The Challenge of the 'S' Word
The definition of 'academy' has quietly changed - under the Coalition they can now also be academically selective. Michael St John Parker asks why selection is still such a sensitive issue.
Something remarkable is happening to the Government's education programme - something so remarkable, in fact, that no-one seems to want to talk about it. It is all about one word, a word which is totemic for some and hate-laden for many others - selection. It is a word which has been officially banned from the vocabulary of Whitehall since the end of the Thatcher era, but its return may be signalled by the conversion to academy status of a large group of grammar schools - now numbering a staggering 42 - of which the most important is the ancient and prestigious Lancaster Royal Grammar School. The Headmaster of LRGS, Andrew Jarman, enjoys membership of HMC in a category reserved for Heads of non-independent schools. But what matters still more than the fact that a member of HMC is about to take his school into the academies programme, is the nature of the school itself - a highly selective establishment (and one, moreover, which charges fees for its boarding).
All the political parties are united in a dislike of selection - publicly, at least. However, all of the key Ministers currently at the DfE benefited from a selective education, either in state school (Nick Gibb at Maidstone Grammar) or independent (Michael Gove and Sarah Teather); David Willetts, in charge of higher education at the Department for Business, attended King Edward's, Birmingham. A quick analysis of the Cabinet as a whole reveals that over 60% of its members attended schools that were in some degree or other selective; of its Lib Dem members, only Danny Alexander did not. It might be thought hardly surprising, therefore, if the Coalition was found to be privately favourable to selection as a ladder for the successful - though the same considerations have never stopped Labour Ministers from zealously kicking down such ladders whenever they could do so. Are we about to see the return of what some would call reality in educational thinking?
Brutal reality is, indeed, striking home on some of the most tender parts of our consumerist, welfare-dependent society. Like some great flabby couch-potato who finds himself compelled to summon up the energy to go out and work for a living, the British - or, to be more specific, the English - state education system is waking up to the realisation that it has wasted much of the funding which has been lavished on it in recent years, that it is seriously inefficient and uncompetitive, and that prolonged indulgence in dumbing-down has gravely impaired its capacities. As objective research proclaims that our schools have slipped from 8th to 24th place in the world rankings for mathematics, and from 7th to 17th in literacy since 2000, British state education is, to use the received jargon, far from 'fit for purpose'. By contrast, the independent sector enjoys international esteem; but the Whitehall Establishment refuses to acknowledge the part played by sensitive selection in achieving this success. Why?
For HMC, the stubborn refusal by any recent Government to recognise the necessity of academic selection is a continued source of frustration. Geoff Lucas, HMC's General Secretary, has commented to Attain: 'It was Andrew Adonis, speaking at the HMC Conference in London in 2008, who first set out an aspiration for academies to be 'clones' of 'private' independent schools. But in seeking to transfer the DNA of HMC schools to the state sector, the Labour government, like the current Coalition government, stubbornly refused to accept one key part of that DNA: the ability to select pupils on the basis of academic potential and ability. The absurdity of this ideological 'cherry picking' (or 'gene selection', to continue the DNA metaphor) is now exposed by the fact that state grammar schools which convert to academy status can keep their selection, but any true independent schools which decide to go under state control, cannot.'
Opponents of selection have attempted to argue that a measure of educational 'inefficiency' is acceptable if it is accompanied by an improvement in social equality, and hence opportunity. But the Chairman of the National Grammar Schools Association, Robert McCartney Q.C., has observed that in fact postcode selection replaces academic selection where the latter is outlawed - a point recently echoed by Lord Adonis. And while in December of 2010 much play was made with a NFER report which purported to show that university students from comprehensive schools performed better than students coming from grammar or independent schools with identical academic records, the suggestion that the comprehensive pupils had quite evidently been under-taught, and hence had under-performed at school, received no response.
It is crucially important to realise that the arguments for and against selection in education are essentially asymmetrical: those who support it say that it demonstrably works; those who oppose it argue, often with vehement feeling, that it is socially unkind. This is to compare apples with pears. However, both sides can call on much evidence to support their respective points of view, particularly with regard to the consequences of the testing that used to be administered to children aged 11+, and which allocated some to grammar schools and others to secondary moderns. Under the terms of R.A. Butler's 1944 Education Act, there was supposed to have been a third type of school which would serve those with technical aptitudes; but few such schools were ever founded, and so the secondary moderns were compelled to perform a dual role which many of them were unable to sustain adequately, and which damagingly increased the distance between them and the grammar schools. Given the weaknesses which afflicted many of them from the start, the secondary moderns were almost inevitably seen as receiving tanks for children who had 'failed' to be selected for grammar school entry; the idea that different types of aptitude might be applauded in different types of schools was never really given a chance.
The post-war grammar schools, for their part, were not free of faults. Prone to curricular rigidities and social snobberies, they easily incurred the contempt of such clever, privileged radicals as Anthony Crosland, who famously swore to abolish them. Faint memories of their failings may colour the opinions of David Cameron at the present time, as instanced by his refusal, in June 2007, to commit his party to reversing the closures of the last fifty years - this despite the fact that historically it was the grammar schools that opened the doors of the elite universities to great numbers of otherwise unprivileged youngsters. In truth, when it comes to questions about selection, most politicians allow their reactions to be conditioned by outdated ideas and inherited memories.
Selection, properly understood, may be performed in various ways and with varying degrees of subtlety. A child may manifest different degrees of ability, not only in different subject areas, but at different periods of his or her development, and in different conditions. Aptitude in a given area may not be the same as notional ability - dyslexics, for example, may be brilliantly creative but unresponsive to orthodox patterns of teaching. There are various methods of testing, most of which have their defects, and they cannot be expected to operate with completely reliable uniformity, so that an accumulation of results is to be preferred to a single viewing. Finally, the motivation of both tested and tester may need to be taken into account if a truly measured result is to be achieved. The objective of selection should be neither a 'sheep and goats' division, nor the execution of a project in social engineering, but a matching of individual potential to available opportunity.
One of the most important issues is the question of when the process of selection should actually take place. Professor Alan Smithers and Dr. Pamela Robinson, of the University of Buckingham, have recently published a study of the academic records of 15-year olds from ten developed countries, which shows that the selective systems of schooling operated in Austria, Germany, Japan, Korea and the Netherlands consistently produce better results than the non-selective systems of Great Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and France. Still more interestingly, their research points to the need for a far more gradual approach to the making of selection decisions than was usual under the arrangements formerly employed in Britain ; 14+, rather than 11+, could emerge as the pivotal point of a process which might, however, have several stages and opportunities for reassessment.
So does the arrival of academically selective academies point to a new dawn? Among the last moves made by Lord Adonis before he was moved away from Education in the Labour administration, was a decision to reinvent a once distinguished, but sadly failed, grammar school at Midhurst in Sussex as an academy with a speciality in nothing less than 'academic excellence', under the part-sponsorship of that most academically eminent of public schools, Winchester College. Selection does not feature in this arrangement - but it certainly gives fresh force to the idea of academies as a new form of grammar school.
The Department for Education clearly is not willing to take the final logical step towards selection. A spokesman shied away from the question when he told Attain: 'We trust teachers and Heads to run their schools, not bureaucrats or politicians. We want grammar schools to gain academy freedoms if they want them, as we do with all schools. Heads know what is best for their schools and it is for them and their Governors to decide whether to convert to academy status. Where grammar schools exist we support them. The Academies Bill does not alter the selection arrangements for grammar schools if they choose to gain academy freedoms.'
Of course, while the DfE might not be brave enough to expand the number of academically selective state schools, parents might see it differently. For a grammar school to lose its academic selectivity, a parental ballot needs to be held; but what about a ballot to enable a non-selective academy to adopt the selection criteria of a post-grammar academy? The DfE state that the only schools which may select by ability as academies are those which were previously maintained grammar schools or maintained partially selective schools, and the provisions of the Academies Act 2010 ensure this. It would take a bold and visionary Secretary of State to empower parents to choose whether their child's school should adopt selection. But even this represents a much smaller step than attempting to jump the chasm of creating new grammar schools.
We shall not see new academically selective academies in this Parliamentary term, but if national performance indicators do not rise quickly, Ministers may have no choice but to face up to the elephant in the room.