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'Sixth-form colleges are the best alternative to grammar schools'

Amid the furore over the government's plans for more selection at the age of 11, the chief executive of the Sixth-Form Colleges' Association argues that selection at 16 is an 'inevitable signpost at a crossroads in the education journey'

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Amid the furore over the government's plans for more selection at the age of 11, the chief executive of the Sixth-Form Colleges' Association argues that selection at 16 is an 'inevitable signpost at a crossroads in the education journey'

Selection at 11, the contentious hallmark of grammar schools, happens quite harmoniously and naturally at 16. It is called information, advice and guidance (IAG). High-quality post-16 education represents the best lever for social mobility, the best opportunity for all young people capable of accessing the curriculum, and the best alternative to grammar schools.

So how can anyone who effectively supports selection at 16 oppose it for the age of 11?

Well, there is a difference between selection at 16, when young people face an almost bewildering array of choices and must decide which pathway suits them best, and selection at 11, when pupils will all transfer to a secondary school to follow broadly the same curriculum, whether in a grammar school, church school, comprehensive, secondary modern, academy or local authority school.

Selection, at the start of sixth form, is just another name for IAG. It has always happened, in sixth-form colleges and schools alike. Its specific purpose is to ensure that young people choose a pathway and a small number of subjects that best suit their interests, aptitudes and ability. It is something that has happened successfully for generations. It does not entail the automatic and inevitable creation of secondary modern schools designed to accommodate all the young people who failed their selection tests.

‘Selection at 16 makes sense’

A 16-year-old is unlikely to survive and thrive in an A-level environment without the necessary GCSE results. A 16-year-old will have to choose between a technical or professional pathway and a traditional academic sixth-form curriculum, and the choice will depend on either – or both – ability and aptitude.

Selection at 16 makes sense. At 16, there are choices to make, different pathways to follow, and expert guidance is essential. Selection at 11 is not the same thing; selection at 11 is a segregation of children, according not just to their ability, not just to merit, but also to socio-economic background and social advantage – and the children will all follow the same curriculum. The problem with selection at 11 is that nearly all of those aspirational families with above-average ability children will be disappointed. Their children will not pass a selection test. And the alternative facing them will not be a comprehensive school; it will be a secondary modern, an environment from which the most able 10-20 per cent have been extracted.

Selection at 16 is an inevitable and entirely appropriate signpost at a crossroads in the education journey. Sixth-form study does not suit everyone. Selection at 16 is no different from an audition in a theatre or a trial at a football club.

Excellent sixth-form provision represents a very real alternative to grammar schools. In answer to the government’s policy ambitions to achieve social mobility and selection, the Department for Education should encourage growth in the number of sixth-form colleges – the most effective and efficient centres of expertise and quality in 16-19 education – rather than grammar schools for 11-year-olds.

Selection is not always a bad thing. If we are to leverage more social mobility that really makes a difference, we could do worse than look at the benefits of selection where selection is needed and natural – at 16. What we need is more high-quality sixth-form provision, with specialist experts in sixth-form colleges geared up to nurture young people from more disadvantaged backgrounds and prepare them for admission, survival and success at university and beyond.

Unlike some smaller school sixth forms, where there may be less experience and expertise and fewer choices for students, sixth-form colleges, with their tradition of high-quality provision, their curriculum breadth, successful outcomes and aspirational destinations for young people from less well-off families, represent the best alternative to grammar schools. Visit a sixth-form college and see selection as a lever of social mobility – selection as IAG in action.  

Bill Watkin is chief executive of the SFCA. He tweets at @BillWatkin

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