Editorial - 'Selection' is a dirty word that needs shouting

11th December 2009 at 00:00
Ghost of 11-plus should not haunt calls to divide pupils by capability at 14

Professor Alan Smithers suggests that specialist science schools should be able to select the brightest science pupils at the age of 14 and stretch them with a tougher curriculum (page 12). Coincidentally, former education secretary Kenneth - now Lord - Baker is beavering away to establish a network of specialist schools that would select students at the age of 14 to study vocational subjects. Both, for different reasons, see a case for selecting pupils by ability - one academic, the other practical. In Northern Ireland, the bitter battle over the province's grammar schools could be ended as supporters and opponents consider a compromise based on selection at 14. Are they on to something?

"It is very important that this (initiative) does not get coloured by memories of the 11-plus," says Professor Smithers hopefully. Fat chance. Selection is a dirty word. Those local authorities that still divide children into successes and failures at the ludicrously early age of 11 have seen to that. It is the educational apartheid commonly known as Kent. It is wasteful and unnecessarily limiting. Selection is for zealots and traditionalists. It is reactionary.

Or is it? By the time pupils reach 16, selection is also accepted fact. They have been selected, or have selected themselves, for academic or vocational routes, for the sciences, the humanities, the applied or the arts. And in many lessons they will already be in sets, based on ability. So selection two years earlier, when decisions have already been made in preparation for GCSEs, should be more palatable - rational even. At 14, it is far clearer what children's capabilities are than it is at 11. It is fairer.

The problem, critics fear, is that choices incarnated in separate institutions devoted to academic and vocational missions tend to entrench rather than ameliorate existing social divisions. The motivated middle-class would play the game at 14 just as surely as they do at 11 to ensure their children had the best chance of following an academic route, in many cases regardless of a child's potential or inclination. Moreover, outside urban centres there simply isn't the capacity to allow much choice - the supply of specialists and resources is limited and often not sufficient to justify separate schools.

Of course, those problems could be solved by incorporating academic and vocational faculties in the same school, with options to transfer between the two or take modules in either at various stages. This would be even easier if the country possessed an overarching exam that managed to cater to both aptitudes. But it does not and Tomlinson is another story.

In its absence, proposals to select at 14 deserve serious consideration. It is inconsistent of the Government to decry selection in any form and then back Lord Baker's plans. It obviously sees the value in his ideas for technical education. How can they not involve some type of selection? Similarly, Professor Smithers' modest suggestions may boost the academic performance of those who deserve and need it. They should not be dismissed because they contain the dread word "selection".

Gerard Kelly, Editor; E: gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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