Thursday, June 13, 2013

Betraying the Bright


How often is it possible to bemoan the same problem and consistently avoid the obvious solution?  Plenty, it would appear, if the problem is how to support bright children in the state education system.

Ofsted have today reported that thousands of bright youngsters are failing to achieve their potential in secondary schools.  They have issued some shocking figures.  Take English.  Of the children who achieved Level 5 in English (the highest level) in their primary schools and went on to the standard non-selective secondary school, 62% failed to gain a grade A or A* in the subject at GCSE.  Even taking into account the natural decline in learning that some children experience in the secondary school years, that is a lamentable figure.

More than a quarter of previously high attaining pupils failed to gain a grade B or A in Maths or English.  The bright, eager primary school pupil with ability to nurture is being betrayed by what Ofsted have described as a “culture of low expectations” in secondary schools.

Of course, it is no easy job to encourage the bright students when you are teaching a class of thirty students whose abilities range right across the spectrum and who contain a fair share of the educationally discontented amongst them.  Blaming the schools and their teachers is all very well, but the demands we make by our present system are huge.

The problem of the mixed education system was well identified by a prominent academic in an article in the New York Review ofBooks in 2010, entitled simply “Meritocrats”.  He furiously denounced what had been happening to secondary education when he wrote:

For forty years, British education has been subjected to a catastrophic sequence of “reforms” aimed at curbing its elitist inheritance and institutionalizing “equality.”…. Intent upon destroying the selective state schools that afforded my generation a first-rate education at public expense, politicians have foisted upon the state sector a system of enforced downward uniformity.

He was not the first critic.  In the Black Papers of 1975, one author argued that:

Selection must and will take place in education and those who banish rational methods of selection are simply favouring irrational and accidental ones.  The children who will be lost forever are the poor clever children with an illiterate background….Why should socialist policy, of all things, be so grossly unjust to the under-privileged clever child, avid to learn, able to learn, and under non-selective education likely to pass in relaxed idle boredom those precious years when strenuous learning is a joy and the whole intellectual and moral future of the human being is at stake?

These were strong words, and the interesting thing in both cases is that they came from the pens of bona fide left-wing thinkers.  Tony Judt and Iris Murdoch respectively.

They correctly identified where the real victims of the comprehensive reform of state secondary education would lie, and while articulate middle class parents push their way into the catchments of the few remaining grammars, everyone else has to put up with the “culture of low expectations”. 

Oddly, for all his reforming zeal, Michael Gove has steered well clear of the grammar school debate.  Happy to push for elitism in the form of exams; presumably happy to maintain the elitism required for the university system to thrive (because yes, they select students based on academic ability), he has made no pronouncement whatsoever on grammar schools.  Free Schools and academies are hamstrung in one significant way – they cannot select on the basis of academic ability alone.

Perhaps Conservatives - more likely to be able to use the private selective school system, or ensure residence in a catchment area for a state selective school, or able to take advantage of the free school opportunity – don’t really have any motivation to push for a fully selective system on the state.  Maybe their opposition to state control of education stands in the way of advocating a directed system of educational elitism to aid the aspirations of the poor and disadvantaged. 

If so, is it entirely outside the bounds of political credibility for the Labour Party to rediscover its commitment to social mobility, and advocate the return of a grammar school system?  In one bound, they could pull the rug from under the feet of the wimpy Conservatives who have avoided this toxic issue for so long.  They could, indeed, listen to Tony Judt’s closing plea not to accept the disastrous status quo:

Equality of opportunity and equality of outcome are not the same thing. A society divided by wealth and inheritance cannot redress this injustice by camouflaging it in educational institutions—by denying distinctions of ability or by restricting selective opportunity—while favoring a steadily widening income gap in the name of the free market. This is mere cant and hypocrisy.


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