When it comes to selection, how Darwinian are you?

Can you support some forms of selection, but not others? David James argues that we need to work with market forces

David James

Private schools can play a big role in social mobility, writes Sam Burns

A tweet can start a storm, or plant a seed. The latter happened to me when I read a comment by Nick Hillman, former adviser to David Willetts (as minister for universities and science) and now the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI). He wrote: “If you don’t understand where someone is coming from on education, the following is a pretty good rule of thumb: you fiercely oppose selection right up to the point at which you personally benefited from it.”

Selection is, by definition, divisive. So, ask yourself this: when it comes to selection, how Darwinian are you? 

Let me put it another way: how much selection are you happy to be involved in and still be able to sleep at night? Eleven-plus? Bad! Setting by ability? Good (but only in modern foreign languages, maths and science). GCSE? A level? Where is the sweet spot of acceptance?

Can you be just a teensy-weensy bit selective? Or can there be no mushy, liberal middle? If you favour selection, what criteria should you use? Intelligence? Postcode? Should the World Cup-winning England cricket team have been picked by ability, or by more egalitarian means

Academic selection

Can you work for a highly selective academic institution, which charges people to study there, but still seek to close selective schools down? Some see nothing wrong with that. If we are going to use selection, why not, as Robert Plomin has argued, include DNA information to help inform judgement? 

Now let me make it more personal: how have you benefited from selection? Was it when your parents conceived you? Or at school? Was it when you were accepted by that Russell Group university? Or when you were offered that top job, or that promotion? How much would you sharpen your elbows to get your darling daughter or son into a highly desirable school nearby, rather than the school in special measures just down the road? Private tuition? That’ll do nicely. 

Such issues reach into our core identities, not just as teachers but as political beings. Because, broadly speaking, those on the left favour comprehensive, inclusive schooling where equality is maintained wherever possible, and those on the right are intensely comfortable with the many different methods of selecting pupils, either by market forces or by innate ability.

Brutal and blunt

And, of course, by money. Because alongside interviewing, streaming, setting, banding, entrance examinations, pre-testing (yup, it’s a thing), intelligence, sex, faith, and even behaviour (exclusions are an extreme form of selection), sits the independent sector, with its own bespoke sieving system. Even though fewer than 50 per cent of Independent Schools Council schools are academically selective, money continues to be one of the fine holes in the colander that allows a small minority of the population through. Perhaps not surprisingly, as our fees have increased, schools have become proportionally more coy about cost. 

With average annual fees in the UK of just over £14,000, but with some schools charging over £40,000 a year, there is deepening concern that we’ve lost the aspiring middle classes and are now only attracting the one-percenters. Nobody wanted this, but this is where we are, and it’s another form of selection – one that can often be as brutal and as blunt as a bank balance.

Independent schools are trying to widen access, but is selection by affluence any more objectionable than by ability? Why does it animate so many people when, for much of our lives, we are content to obey market forces, and to follow the laws of selection?

The rest of the world seems unconcerned. In China and India, private spending on education has more than doubled over the past 10 years. As The Economist recently pointed out, the Chinese spend 5 per cent of their income on education, and the Indians spend 4 per cent. Europeans average just 1 per cent. 

'Liberal self-loathing'

Is the debate around fee-paying schools a first-world problem, which preoccupies mostly the affluent, white middle classes who have other choices open to help their children succeed if the local school cannot deliver? 

Certainly, the guilt expressed by some of those who admit to paying for their children’s education is embarrassing to read, especially when it is estimated that half the country would send their children to a private school if they could afford it. Many would love to be able to access that particular form of liberal self-loathing.

Perhaps the conflict between “selectionists” and “inclusivists” is essentially one between pragmatists and idealists. Do we see schools as places that should be removed from the perceived iniquities of the society they are part of? Or will they inevitably reflect the forces that shape them, including deciding who can come in, and who is kept out? 

You can either be for selection, or against it, but trying to be both – hoping to create a values-driven educational system that is open to all and is free from the natural ambitions that parents are susceptible to – is likely to end in failure. 

Instead of working against market forces, an intelligent approach towards educational equality would be to work with them, to benefit from the virtues of selection, rather than condemning it as something innately and morally wrong. 

David James is deputy head (academic) of Bryanston School, an independent school in Dorset

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Latest stories