I see the nation is working itself up into a lather again about the issue of grammar schools, and the debate shows every sign of degenerating into its habitual, simplistic factions when a more sophisticated discussion is badly needed. Unfortunately, the U.K. has always been hamstrung by social snobberies that cause fewer distortions elsewhere; issues of social mobility simply do not seem to get conflated with educational success in many continental countries as they do here. I accept that this means some of their solutions may not be completely appropriate here, but we do need to clear the air and clarify the issues. There is a perfectly good egalitarian case to be made for what I prefer to call specialised education.
The primary role of education cannot be to promote social mobility, which it can never guarantee anyway, but to develop the intellects and other abilities of those who receive it. If this leads to socio-economic advancement then all well and good, but there are too many other intervening life factors ever to guarantee it, no matter what system is in place. Expecting the education system to right every social wrong and then guarantee every child a privileged, affluent future is simply asking more than it can deliver; more gullible Affluenza at work here, no matter how noble the aspiration. And what is the point of encouraging children to be ambitious if those who are not are artificially boosted to equal success? The fact, which is unpalatable to some, is that for education to succeed, in relative terms, seemingly some have to fail.
It is no more equitable to dismiss bright children as being able to succeed under any system than to disregard less able ones because they may not. All children should have their needs addressed, and in my experience the comprehensive system does not do that as well as it might simply because it is asked to be a jack-of-all-trades. Furthermore, the failure of some state primary schools to secure Eleven Plus passes may say more about them and their methods (or their intake) than it does about the manipulation of the system by others. My (traditional) primary school proved itself more than capable of securing a good clutch of grammar school places – in a town that had three independent secondary – and even more prep – schools. It did so by concentrating on developing intellects, not righting social wrongs.
And given that the system aspires to create more prosperous, empowered citizens (or at least I hope it does) then who are we to argue if those it has already created clamour to send their children to a certain type of school?
But there is another way to resolve the ‘failure’ problem. It lies in how we define the word. The deep problem with British education is not the selective/comprehensive dichotomy, but the snobbery attached to it, which runs far deeper than the education system can change. The problem is that academic education is seen as the only route to success, despite much evidence to the contrary, if one examines the lives of ‘successful’ people. We then take the less academically-inclined (of all abilities) and force them through a single, pseudo-intellectual system in which they can only ever hope to be second-rate – and then effectively label them as failures. So much for the uplift effect of comprehensives. At the same time, we deny the academically-inclined the all-embracing culture that is needed to nurture their attitudes and talents. And to add insult to injury, we fail to provide the ‘failures’ with a more appropriate outlet for their often considerable talents.
The harsh fact is, some people have greater abilities than others, and society as a whole needs every talent to be developed to its maximum. I suspect this can best be done in specialist establishments; we do not expect Wimbledon champions to win simply by playing at their local tennis club or by being forced to study, say, electronics at the same time. We need top-quality technical skills – and we also need top-quality intellects; having been educated in one and taught in the other, there is no doubt in my mind that for the academically inclined of whatever background, grammar schools can offer a superior education. I see no reason why academically-inclined children should be denied their opportunity – but we also need to provide equally good technical and vocational schools for those with that aptitude, as many of our neighbours do.
Note that I say ‘inclination’ – not ability, for it would be perfectly possible to send children to a school according to professed preference, so long as that then manifested itself in their (and their parents’) commitment to it, rather than their raw I.Q. or exam results. The possibility of changing schools where application was lacking would provide a useful incentive here. Personally, I would rather teach less able but suitably-disposed children than bright but antagonistic ones – but I can only see it as counter-productive to be made to compromise my own academic inclinations in order to do my job.
My parents bettered themselves by having access to the only type of school that could academically rival the unaffordable independent sector, and my own grammar school was by no means packed with the middle classes. Many of those people have gone on to lead productive lives.
The only alternative to educating those capable to the highest level is to produce a generation where no one receives more than an average education, irrespective of ability – except those who can pay for it, and in my view, discrimination by wealth is more iniquitous that separation by aptitude. If we wish to create a truly comprehensive system, then we do need to remove the advantages enjoyed by those who went to independent schools – but that would not be the end of it: we would consequently also need to tackle the exacerbated effects of house-price inflation around popular state schools. Then we would need to cleanse people’s snobberies about which school they attended, which I suspect would only surface in another form. Where would it end?
We need to separate the benefits of specialised education from the admittedly iniquitous nature of the test that historically provided access to one aspect of it, for which more equitable alternatives exist possibly at a later age. We should be more realistic about what education can actually deliver – then it might be possible to have a sensible discussion about the best way to deliver it.
Ceasing to see education in excessively competitive terms might be a start.