Nothing natural about selection

3rd October 1997 at 01:00
At the end of the summer term I held a party for my Year 8 tutor group. There were the usual things you expect at such gatherings: loud music with indecipherable words, Coke, crisps and wriggling body movements which, if you were being generous, you might call dancing. There were also bucket loads of tears, with some students getting themselves in a right old emotional state.

To understand the personal turmoil of my students you need to know the intricacies of selective education in my part of the country. We serve a rural catchment area where poor public transport and dangerous roads conspire to confine children to their villages when they're not at school. Here they are with friends whom they have often known since primary days. But after 18 months with us some students in Year 8, whose parents choose to enter them, do a written test for the local grammar school. Marks from these tests are then collected and those who have "passed" are offered places and those that haven't are rejected. Some appeals are successful, but many are not. Hence the tears and the sad goodbyes.

Students rejected by this process remain at my school to continue their education through to their GCSEs, where many of them do just as well as they would have done at the local grammar. This year, at my school more than 50 per cent of GCSE entrants got five or more A-Cs. Such excellent results would suggest that the selection process is wrong in 50 per cent of cases.

Selection as it exists in this country has nothing to do with education and everything to do with old-fashioned snobbery. Grammar schools survive because the parents whose children are blessed with the ability to pass pencil and paper tests clamour for the social status they offer. When I am on courses it is not uncommon for people to refer to my school as "the other place", as in "Do you work at the grammar or the other place?" The selective system has been morally bankrupt for a long time; it also exists on dodgy philosophical and educational grounds. The notion that IQ measures anything other than a student's ability to do well in a particular type of pencil and paper test has been in question ever since the measure was derived. By sifting small children in this cruel manner we are wasting bucket loads of talent, as well as causing immense heartache into the bargain.

Yes, some students go on after secondary moderns to A-levels and degrees, but countless others simply never recover the self-belief to raise their academic sights beyond the mediocre.

Education is about unlocking students' potential to live a full and fulfilled life, not about locking them into ready-made stereotypes of what they can expect of themselves at an early age. Of profound comfort to me is the knowledge that the comprehensive system represents the majority in terms of secondary schooling in this country.

But there is still work to be done. And please, Mr Blair and Mr Blunkett, don't continue with your mantra that it is standards not structures which matter in the drive to improve education for all. In the fossil-strewn educational landscape of Britain such rhetoric has a hollow ring indeed.

Andrew Wright is a teacher in south-east England

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