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Should we bring back selective schooling?

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Should we divide children based on academic aptitude? According to The Telegraph’s Judith Woods, Britain’s education system just isn’t working, and the solution is to adopt a German model. In Germany, children who are more academic attend a Gymnasium that prepares them for university, while the less academic students go to vocational schools. Woods claims that this system works better “because it’s not predicated on a one-size-fits-all philosophy”.

Woods seems to be implicitly arguing for a return to the grammar school system that England and Wales had until the 1970s. The British grammar system sorted pupils into different types of secondary school based upon their scores in an ‘eleven-plus exam’. Grammar schools taught a minority of pupils a curriculum that prepared them for university, while secondary moderns were designed to prepare the majority of students for less qualified jobs. Although grammar schools were phased out in the 1960s by Labour, some parts of the UK continue to have selective systems.

According to a 2016 report, 94% of disadvantaged pupils in the UK will not meet the entrance requirements for a grammar school.

Perhaps the most common argument for such a system is that it serves as a vehicle for social mobility, placing bright working class pupils in an environment where they are surrounded by students who share their ability and motivation. However, according to a 2016 report by the Education Policy Institute, 94% of disadvantaged pupils in the UK will not meet the entrance requirements for a grammar school. Perhaps this is no surprise considering children from lower-income backgrounds are less likely to have access to tutors, books, or university-qualified parents.

An estimated 13-15% of grammar school pupils attended an independent preparatory primary school, while only 2.6% receive free school meals, the government’s proxy for socioeconomic disadvantage. Ultimately, grammar schools are doing more to preserve the privilege of those who are already well off than to open up opportunities for children of poorer families.

Perhaps if more students were encouraged to do apprenticeships instead of going to university, there would be a healthier job market.

There is another issue.  Researchers at the University of Bristol found that disadvantaged pupils living in authorities with selective systems who do not attend selective schools perform worse academically than those living in non-selective authorities. When an area has a grammar school, all the high-achieving students are drawn to it. As Mary Boyle, head of Knole Academy in Sevenoaks, puts it: “the problem is that if you have grammars then you don’t have comprehensive schools, you have secondary moderns because you don’t have the whole range of abilities in the school.” This lack of range means the less academic pupils will not benefit from being surrounded by their more studious peers, as they do in a comprehensive secondary school.

Although the evidence for a selective system improving social mobility seems lacking, there remains the argument that a selective system better matches people’s qualifications to the labour market. It’s often said that there are too many graduates in the UK and not enough graduate jobs. Perhaps if more pupils were encouraged to do apprenticeships instead of going to university, there would be a healthier graduate job market. Indeed, in Germany, there are far less over-qualified workers. In 2010 almost 60% of UK graduates were in non-graduate jobs, compared to around 10% in Germany.

Ultimately, the cultural and political differences between the countries make it difficult to draw conclusions.

But are the lower levels of mismatch between skills and jobs in Germany’s labour market enough to conclude that the British educational system should be more selective? Ultimately, the cultural and political differences between the countries make it difficult to draw such conclusions.

According to Stephen Gorard, a Professor in the School of Education at Durham University, “the best evidence for England is still the evidence from England, both from when the grammar school system was widespread and more recently. Both show that the gains are minimal if any, while the dangers for social cohesion are daunting.”

While it is important that every child feels pride in their own ability, it is also important that all are offered equal opportunities.

Nonetheless, Woods is right that we must renounce a “one-size-fits-all” philosophy. As she mentions in her article, the numbers of pupils taking arts subjects such as design, drama, music and dance at GCSE has plummeted to its lowest level in a decade, thanks to the introduction of the English Baccalaureate. To receive an English Baccalaureate, students must get at least a C grade in GCSE English, Maths, Science, a language, and either History or Geography. This reinforces the notion that only certain subjects and skills are valuable, and may persuade students to follow a path they do not wish to follow.

Woods is right that there are fundamental problems with the British education system. However, emulating Germany’s selectivity is not necessarily the right answer. While it is important that every child feels “pride in their own ability”, it is also important that all are offered equal opportunities; that one’s ability to receive a university education and pursue a particular job is not hindered by one’s socioeconomic background.

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