ‘average’ mould will only result in those who can, opting out in favour of what they prefer. This is precisely what has fuelled inequality in Britain.

That demands a commitment to excellence, a significant amount of resourcing, and an acceptance of natural human diversity with commensurate willingness to accommodate and cater for it. Trying to achieve the same thing by forcing all through the same mould can only accentuate the resentments and divisive forces that are such a feature of modern Britain. It is this point that those implacably opposed to selection in education cannot see.

What I have discussed above is not in itself sufficient to say that we should have selective education, let alone that we must. The problem of what happens to the non-selected vexes me as much as anyone else – but as I have shown, there are other geometries that are never even discussed.

Theresa May seems to have picked a fight she will probably lose – and made it worse by couching it in terms of a return to the past. But I think the argument about increasing choice is correct; what we need to be having is a discussion about how such choices are made, and between what alternatives.

The problem with grammar schools is not them – but how bad the alternatives were allowed to become. We should be offering better choices to those for who do not want an academic education and are alienated from school by it. There is no reason why one alternative should not be comprehensives: I think there are plenty of the ‘more privileged’ who would send their children to them on equally ideological grounds. But it would also no longer deny a strict academic diet to those who wanted it. Technical schools should be another choice. Percentage admission rates and other criteria should be part of the discussion.

Someone once said that the civilisation of a society is measured by the way it treats its minorities. In modern Britain, it is those (of whatever background) who value liberal academic education and a high-functioning intellect who increasingly constitute the minority. Who will fight to protect their rights?


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