Opinion: Selective selection

By Liberal First*

One thing puzzling me about the recent debate in the media about the Tory’s grammar school woes is that their policy position is now not deeply dissimilar to our own, or that of the government, on the matter of selection.

We also do not propose shutting down existing grammar schools but take the view that the 11+ is a particularly crude and ineffective method of aligning pupils to the best education for them and that it should not be extended.

Common entrance at 13 is considered a better alternative, but new grammar schools as isolated monasteries of academic excellence for the few make us nervous.

Are we then for selection or against it?

Our positive selection position, as I understand it, is that we support ‘setting’ within state comprehensives, meaning that pupils of similar ability work together in classes by subject, rather than across all subjects which is ‘streaming’ or ‘banding’. This is a form of selection that aligns appropriate teaching support and peer competition to the individual needs of the child, and adapts that regime every year rather than being set in stone at age eleven.

It’s a good scheme, and stands opposed to the extreme anti-selection position that will only consider mixed-ability teaching, generally failing everyone in some measure, but particularly those with special needs and gifts.

But is it enough?

The problem with setting is that it requires large schools, and to some extent a balanced range of abilities to avoid tiny and huge class-sizes. This isn’t always possible and large schools are not necessarily ideal either for other reasons.

One solution to that would be to extend the principle of setting between schools as well as within them. Grammar schools, alongside sporting academies, technical colleges and other centres of excellence would then be community resources for all pupils rather than those who got in at eleven.

Pupils might study 80% of their classes in their home base, but travel to specialist classes or facilities the rest of the time, perhaps making use of breakfast and after-school clubs to do it. Another support-mechanism would be more mobile teachers, very much in the mould of our suggestion for PE specialists, assigned to an area not a school.

Timetables and resourcing would be more complex, good quality intra-school transport would be required, but these are surmountable technical and financial challenges well within our means.

If it were possible and deemed worthwhile, it would also help us by allowing us to refocus the education debate on the needs of children as individuals and appropriate personalised education, rather than just talking about creating ‘a good local school’ as though this platitude amounted to a distinct policy.

Further, if it worked, and it could be shown within the state system that different types of schools can work together for all children, then it might open the possibility for breaking down the barriers between the state and private sector. Something Labour have singularly failed to do, increasing inequality and reducing social mobility in the process.

Selection if done in the right way is no bad thing, particularly if it is enabling life-chances rather than shutting them down. We have an opportunity to shake-up the education debate by saying so, is this something we should explore?

* Liberal First is the pseudonym of a well-known Lib Dem blogger.

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This entry was posted in News and Op-eds.


  • Daniel Bowen 11th Jun '07 - 10:28am

    I’m not sure that any of the respective positions are necessarily good enough.

    Jarvis Cocker sings scabrously about finding a school near the top of the league. For existing grammar schools, this search extends for many, many miles and across more than one county boundary; meanwhile, those born within a stone’s throw of the school have no chance whatsoever of attending the grammar school.

    In some areas, this means an almost total restriction of school choices to – at best – the mediocre, for those who can’t or won’t pay their way.

    There’s certainly scope in urban areas for sharing resources. The difficulty with multi-school setting is more complex on a logistical level, and would result in a more rigid curriculum and timetable. Do Liberals necessarily want that?

    Of course, in rural areas, the concept is as much of a fallacy as that of the ‘specialist’ school.

  • Geoffrey Payne 15th Jun '07 - 11:14pm

    If we had a market in education, then the rich will be able to afford to send their children to the best schools, whilst the poor would be priced out altogether.
    Lets leave the idea to the lunatic fringe of the Tory party.
    We must put the state in it’s proper context. In the 20th century, the worst regimes in the world were totalitarian states; Communism and Naziism.
    Today it is the failed states. Although nominally a democracy, Iraq is today a failed state and for most people is a worse place to live than when it was a totalitarian state under Saddam Hussein.
    Liberals should argue for a decentralised state, not doing away with it altogether. We are not anarchists.

  • Geoffrey Payne 17th Jun '07 - 11:08am

    Tim, prima facie that sounds like a good idea. Has any liberal argued against it?

  • Daniel Bowen 18th Jun '07 - 10:30am

    Tim, what are the arguments against it?

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