Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Being against grammar schools is not enough

Various Lib Dem bloggers are celebrating David Willett's announcement that the Conservatives no longer believe in grammar schools.

For instance, Norfolk Blogger writes:
David Cameron has highlighted that Grammar schools are full of middle class kids. This is a glaring admission that selection favour's (sic) the middle classes at the expense of the poor.
Unfortunately, that is true. But the trouble is that the best performing comprehensives are full of middle class kids too, as this news release from the Sutton Trust shows.
In the words of the charity's founder Sir Peter Lampl:
These findings starkly underline the extent of the social divide in our education system. The top fifth of schools - independents, grammars and leading comprehensives - are effectively closed to those from less privileged backgrounds. To access them, parents must pay for fees, pay for coaching or prep school for their children to pass the 11 plus, live in an affluent area or prove a religious commitment combined with strong parental support. For less privileged families these are not realistic options."
It was for this reason that a couple of years I wrote:
There is a need for new thinking in education: a need to go beyond the unthinking defence of the comprehensive principle. And the Liberal Democrats should be leading it.
So where are these exciting new Lib Dem ideas on education? For us as much as for the Tories, being against grammar schools is not enough.


Anonymous said...

Jonathan - I completely agree.

Selection on the basis of genuine aptitude (which involves 'smart' testing) is the only fair way - and would be considerably less socially divisive than the present system (selection based on parental property value/location, religious orientation or acting ability).

Is it too late to form "Lib Dems For Academic Selection"?

Anonymous said...

I believe (with some evidence but essentially it is a belief) that given the right environment, resources and support most children can do very well in school. Therefore, as all children could benefit from them, we should seek to provide these things to all children. I also believe such things are possible in a variety of different types of school structure and administration (there are good grammar, comprehensive, single sex, etc schools and there a poor examples of each type as well).

The difficulty is that there is a shortage of these resources not necessarily a shortage of money but things like- fewer "good" schools than we need, fewer "good" teachers etc. Given that, how do we best allocate this too scarce resource among our children? Lottery? Market forces? Selection tests? Catchment areas? There may be arguments for and against all of these but the way out of the problem is to try and increase the supply of “good” schools or any and all sorts – if all (or most) schools were good, parents would be happy for their kids to go almost anywhere and would probable welcome the idea of them going to the closest school.

So the argument is not “is grammar better than comprehensive” but rather how can the essential qualities of the best schools be available to all schools. My experience leads me to believe that the essential components of a good school (one where children feel safe, are given opportunities to learn and stretch themselves, can develop socially, feel part of a community etc) include a committed and visionary principal, a dedicated staff team (including some experienced teachers and some newer ones, plus the requisite support staff – special needs co-coordinators, classroom assistants, playground supervisors, catering staff, cleaning staff, caretakers etc) an engaged Board of governors. Other things are nice too – good buildings, science labs, sports facilities etc but not absolutely essential. My list is about getting the right people into schools rather than worrying too much about what is the structure of the school. My experience draws heavily on the integrated schools movement in Northern Ireland. These schools (especially in their early years) only exist because parents want them and are prepared to work for and often make sacrifices for them. The principals and staff of the schools too are committed – often leaving safe jobs elsewhere for the uncertainty of an unfunded school, and on occasions working for considerably less money. School buildings and facilities are often very poor indeed. I think the evidence of the improvements in community relations is weak (perhaps because so little real research has been done) but do think that the success of the integrated sector is down to the people – a lesson all schools should learn. Northern Ireland has retained grammar schools along side state run secondary schools and a catholic school system (itself divided in to grammar and secondary) but at a time when the number of children are falling the only sector that has more requests than places is the integrated one.

Tristan said...

The problem with Grammar Schools was not they were middle class bastions, but that they were seen as superior to Secondary Moderns and Technical Colleges when in fact they catered for different abilities.

The same with universities and polytechnics. They catered for different talents and abilities, but polytechnics were viewed as inferior.

The comprehensive system is a travesty because it ideologically treats all children as the same. Children are not the same.

The only solution is real choice through a voucher or tax credit system. Where such systems are in effect the standard of education has improved across the board. Education can be tailored towards individual children far more effectively.
That bastion of social democracy, Sweden, has a very effective voucher system which is loved by parents and children.

A voucher system has the added advantage that it drastically reduces state meddling.

Edis said...

Part of the problem may be that we are still thinking in terms of 'schools' as the sole resource available for education.

Maybe we should be thinking about other resources, such as nationally available core courses presented by Open University style methods, with Schools being a local point of added value doing things not possible in such courses, concentrating on being the people responsible for treating each child as an individual.

This could give every child access to the highest level of teaching and material in subjects difficult to presenta dequately in all secondary schools (mathematics and Physics spring to mind).

This woudl concentrate choice on where it is most needed and where pupils and parents can make most informed decisons - pathways to learning adapted to the needs and ability of each individual student.

Anonymous said...

This may be the single most sensible comment I've read on the issue. It could just as equally be directed at Dave 'Boy' Cameron. He's not seriously suggesting that City Academies are the answer is he?

What we must avoid though is prescriptive solutions - we need more of this, less of that etc. Face it guys, you don't know what the best solution is and neither does anyone else. The only way to get to the answer is to try things and see what works. The best way to achieve that is to privatise the whole lot, introduce a voucher system for the poorest and then stand back and see what happens.

We could call it a "liberal" education system.