Case study: A winning combination in Skegness

3rd September 2004 at 01:00
Modern selective education is the solution not the problem. It is now clearly evident that the comprehensive system is on death row. Slowly, but surely, successive governments have eaten away at the ideological stalemate that has sacrificed more than a generation of state-educated pupils on the altar of an outmoded egalitarian philosophy. Specialist schools, city academies and the rest have all prospered on the back of covert selection policies - by "aptitude", of course, not ability. Increased popularity leads to over-subscription and hence further selection. Catchment area house prices rise, middle-class children predominate, and there you have it: the unofficial selective school nominally comprehensive and lauded as such. In reality, it is more selective than many grammars, and on the back of a far more insidious and exclusive process than the 11-plus ever was or is.

Selection by ability does not discriminate against anyone. It is a process which defines the most appropriate type of education for the individual concerned. A one-size-fits-all approach has not worked and will not work.

Opponents of selection have long argued that the 11-plus labels children as failures; parental angst at the process, and the desperation stakes at admissions appeals, are used as evidence. However, in my experience, this is not a reflection of the process of selection itself but the dissatisfaction with the alternative provision. Parents are not desperate to subject their child to a grammar school academic diet when they know that he or she will not cope. What they seek is the ethos, traditional discipline, good manners and courtesy offered by grammar schools. Where the alternative provision, be it a local secondary modern or comprehensive, is well disciplined, safe, its pupils smart in appearance, where louts are tackled and not allowed to rule the roost, parents are not only reassured but appreciate that the provision of a combined academic and vocational pathway is actually better for a less able pupil. The ballot on selection in Ripon showed this clearly when parents of secondary modern pupils voted to retain selection, a result recently repeated in Gloucester.

In Skegness the alternative provision, a neighbouring comprehensive, has had its difficulties and was placed in special measures last year. At that time many parents did their utmost to make sure their children got a grammar school place - not through any desire to inflict a level of work that was beyond them, but to avoid the worst.

This month our neighbouring school reopens as a collaborative restart school, St Clements College, with a clear traditional ethos. By combining this with an innovative, balanced academic and vocational curriculum, Skegness will have a winning combination. I believe any worries over selection will now ease as real parental concerns will have been addressed.

At either school, they will know their child will be able to work hard, achieve their full potential and be challenged and enthused with a curriculum appropriate to their needs and capabilities. Opportunities for transfer either way will continue to exist, as now.

Opponents of grammars often put forward the view that if you spread the brightest pupils around a number of comprehensives, their influence will raise the standards of their less able peers. This does not work; they are much more likely to underperform, often deliberately, so they are seen to conform. And, second, this is not their task. They are pupils, not mechanisms for attempts at school improvement engineering. Placing them together in a grammar school allows them to challenge each other and reach their true potential. In short, they thrive. At Skegness grammar, the number of pupils from humble backgrounds now thriving in the UK's top universities is testament to the argument.

A second argument is to cite the comprehensive system that is said to flourish in France. I am familiar with educational provision in Dijon as an example. Here, one school is the top academically. It selects by whatever means - interview, reports, testing - and the brightest have access regardless of their background. In essence, Lycee Carnot is a grammar school.

The issue of selection is about ethos and discipline, about safety, school uniforms, manners, courtesy and respect for teachers and pupils. Only then is it about selecting an appropriate curriculum that is best for all. The Government knows this but is reluctant, perhaps embarrassed, to say so.

Let us see overt, well-planned selection policies, combined with uniformly high standards of discipline and ethos but with a variety of schools offering curricular programmes to suit their intake's capabilities and needs. As a consequence we may send a few shivers through the independent sector.

Andrew Rigby is head of Skegness grammar school, Lincolnshire

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