In theory, the present system runs on parental choice. A range of secondary schools is supposed to be available within reasonable travelling distance, and parents, in consultation with teachers, decide which is best for their children. All well and good when there are enough places to go round, but what happens when there are not?
An over-subscribed school has to settle who is to get the places. Under present rules, most schools are restricted from deciding on ability. Some heads have relied on where the child lives, in effect, selection by the parents' capacity to buy into the catchment area. Other more idiosyncratic criteria have come into play. The Government has just announced that it is to allow heads to conduct interviews with prospective pupils and their parents to assess suitability, which runs the risk of becoming selection by social class.
None of these has much to do with educability. The much reviled 11-plus was at least intended to test academic potential and, in fact, it worked wonderfully well for most of those it picked out. The unacceptable price, however, was that about three quarters of our young people suffered a severe kick in the teeth before their lives had really got going.
But the abandonment of the 11-plus left primary education without any independent check on pupils' performance. The schools were free to go off in any direction and some developed fanciful notions of what it was to learn to read or calculate. Current low levels of literacy and numeracy probably have a lot to do with the laissez-faire approach to primary education before the national curriculum. Without some structural changes, however, measures like the recently-announced centres will be no more than a drop in the ocean.
The Government has put its faith in graded national curriculum tests, including a set at age 11. Since it is also to allow more selection into secondary schools, we are fast getting back to an 11-plus. Secondary heads having to choose between pupils and conscious of their school's position in the league tables are almost certain to recruit preferentially on the highest grades. This would put pressure on the pupils and it would not benefit them in the way that a test at age 11 should. Children obtaining very low scores on literacy and numeracy will still be expected to move on to secondary school and cope as best they can.
There is, then, a difficult problem. We need a test towards the end of primary schooling, perhaps February of the final year, to ensure readiness for secondary education. We also need a way of allocating places in secondary schools that respects parents' preferences, is fair, and does not turn any test at age 11 into a selection device. Is it possible to square the circle?
I have a modest proposal. It is in three parts.
* Each local education authority should run a university-style admissions service for state secondary schools (including grant maintained) within its geographical area.
* Parents would indicate preferences for, say, three schools and would get their first choice when there were places available. Where there were more applications than could be met, all places would be randomly allocated. Parents not obtaining their first choice would be offered their second, subject to further random allocation if necesary, and so on until all the places had been decided. A clearing house would operate to tidy up admissions for the beginning of the school year.
* Parents would only be able to bid for a place on behalf of a child who had completed a certificate of readiness for secondary education. The content of this qualification would require careful consideration, but it would at least specify threshold levels of reading, spelling, writing and arithmetic, to be assessed through independently set and marked tests.
Arrangements like these would have a number of advantages. First, the testing at age 11 would be wholly to the benefit of the child. It would squarely lay on primary schools the responsibility of bringing their pupils up to specified levels and they could not, as now, simply export their failures. When a child was making only slow progress it would be up to the school to find ways of helping him or her to learn. The expectation would be that, apart from a few per cent of special-needs children (for whom there would be special arrangements), all children would meet the required levels.
Second, it would mean that the most valuable aspect of parental choice would be preserved without playing into the hands of the pushy middle class.
Third, although it would be in the interest of schools to attract as many first preferences as they could, they would have less control over their intakes and their position in any league table would more accurately reflect their effectiveness.
Above all, selection at age 11 would be avoided while leaving the way open for specialisation later, perhaps from the age of 14.
No doubt there are snags that, in my enthusiasm, I have overlooked, but I commend these ideas to any party bold enough to take them up.