Access to excellence for all, not selection at 14, should be our aim

6th February 2009 at 00:00

Geoff Lucas ("Why is 'selection' such a dirty word?" TES, January 30) refers to RR Pedley's 1970s assertion that able children needed to be in separate schools with other able children "at as early an age as possible" for their abilities to be stretched". This was untrue then and remains so now.

An institution's A-level points score may be an arbitrary measure, and many excellent schools and colleges have lower scores than 1,000. But when a school or college achieves that average, or does better, it suggests a strong performance from all its A-level students.

Any latter-day Pedley should note that Hampshire, which does not select children at the age of 11, has two sixth-form colleges that admit a combined total of 2,630 students from a variety of non-selective schools at the age of 16. Both have average A-level points scores of well over 1,000.

Kent, which selects most of the top 25 per cent into its grammar schools at the age of 11, saw only four of its 30 grammars score over 1000 last year. These four have a total of 501 students taking the exams (or 624 students, if a fifth school just below the 1,000 mark is included). How would RR Pedley have explained that, I wonder?

Selection at 11 does not automatically lead to excellence. There are other ways forward. A few years ago, my daughter attended one of those London grammars that Mr Lucas believes were abolished (though it was selection, not the schools, that was abolished). For many years, that school has been admitting pupils from the full range of abilities. Last year its A-level points score, for 200 students, was higher than that of six of Kent's grammar schools.

It is time to recognise that, for a student to attain top-grade A-levels, it is demonstrably not essential that they should be selected at the age of 11 or attend the same school since 11, 13 or, indeed, 14.

So I do not, as Geoff Lucas suggests, "implicitly" or otherwise believe in selection by presumed ability at the age of 14. What I do wholeheartedly agree with is his suggestion that access to the highest-performing Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference and grammar schools should be widened. Such schools have far more to offer this country's children than they now do.

Wherever post-16 opportunities are inadequate and difficult to improve, suitably qualified students should have access to post-16 excellence at any type of institution where that excellence exists. That includes independent schools, where post-16 education for all students, including those already at the school, should be publicly funded.

This would be expensive, but would that not be a better use of taxpayers' money than the present drive to add not particularly distinguished independent schools to the list of government-controlled academies?

Sir Peter Newsam, Former chief schools adjudicator, Pickering, North Yorkshire.

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