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The Grammar School Debate Sounds Like It's Coming From A Gramophone

12/09/2016 15:49

The Education Secretary said that she does not want a system that will be "going back to the past". It seems, however, that the debate is moored back there in The Get Down era.

The swipes left or right on grammar are well known. Some hate its alleged elitism as a fraud by face value. Others laud it as some sort of great social mobiliser. Let's cut to the heart of what the debate is really about: selection.

Do we want to select people based upon their academic abilities? We do it all the time. Universities have entry criteria. So do jobs. It gets interesting to see where anti-selection voices draw the line. Is it wrong for a parent to buy better food for their child? Is it wrong for a parent to read more words to their toddler? What about helping out with homework? What, as the Prime Minister said, about parents who are able to select state schools via the house price they can afford? It seems strange to believe that selection gets parked at a state school gate. Selection has been abundant within human life since the first women and men picked the partners they wanted to canoodle with in a cave.

Where we should attack selection is where it has no merit. It has no merit in race, gender or sexual orientation. But where it can be useful, we should see if it works in our favour. Do you want the best doctor carrying out your surgery? Of course you do. I should know. I'm having surgery today. I do not want the scalpel held by someone without the ability to slice and dice me with exquisite expertise.

Selection may help bring out the best in people. There are countless tales out there of people being lifted up through grammar schools. Such cases (albeit in result) are true, but that doesn't give grammaresque selection a free ride. The 11-Plus was and is a blunt way to sift people for life. People change over time.

What really seems to be at fault is how selection, in education's case, is applied. For example, the concentration of grammar schools within a few local communities is hardly fair on taxpayers across the whole country who support those schools. Or how about selection via wealth that keeps private schools out of the reach of poorer people? It's skewed selection, tipped like casino odds in the house's favour, that's bad.

And it is bad. We want the best to heal, invent, entertain and create. If we have people who are able to use their ability, then we should enable them to do it. It's that simple. If selection can show that it's sum positive, and that's by no means assured, then we'd be silly to dismiss it out of hand. If it does help, then what we need is selective education that is available to all. If you have the ability, and you want to go for it, you should be able to. If we're selecting just to stimulate social segregation, that's a dereliction of public duty and public money.

How? Well, there's the rub. If we're going to make selective GCSE/A Level education available to all, we'll need to provide for it. There are lots of ways we can try to do just that.

For example, instead of forcing people to have selective education across all subjects, why not let people study subjects on their own? Not every one of us is a mathematics wizard. Nor is every one of us a loquacious linguist.

We could also say that age is no barrier. If you are ready and able, age doesn't matter. This would not only encourage adult and lifelong learning, it could also help with social diversity and cohesion across generations by bringing diverse people together. It's not like there's an upper age limit to RADA.

And let's not forget tech. Some selective courses could be run online and via video platforms. No one should be denied access because they can't afford the train fare or time away from supporting their family.

Naturally, the biggest objection is how much such a provision for open access selective education would cost. That's true. But it's the same with all things. Let's keep calm and work out if and how we could use any form of widespread selection to our advantage.

What we can't have is a system that denies people with ability the opportunity to harness it. What we also can't have is that opportunity being reserved for a few and paid for, in cost and effect, by everyone else.

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