Why the snub for selection?

13th February 2009 at 00:00

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 of these papers as "one of the blackest days for education in the past 100 years".

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. 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. 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.

"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. There, 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.

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

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 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 also our economic well-being. Even some on the centre-left and in the pro-comprehensive camp have expressed support for selection at 14.

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.

Geoff Lucas is secretary of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference in England.

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