Why is 'selection' still such a dirty word?

30th January 2009 at 00:00
All pupils would benefit if state and private schools selected them on academic results at 14

Sorting out my loft recently, I came across some books from the 1970s that I had hung on to when I last moved house.

Among them was a set of the so-called Black Papers, issued 40 years ago. With titles including "The Egalitarian Threat", "In Praise of Examinations" and "The Centrality of Reading", the papers caused a stir.

In 1969, Edward Short, then Labour education secretary, described the publication of the first as "one of the blackest days for education in the past 100 years". This "backlash" against progressive education, he said, had provoked "the crisis of this century".

To those of us who were training to be teachers in the Seventies, these Black Papers were compulsory and compulsive reading. But have they relevance now?

Because of its power to provoke, I want to focus on just one issue: selection. The very word still brings politicians of all shades of opinion out in an egalitarian rash.

Selection within schools - setting or streaming - is now acceptable. But selection between students and into different schools is not. So-called specialist schools can select only up to a certain limit (10 per cent), and then only in certain specialisms, rather than general academic ability, and on the basis of "aptitude" rather than "achievement".

Yet in the real world, selection is rife. Universities select; employers select; football teams select.

Even within the school and college system, selection is the norm at age 16, with minimum entry requirements for almost all advanced-level courses, from A-levels to apprenticeships. So why is selection a dirty word in pre-16 education?

In Black Paper One, RR Pedley argued the case for selection in the face of the growing comprehensive lobby. Much of what he wrote was prophetic and endures even today.

"The notion that talented children are as well catered for in all-ability schools as in schools especially created and operated for them is so much moonshine," he wrote.

"The able child in the company of his peers finds an atmosphere, an ethos, specially relevant to him, and therefore receives a stimulus and an incentive fully to stretch his abilities. It is especially important that the talented child from the poor home gets this particular and unique stimulus - and at as early an age as possible."

Now fast forward to modern times: history is about to repeat itself in Northern Ireland. Back in 2001, the Burns report claimed that 11-plus tests were socially divisive, damaged pupils' self-esteem, disrupted learning and reinforced inequality of opportunity. A year later, Martin McGuinness, then minister for education, pledged to abolish the 11-plus. Last year, in November, the final round of 11-plus papers was sat by some 15,000 10 and 11-year-olds in the province.

But a proposal to allow pupils to switch secondary schools at 14-plus may help to break the deadlock over academic selection in Northern Ireland. It is one that might have found favour with the Black Paper editors themselves, CBrian Cox and AE Dyson. They did not reject selection per se, but they explicitly rejected the 11-plus.

In Ireland, too, the debate among grammar schools is shifting from the age of selection to the best mechanism for achieving it. Support for selection on the grounds of academic ability remains strong.

A persuasive and articulate case for academic selection was made by Sir Eric Anderson speaking to the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference in 2006. He argued: "I do not believe we can cocoon ourselves from the rest of the world, or afford the luxury of an unselective system that allows other countries to press ahead of us while we stagnate.

"Quality matters every bit as much as equality. Both quality and equality of opportunity are what the present education system has failed to provide."

Sir Eric was "not asking for a return to the 11-plus, to a choice made on the evidence of tests taken on a single day". He foreshadowed the approach now being considered in Northern Ireland: moving the age of selection to 14. A large part of the independent sector, incidentally, has always recognised age 13 as an appropriate age for secondary selection.

Ironically, even a government that claims to eschew selection has done much to recognise that the brightest pupils thrive when they are brought together and taught together.

This is evident in its support for the Gifted and Talented programme and its summer schools, where inspectors have noted that pupils enjoy working alongside "like-minded peers".

A reopening of the debate about selection seems long overdue. This is not a call for the reintroduction or extension of grammar schools. However, the low-cost option (for the state) of making use of the world-class selective schools in the independent sector should be seriously explored. Many would be willing to offer places at the state rate of capitation. Selection at 14 could then open up an academic stream for the talented which would not only benefit them but is also essential for our economic wellbeing.

Even some on the centre-left and in the pro-comprehensive camp have expressed support for selection at 14. Indeed, Sir Peter Newsam, who masterminded the final abolition of London's last grammar schools, has conceded (albeit implicitly) the value of selection at this age.

Given the failure of political attempts to engineer social mobility, "selection" should at least be on the agenda as a policy option for the 21st century.

So how about a serious paper from a political party on selection in schools? Who knows, the time might yet come when, instead of a Black Paper, we see a green or white one on this issue.

Now that would be a collector's item worth keeping.

Geoff Lucas, Secretary, Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference.

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