Tony Little, the former head master of Eton College, has dismissed academic selection as “old hat”.
He said that selecting by ability was “yesterday’s story” and could “harm” children’s life chances.
Mr Little, currently chief academic officer of the GEMS private education group, also said that he could “dream” of an era when there was no longer any need for private schools.
Speaking in a debate on selection at the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai, he said: “Academic selection as a means of entry to schools is yesterday’s story, it’s old hat.
“It may work for some children in some circumstances, but the overwhelming evidence is that it doesn’t work for all children, and indeed not only does it not benefit them but it actually can harm their chances.”
Mr Little pointed out that in 1958, at the “high water mark” of selection, only 0.3 per cent of working-class children achieved the two A-level benchmark standard.
“In areas where there were academically selective schools, schools that were not selective in that same area were depressed in their results and in their opportunities for children,” he said.
Talking about selection 'gets us nowhere'
The same arguments about selection have been rehearsed “again and again and again” over the past half-century, but “it gets us nowhere”, he added.
Instead Mr Little argued that school systems should “refocus” on early years education because there was “incontrovertible evidence…that life chances are pretty much rooted by the time you are 5”.
Mr Little’s comments came on the same day that a new cross-party campaign was launched to oppose the government’s plans to expand the number of grammar schools in England.
While Mr Little conceded that he had led schools – including Eton – which selected on ability, he said the future of education lay in developing schools that are “big on culture, on relationships, on developing people as global citizens”.
This is best done “by the kind of school that is inclusive and seeks to embrace young people,” he said.
Although he argued against selection during the debate, he did stand up for private schools, which he said acted as a “point of comparison” to help “prod” state systems.
“At their best, they’re laboratories of different ways of doing things,” he said
However, he added that he could “dream of an era and a time when there is no need for a private sector”.
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