Much was made recently about the fact that so many of our Olympic successes were independently educated. The implication, as always, was that this shows the lack of wider opportunity in our country. Maybe there are many other potential medal-winners out there – but a little-discussed possibility is that if those people had not had the kind of education they did, they might not have been successes either. If you attribute so much influence to schooling, you cannot avoid this argument.
The blogger Muggedbyreality made an excellent point recently, which took my own thinking further:
“…to create a strong, flourishing academic culture in a school or a subject department or a class requires a disproportionate, perhaps excessive number of persons of an ‘academic’ inclination.
…An intellectual environment seems to need a critical mass of staff and pupils who revel in intellectual pursuits to get an intellectual buzz… even in schools with a genuinely comprehensive intake and thus enough students to create that flourishing intellectual environment, it is missing.”
This is my experience entirely. Whatever the arguments about selection, it seems to me that the effect of comprehensive schools has been to level people to the middle. The most probable outcome when a wide range of individuals is put through a common mould, is that there will be a tendency to a mid-point norm. This may well provide uplift at the bottom – but it comes at the expense of the greatest development of the most talented. In 1980, when I entered the sixth form, my grammar was turned into a sixth form college; its character changed almost overnight. No doubt some would argue that this was a good thing – but it was very clear to those who knew it before, that the academic ethos was instantly diluted by the simple arrival and behaviour of many who did not share that outlook.
This is precisely what I feel has happened to the U.K. over the past several decades. For all that diversity is supposedly celebrated, the common culture of this country has become ever more centred around the middle to low brow. Many educated people now have tastes and preferences no different from the less thoughtful mainstream. It has almost become a point of embarrassment to admit to anything more. I am not saying that they should not participate in that culture – but the number who also retain a diverse perspective, and who have the capacity to supplement their diet of soaps, celebrity and shopping with more demanding interests and activities, seems to have shrunk. And that is without the perceived intolerant eccentrics like me who would prefer their own diet to remain entirely unpolluted with junk. In other words, the pursuit and appreciation of challenging (but rewarding) high quality seems largely to have been lost, except perhaps when it only requires the flex of a credit card. And with it have been devalued the common cultural norms and values of the entire nation. I place part of the responsibility for that at the door of the education system.
I probably appear hugely intolerant here, but I want to make a point. A nation comprises vast numbers of people, all with their own world-view and preferences. But that nation’s collective civil and cultural life is the sum of all its parts, and perhaps more than that. If there are few willing or able to uphold the more exacting end of the spectrum, the whole suffers as a result. If no one is prepared to be intransigent in the name of high quality, then it will simply disappear.
The casualty is then the collective standard of culture, thought, discourse, innovation and achievement of the nation. I would argue there is enough evidence to suggest that those things have declined in Britain, at least to claim that education has failed to act as a brake on other destructive pressures. I realise that there are very many wider factors that are influencing such trends – but my point is that at least for some, education ought to be providing a counter-balance to the mind-rot, and in the majority of the non-selective sector, I strongly suspect that it is not.
In the meantime, those who do still worry about these things perhaps perceive their last refuge to be in the remaining grammar schools – or the fee-paying sector.
In terms of the general health of a country’s society, culture and wider welfare – to say nothing of individual preferences – I find it hard to accept that it is in the collective interest for the brightest and best not to be developed as far as they can be, for the sake of a rather low-grade equality. This is certainly not the approach that I see a number of our (rather more successful) neighbouring countries taking.
However, this is not in itself an argument for selection; in an ideal world, such aspirations would indeed be achievable universally. But the reality is that this does not happen; people are too diverse to be catered for so specifically all under one roof. Academic divisiveness is a distraction: the real issue ought to be whether specialised institutions of all sorts could achieve a broader but higher-quality education for more people than the current one-size-fits-all approach. Likewise, the mechanism for selection is nothing more than another distraction. I suspect that selection’s opponents well know it.
As Muggedbyreality says, it takes a surprisingly large number of like-minded people to create a culture. I suspect that s/he is right: I work in a school that has a significantly positively-skewed ability range. I encounter lots of clever children – but very few who are academic. There are some – but nowhere near enough to influence the whole. This is not surprising, since they come in many cases from not especially academic backgrounds, and in any case, in most populations, I suspect the numbers of parents wishing or able to project such values is small. Institutional culture and values are things that schools have to instil – and in my experience, very few comprehensives successfully do so in academic terms, even where they claim otherwise. Again there are too many reasons for this to discuss here, though my scrawling over the past three years has covered many.
In some ways, comprehensive education has indeed been the leveller that its proponents wanted. The trouble is, it had no alternative but to level as many down as up. I’m not sure that’s what they had in mind –at least I hope it isn’t. The idea of grammar (i.e. academic) schools for all is a practical non-starter. Too many people simply do not set sufficient store by high intellectual quality ever to attain the necessary critical mass. I should add that exactly the same claim could be made with respect to schools of technical excellence, and other specialist needs.
This is the blind spot of those who oppose selection: it is not (principally) a matter of securing ‘unfair’ advantage; it is a matter of perceived cultural quality. For the most resolute of selection opponents, the principal purpose of education is social engineering; they often see teachers as class warriors. I’m not suggesting that tackling disadvantage is unimportant, but shift to a different paradigm, and the argument shifts too.
Whether the reality of selection matches that perception is almost immaterial, though my memories of both grammar school and local independents are indeed ones of integrity. As a grammar school pupil, I only visited secondary moderns a couple of times, but their different ‘feel’ has stayed with me. It was not a matter of superiority, but it was definitely different. In cultural terms, I am afraid that comprehensives are more like ‘secondary moderns for all’ than grammar schools, and I don’t see how it could be otherwise. Neither is this even a matter of ability, so much as attitude. The problem stems not so much from the weak-but-willing, as the indifferent and the disaffected. Putting everyone together solves nothing; the lowest common denominator tends to prevail – and if it doesn’t, those who cannot meet the standards and norms risk feeling all the more excluded.
And this does not only apply to pupils: I increasingly feel that some of my professional tribulations over the years have come from working in a culture to which I am not entirely suited, and much of my more dubious workload has actually been generated as schools battle to control the problems and tensions inherent within the comprehensive system. I chose to express my faith in that system by working in it notwithstanding the personal cost – but were I to choose now, with the benefit of hindsight I would make a different decision. There are plenty of teachers who thrive in the comprehensive setting – but there are those like me, as with pupils, who can do their best work somewhere else. To ignore their needs is no more acceptable than to do the same to any other group.
David Willets, the former trade minister, writing in Prospect magazine says research shows that non-graduate incomes are higher in areas where there are lots of high-calibre graduates than elsewhere. That spreads opportunity – but it is not necessarily an argument for making everyone a graduate. High quality has a more widely beneficial impact by raising norms.
The fact that some people insist on high quality, and will go out of their way in order to secure it is both their reasonable right, and in fact of benefit to more than themselves. In cultural terms, their effect permeates to the standards of wider society. If one eliminates such people from the wider mix on the grounds that not everyone wishes to emulate them, the effect on the whole is disproportionately large. On the other hand, distributing them widely but thinly removes the critical mass necessary to sustain them. The same applies in education, whether we are considering the needs of the academic minority or any other.
Is this really such a desirable template for a thriving modern society?