This blog was set up to explore ways to end academic selection in Kent. I’d been thinking about doing something for years, but writing about it for just over a week, and then I ran into Peter Hitchens on Twitter.
I tried to defend my views, I tried to understand his point of view, and I ended up changing my mind.
I still don’t like academic selection here in Kent. But I think comprehensive education out there in the rest of the UK isn’t working. My U turn has disappointed some of my friends, and that has been the hardest bit to handle. There are many comprehensive education fans, but I don’t think there is quite enough evidence that it is working for enough children.
I am now a campaigner without a campaign. I enjoyed having a plan and some hope to make things better. I still want to do something about education but I can’t decide what that something should be.
The first stage of my original plan was to organise some education debates, to get people talking about the problems with our schools. I hoped to highlight issues, get people thinking, and increase support for a comprehensive change. I had plenty more ideas, which I’ve now put aside. It’s a shame, but they were only ideas. I can find new ones.
There is no real point writing this blog any more, so this will most likely be my last post. Although there’s a good chance I will start a new blog when I have something worthwhile to say again. The education debates I planned may still happen. I like the idea of giving people an opportunity to discuss schools, though I worry it will only lead to pointless shouting.
Right now I’m considering four options for my education project.
1) Fairer school admission
School selection is what got me started, but with a narrow focus in my county. The unfairness in school admissions is more of a problem than I knew. Its messed up in Kent where middle class parents and tutoring dominate, its messed up in comprehensive areas where the best schools are bought through an estate agent and a move to the right road.
The Sutton Trust 2015 manifesto puts school selection unfairness on its list. ‘Create fairer school admissions to both state grammar schools and comprehensives at age 11, including through the increased use of ballots and banding in admissions.’
So I could create a parents lobby group and raise awareness of this problem. I couldn’t find a group that is doing this right now, but if there is I would join it.
This could lead to small but achievable changes. It could improve admissions policies in individual comprehensive schools, explore the use of ballots, encourage selection of disadvantaged children, and find new ways to combat the property price selection problem.
As a new believer that academic selection has a place you might wonder why I don’t simply campaign for this. I would absolutely love to see the German approach to academic selection tried, but I don’t believe our government is brave enough to go for any radical change.
I am a practical person and I think the most likely way academic selection will return will be a bad way. If just a few schools are allowed to become grammar schools it becomes like Kent. Here good schools are ‘bought’ through tutoring for places, and the rest defined by house price. I only support academic selection if it’s a widespread plan, because that can encourage social mobility. I think badly implemented academic selection is little better than comprehensive education.
It is hard to campaign only for the best of a thing.
2) Try to improve Kent schools
This was another reason I started this blog, our school system in Kent is flawed. I could campaign for small improvements here. At present there is no option to take a grammar school exam again if you fail the eleven plus first time, I feel this is unfair and unflexible. I could try to combat tutoring somehow. I could work to get more disadvantaged children into the grammars.
Although all this might involve pressing for more grammar schools in Kent, which is a central government thing. I worry the side effect of this is half-hearted academic selection elsewhere in the UK, and I’ve already explained my views on that.
3) Improve opportunities for less academic children
This is another side to my original plan. The eleven plus failures in Kent get a bad deal because many secondary moderns are poor schools. But it’s much more than that, we have so few ideas for secondary moderns because we only value academic education. This means less academic children have few opportunities to experience success or foster ambitions. Schools are set up to push children to take exams even when they’re bad at exams.
I would like to see more practical experience based lessons. There is a bit of a movement for ‘good character’ in education which fits this theme. Not all children are good at essays. Bright poor children might be saved by grammar schools, but what of the rest? What if poor enterprising children could get an A in school work that fosters Alan Sugar types? What if poor caring children could get an A in school work that fosters Mother Theresa types?! And why don’t we value creativity and sport more for our less academic children, so that excellence and hard work is always rewarded?
Essays and exams are one kind of learning, but I know most of the important things I’ve learned in life have been through getting stuck into impossible projects, and having a go at things I didn’t know I could do.
I think less academic children should be challenged at school, but in a different way, not just offered exams they won’t pass and woodwork classes.
4) Get hands on
This is the obvious option. I could volunteer to help at my local school, raise money for the PTA, and try to improve the school up the road. I’ve even thought of going into teaching, which I’d like to do but can’t justify because of the drop in income.
My husband’s idea was, “Why don’t you help at Sunday School?” He has a good point, but I suspect he just wants to keep me out of trouble.
I’d like to try all of the above, but that’s not realistic. And there is no real hurry to make any choice.
One thing that impressed me about Peter Hitchens was the clarity of his purpose. He told me he had a principle that he would not concede. ‘Ability is a better ground for selection than your parents’money or willingness to profess religious belief.’
I wish I had such a clear guiding principle. I think many people go through life without one, and perhaps don’t even try to find one. But I will try to find one, and I will test it every way I can before being sure of it. I think defining my principle, if I can get to that, might lead to my campaign.
I need to balance my eagerness to ‘Just Do Something!’ with making sure I take the best path. I worry that I will never have Peter Hitchen’s clarity of purpose and that I will end up doing nothing. At some point perhaps I do just have to say, ‘This isn’t perfect but it is right.’
I have a holiday coming up, and a not-for-profit event to organise, and all of this means a busy summer. I will try to find time to read, think, learn, and think some more about education. I hope things will become clearer.