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Last Updated: Saturday, 20 December, 2003, 00:49 GMT
Time to review selection debate?
By Mike Baker
BBC education correspondent

It is remarkable how some issues in education never go away.

The grammar school versus comprehensive debate is one of them.

This week's government league tables for the tests at the age of 14 in England - they do not have tables in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland - was all the spark that was needed to re-ignite the arguments about selection by ability at the age of 11.

The tables showed that not only did grammar schools dominate the top places on "raw" results - which was no surprise as they select the brightest pupils - but they also came out top on the new "value added" measure which shows the improvement achieved between the tests at the ages of 11 and 14.

This led to big media coverage of the grammar school debate.

Some might argue this was just the typical media knee-jerk reaction and that, while journalists are stuck in a time-warp, this is not an issue that concerns anyone else.

Callers seemed to be evenly matched for and against selective education but they all knew just where they stood on the issue
However, I was on a BBC Radio 5 Live phone-in that morning and I was surprised by the interest and the passion the grammar versus comprehensive argument still provokes.

The callers seemed to be evenly matched for and against selective education but they all knew just where they stood on the issue. I was the only one sitting on the fence.

It set me wondering where else in the world this sort of debate could still be raging after 40 years. I could not think of anywhere.

US approach

In the United States the great majority of schools are comprehensives. They may be called high schools but, in British terms, they are comprehensives, open to all abilities with admissions decided by where you live rather than by entrance test.

It has always seemed slightly ironic that while the British regard the US as a more right-wing and free-market system, the Americans have a school system that matches the belief systems of the political left in Britain.

The common school movement in the US began in the 1830s and 1840s, more than a century before the comprehensive school movement in Britain.

Its key aspect was the emphasis on educating all children in a common schoolhouse.

The theory was that if children from a variety of religious, ethnic and social-class backgrounds were educated together, this would reduce hostility between different groups in society.

Mixed systems

The British school system never started from a base of equality, but developed piecemeal under a mixture of religious, private, and only much later, state authorities.

It has remained an odd mix ever since. Even today there are more than 160 grammar schools. Add in the private schools that select by ability and, according to some, the comprehensive system has never been universal, even though we regard comprehensives as the norm.

In many parts of Continent, they have long had selective secondary school systems.

This is true in France, Germany and the Netherlands, for example, all of which have the equivalents of grammar schools.

Even within the UK there is quite a contrast. Wales and Scotland have virtually universal comprehensive school systems, with no state grammar schools and relatively few private schools. By contrast, Northern Ireland has an almost fully selective system, although perhaps not for much longer.

But only England has such a mixture of educational systems.

Perhaps that is why we seem to get so worked up over the issue. The position taken on grammar schools is seen as a badge of identity for the left and the right.

Is it because England is more class-conscious and class-divided than other countries?
Yet in the US, right-wing Republicans support the common, all-ability school model. In Europe, socialist parties have no trouble with the "lycee" or the "gymnasium".

Why are we so different? Is it because England is more class-conscious and class-divided than other countries? Or is education a more political issue?

Maybe the English are simply the victims of a history of education which meant one type of school was always seen as superior to another rather than simply different?

In the Netherlands there are three types of secondary school - for academic, vocational or general education.

No-one seems to get too upset over who goes where. There is no sense of a pass-or-fail entrance exam.

In England, though, the grammar schools were mostly ancient foundations, which stood apart from - and above - the old elementary schools.

When, after 1944, a European, three-tier model was planned, the idea was to have "parity of esteem" between the different routes through secondary school.

But, by and large, the new technical schools were not built and the secondary moderns tended to inherit the buildings and the low prestige of the former elementary schools.

So, not surprisingly, passing the 11-plus to get into grammar school took on very high stakes, making or blighting young people's lives.

Time for a change?

I suspect it is this legacy which makes today's debate over selection still so bitter and entrenched. A surprising number of the callers to Radio 5 Live referred to their own success at, or rejection by, grammar schools.

The debate also seems always to be backwards-looking, on both sides.

Why, for example, is the debate only about selection at the age of 11, just because that was how it used to be done?

Might it not have moved on to looking at different ages, and different methods, of selection?

With the Tomlinson inquiry looking at a wholesale review of the education of 14 to 19-year-olds, is there perhaps a case for a new form of selection at the age of 14?

This would not have to be selection by pass-or-fail test but by a combination of aptitude, ability, and - above all - student preference.

Now that some 14-year-olds are able to opt out of the national curriculum or attend classes at their local further education college, might this become the point at which students choose their educational route rather than having it chosen for them at the age 10 or 11?

Perhaps, when Mike Tomlinson delivers his report in the New Year, the English can move on to a different version of the selective versus comprehensive debate?

And maybe it will generate a bit more light and rather less heat.

We welcome your comments at educationnews@bbc.co.uk although we cannot always answer individual e-mails.

Grammar schools add most value
17 Dec 03  |  Education
Grammar heads to get new voice
07 Oct 03  |  Education
Minister rules out end to 11-plus
01 Apr 03  |  England

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