A cautious U Turn on academic selection

shutterstock_158166083-795x380-1432908974I am cautiously prepared to admit that academic selection might work.

This is a U turn. I was all about closing Kent grammar schools a week ago.

Note the word ‘might’ . I don’t think academic selection works in any form, and I don’t think it works well in Kent. I wouldn’t have been exploring ways to turn Kent comprehensive if it was working.

Most academic selection fans simply want to bring back the eleven plus, sift off clever kids to grammars. Job done.

I am not happy with this. Read earlier posts to get an idea of the flaws of this method in Kent. But I could be happy with a very carefully thought out plan for academic selection.

The one thing that has become apparent to me, as I look beyond Kent, is that comprehensive areas regularly offer the best schools to those who buy expensive houses or take up faith. Of course this is not always the case, but it is a significant problem.

Peter Hitchens gave me a choice many times ‘select by wealth or select by ability?’ As he pointed out you have to select somehow.

Of these two choices I select ability.

But it’s not at all an easy choice. I hoped there was some other choice, or to avoid that choice entirely, or to pretend we can do it some way without making any choice at all.

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These words are very hard to hear. I started this blog mainly because those who are ‘below average’ get a bad deal in Kent secondary moderns. So this is not an easy journey.

I told him I find it hard to support Kent grammar schools.

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My cautious reply.

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So here we are. A secondary modern mum trying to find a way to make academic selection work for the not academic ‘rest.’

I fear my demands for equal consideration for the less academic will not be met, that no one will listen, or notice the problems of bad academic selection, or look at Kent’s flaws and learn from them.

I worry that Peter Hitchens and the other academic selection fans will favour any form of academic selection, just because decades of campaigning and hating comprehensives makes them too eager for change.

I do not think that badly implemented academic selection is much better than our bad comprehensive system. I think it is probably worse, as Kent proves. I could define why, and may well do so in some future post. Although I think working positively to define an excellent education system is more productive.

And trying to get one here in Kent.

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16 thoughts on “A cautious U Turn on academic selection

  1. Hitchens is always pointing out the difference between Britain and Germany, a country whose selective education system he admires, and I used to adhere to his argument until I found out from another source that all education in Germany is public sector. That is to say, there is no private fee paying sector in Germany (so I understand).

    This means that in Germany rich people have to educate their children in public sector schools, so naturally these privileged and well connected people have a vested interest in making sure that public sector education in Germany is very good.

    So I understand the egalitarian motivation now. If you completely eliminate the private sector, rich people have to educate their children in public sector schools, so they will then agitate for improvement in them.

    The trouble with Britain is that we have ended up with a bodged compromise. We have abolished selective education in the public sector, but retained private sector schools so wealthy, well connected people can educate their children privately and have no direct motivation to improve public sector education except out of the kindness of their hearts.

    I would post this on Hitchens’ own blog but he seems to be a bit selective on what comments he will publish, unless there is something that filters them out, as I have trouble with comments going missing on the main Daily Mail site as well, which seems to be common experience judging from other people’s comments.

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    1. No private schools in Germany?

      Well, there are private schools, although public schools in affluent areas are far better than those in less affluent areas, so selection by wealth still happens with no need for the affluent to need all schools raised to the level of their child’s.

      This article describes why a privately funded education isn’t necessary to give the children of well-heeled parents an unfair advantage.

      http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/mar/15/germany-middle-class-inequality-schools

      By the way, I’m a regular contributor to PH’s blogs myself and yes, the moderation appears to follow no rules so with no guidelines to follow it’s impossible to know what will get published and what won’t.

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  2. Selection by ability presumably means just what is says, and children with the required ability will receive a more academic and stretching education from which they can benefit, but from which others cannot. It can’t be right to hold back some children because others are less academically able. Who benefits?

    We are happiest when we are doing what we are good at, whatever that is, and not when we are pretending that everyone is good at everything.

    It is true though that if academically able children are to be given opportunities matched to their abilities the same should be true for the less academic.

    And academic ability is by no means the only indicator of value.

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  3. I mean to look into the German system. In general it seems there is a lack of ideas for the less academic, this is a concern as I think any major change to schooling should try to benefit all pupils. But I don’t favour vocational stuff at that age. Our local secondary modern has a beauty school and mechanics lessons but 14 seems too early for career choices, plus our town is going to be stuffed full of beauty salons in a few years!

    The Kent system is completely fixed at 10, but from what I hear about Germany there is flexibility to move schools and more choice. This seems better.

    “I would post this on Hitchens’ own blog but he seems to be a bit selective on what comments he will publish”

    I’m assuming he is at least academically selective..? : ) But I had the same thing, not sure if it’s a glitch. However it is his blog I guess!

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  4. Comments on Mr Hitchens’ blog take some time to appear. I doubt that any comment is filtered unless it’s abusive or libellous, given the highly antagonistic comments which frequently do appear! They’re certainly moderated, but far less severely than, say, the posts sent to ‘Comment is Free’.

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  5. I’m impressed that Kent Mom has let herself be guided by facts and logic to change her mind. That shows good character.

    I think there has been too much emphasis on academic aptitude in this controversy. It is as if the only types of schools that matter in a selective system are the grammars for the “geniuses” and the secondary moderns for the “dunces”. Is it necessary to re-state that intelligence and value are not monopolized by bookworms and geeks (like me)? What about the “technical grammars”? What about secondary schools that specialize in performing arts or athletics? There exist these type of non-academic public schools here in comprehensive Canada, although there are very few of them. I hope that Kent Mom likes this idea of a selective system attempting to fairly identify and develop particular aptitudes of the non-eggheads instead of just dumping all of them into “bog-standard” secondary moderns.

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  6. In my boyhood in Essex in the Thirties and Forties, selection included the technical schools and art schools. The well-off, as ever, had an advantage. I knew several people whose parents decided not to take up places awarded to their offspring because they didn’t think they would be able to afford the uniforms, etc.. Others wanted their children to leave school at fourteen, go out to work and contribute to the family income. There were allegations also that at the interview stage children who’d passed the exam were turned down because the selectors didn’t think their parents could afford to keep up the standard.

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  7. I think academic selection is better than no academic selection. Otherwise all that will happen is the wealthiest people will go to private schools anyway and the ones that do not will get the most attractive comprehensives. With grammar schools some of the rest will get a better education although obviously not everybody will get this benefit. I do not recall secondary modern schools meaning one could not have a good future. If someone shows promise later there should still be academic pathways of course. It is of course true that everybody who can follow an academic path regardless of school should be able to.

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  8. Kent-Mom, I don’t think that your ideas are “out there”. Several of them are common in North America. The novelty comes from your Dungeons and Dragons model. However, since wisdom should be a consequence of diligently pursuing any goal, I don’t think that the schools need to be branded as such.

    I like your rejection of the function of the secondary modern as a second-rate academic wastebin. However, I think that a non-academic plan could be more ambitious for selecting excellence in specific aptitudes. (After all, grammar schools are just secondaries specialized for the academic aptitude.) But here is an example of a comprehensive-style, non-academic, government initiative that seems to have had great success (although not in the way originally intended): http://mic.com/articles/95380/one-country-is-giving-kids-a-music-education-that-u-s-children-could-only-dream-of. Since the 1940s, Sweden has provided an after-school music program for children. I have heard from several sources that it is a key reason why so many Swedish pop musicians have been so successful ever since Abba, especially given Sweden’s small population. It must be easy to think of ways that such a program could be adapted into the non-grammar system.

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    1. I like the idea of specialisms like music, and that was an interesting article, thanks for sharing.

      I suppose I’m looking for an answer for an ordinary child in a local school. I think one issue with specialist schools is the distanced needed to travel, and disadvantaged children in particular tend to go to the nearest school. I think there is certainly a place for this, but it is not the whole answer.

      I think the essence of my ideas were that we should have a Good Character curriculum.

      This is not a new idea, but it certainly is a long way from what we offer in bog standard secondary schools which mostly stress academic work at present. But a quick google turned up an article from last month http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-33003958

      It seems while I was researching how to change Kent education, Nicky Morgan was busy working on something that would be an excellent change to our schools. It would be a particularly good change for secondary moderns because excellence in geography, history or science is never going to happen, but excellence in hard work, resourcefulness and caring are perfectly possible.

      Not sure how you turn those into an exam grade, or what you call the subjects, but I think it is an interesting problem to consider.

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  9. Yes, I wasn’t suggesting that specialized schools would entirely eliminate the need for general secondary moderns. They would, hopefully, reduce that need if the programme were implemented vigourously.

    I see that the exalted professionals managed to come up with your idea just before you did. Perhaps the ministry could save some money by just reading the blogs of a newspaper columnist and a concerned parent. However, I doubt that their initiative would really work. That would require giving teachers some means of handing out deterrent punishments, e.g. the strap, and that ain’t happening again in our liberal jurisdictions anytime soon.

    Widespread good character in a free Anglophone country starts with stable families and confident churches. Schools must support their authority and teaching, not undermine and supplant them. When the government and opinion leaders are hostile to the authority and necessity of the family and the church and traditional cultural restrictions, then the government will only be able to instill some tangible virtue with army-style authoritarianism in its schools.

    P.S. The secular public schools here in Toronto post their “Character Trait of the Month” on their signs, while the Catholic public schools post their “Virtue of the Month”. I know that “character development” is woven into the secular curriculum, and I doubt it makes a jot of difference except as a tool to promote more political correctness. You can read about it here: https://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/literacynumeracy/character.html

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    1. Canada seems far more proactive about this with some good practical ideas. Although I don’t think ‘good character’ can be taught from any billboard outside a school, or is taught particularly well by mentioning virtues in a standard lesson. I think it comes from life experience and challenge. But disadvantaged children have quite a small world and perhaps are not stretched to challenge themselves much at all. Certainly not at school, where its easy to give up if you’re not going to get a good grade.

      I would favour giving our less academic secondary school kids the chance to try practical new experiences like setting up a business, or organising a community project. Not keen on army drills really, though that seems to be being trialled here. It just seems pointless and sweaty. (But then I hated PE at school!)

      In an odd aside to all this I’m now considering retraining as a teacher. Not sure I’ll dare as it would mean a massive pay cut. But the not-for-profit I run has occasional opportunities for helping disadvantaged kids, and it is rewarding.

      It’s been a thought provoking week… thank you Mr.Hitchens, you will never be Hated in my house.

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  10. I wish Kent Mom the best in her endeavours. I am sure that the kids that she would teach would benefit from her thoughtfulness and effort.

    Yes, the secondary modern kids need to feel that their activities are meaningful, and they need to have hope for the future. I think that there also must be some form of discipline with that (there are alternatives to the strap!) in order for more than just a few to properly benefit. An entire system cannot depend upon being inspired wholesale by the charisma of so many Sidney Poitiers, a la the 1967 film To Sir With Love. I suspect that the essential problems in Kent are not in the system but in the society.

    Canadian education may be more proactive about character development, but any character and academic virtues that the student body has here are mostly due to the children of families, often disadvantaged yet solid and intact, who immigrate here. (About 50% of the population of Toronto are immigrants, and that includes my wife.) Generally, these families take education seriously and rise above the mediocrity of the system with extra hard work or tutoring from their own initiative. It is always easy to start a conversation with an immigrant parent in a playground as our kids play by discussing how surprisingly awful public education is here compared to where he came from (i.e. Asia, Continental Europe, Latin America).

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  11. Upon further consideration, perhaps facts and logic must lead one to this conclusion: get rid of the secondary moderns. Since it is pointless for the students to continue in second-rate academic studies in which they are largely uninterested, why waste all that time and money setting up pretend real-world scenarios in which they build character and experience by establishing businesses or organizing community projects? They are just being warehoused like prisoners, and they know it. Let them out into the real real world to earn their wisdom. Until relatively recently, this is what commonly happened. My grandfather just worked the rest of this life after elementary school.

    A good selective secondary system would still make available as many specialized schools as possible for those kids who demonstrate an aptitude, e.g. academics, trades, music, arts, athletics. The elementary schools, therefore, would need to do a better job of education. I know that they did in my grandfather’s time.

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