From the archive: What I learned from writing about grammar schools

Laura McInerney /   September 16, 2013 at 8:36 PM 2,067 views


My Guardian piece last month was about the assumptions of school systems with ‘selection by ability’ – e.g. grammar schools or private schools giving scholarships via common entrance exams.

I wrote the piece as an experiment. Whenever I read about selective education the debate invariably descends into several choruses of “I went to one, so they’re great/ I didn’t go to one, so they’re terrible” followed by a verse of “what about those of us who went and hated it?” However, I genuinely believe the most important question is not whether or not grammar schools should exist but whether or not they should exist over and above other systems for improving social mobility.

Hence, I posited the notion that instead of selecting solely by ability – grammar or private schools could randomly take 25% of their intake from among the most needy students. OR, I posited, we could institute a policy that anyone currently attending a failing school be offered an immediate free pass to the school of their choice, as way of compensation. Each of these systems has problems – but the consequences are no better or worse than selection by ability, so why have these sorts of policies rattled the middle classes in the countries where they are occurring? In my view, the reason why people want to select by ability is because they believe that bright children are somehow more valuable and therefore should have greater protections from the ‘difficulties’ of comprehensive education.

But what did the people who responded to the piece think?

First, a lot of people involved in the selective sector felt I was wrong to say sending intelligent children to a certain school is done because we think they are more ‘valuable’ and should ‘escape’ mixing with the less precocious. They argued that parents make choices based on a range of factors. This is a fair point, but that’s essentially a debate about private versus non-private, whereas my point is why independent and grammar schools select by intelligence. An open choice about how to spend your money is one thing, but I don’t see how to justify the school selecting by ability unless we believe certain children are more in need of an ‘escape’ (or that we like some children more than others).

Second, there was concern that teaching less ‘intelligent’ children with more intelligent children would be demoralising. Intuitively, I can understand this. If you’re not so sharp at English, then being put in a room with people who are very good at it might feel intimidating. But I’m not sure I’d feel any more motivated if I was put in a separate school where I knew this was the school for “the less bright people” and that even if I worked incredibly hard, even if I got to the top of this ladder, I was not going to “the bright children” school. If people want to go down this sort of ‘demoralisation’ road it would seem more sensible to advocate for setting/streaming within a mixed-ability school than to argue in favour of selection by ability.

Third, some people were thrilled because they thought I was advocating a return to assisted places. I was not. At least, not at first. However Charlotte Vere, Executive Director of the Girls’ School Association, got into a conversation with me on Twitter and said that she would happily agree to a return to government funding places even if the places were assigned randomly as per the India system and not done on ability. This caught me out. I was convinced people in charge of selective schools would be against the proposal. But she wasn’t the only one. Quite a few private school heads said they would be willing to accept a wider range of people if the government went back to stumping up cash.

To me, this changes things. The reason why I never liked assisted places was that you effectively took students who were already going to do fine in the education system, who were reasonably cheap to educate and then gave them (and their cash) to schools that didn’t need improved intake. If private schools were willing to take a % of pupils from within the neediest categories these arguments start to fall apart, and all I would be left with to oppose the argument is (I think) a sort of fundamentalist hatred of private schools. But I don’t have one of those. So I’m in a quandary, and (as ever) I’m still pondering.

Skip to the end… So what did we learn? Well, it seems it is possible to have sensible conversations about grammar schools. The comments on the Guardian were generally helpful and interesting. The twitter conversations were incredibly powerful. People from all political sides agreed and disagreed with me, but points were thought-provoking and have put me near a new idea about assisted places, even if it’s one that still makes me uncomfortable.

I also learned that if you want to slay sacred cows you must give alternatives. It’s no use saying “I don’t like grammar schools” or “booo to private education” – if you want real debate, throw out some new ideas and debate those. It’s less personal and it brings people together because they have tocollectively decide if the new thing is better, rather than desperately clinging to a defence of their old position.

Courtesy of Laura McInerney

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