This is something I've been meaning to post about for a while, and rumours about budget allocations for new Grammar schools from the current Conservative government have reminded me about the issue. As usual, I don't pretend to be an expert on the subject, but I do think we need to think carefully about what we are doing. Should we return to grammar schools, or not? Has the 'comprehensive experiment failed or succeeded? Are grammar schools an aid to social mobility, or quite the opposite?
The first thing I think is important to note is the difference between 'mixed ability schools' and 'mixed ability teaching' - I fully agree that the latter can be a problem in holding back more able children in a given subject, while leaving behind less able ones (while those in between are suffering under a teacher who is trying to balance the extremes within a class, which isn't really helping them much either). I don't think it is the most effective possible approach to teach a subject to a group with abilities in that subject that vary to such an extent that virtually nobody is really being taught at the right level. A mixed ability school is something completely different, though, and I would argue that you don't need to have separate schools in order to have appropriate levels of teaching in different subjects.
So what are the supposed advantages of grammar schools? Lack of 'mixed ability teaching' is the most obvious, but in some ways even that could be a bit of a red herring, depending on how children within the school are taught in different subjects - being great at maths doesn't make you great at history or English, so some form of 'setting' is required. Once you acknowledge the need for 'setting', the biggest advantage of grammar schools goes out of the window entirely. The other oft-quoted advantage is 'social mobility' - allowing kids from poorer backgrounds who are more academically inclined to get a better education, and to advance in life beyond the station of their birth. That, of course, comes with an obvious flip side - the disadvantage to those who don't get in, and have to go to a school already defined as 'lesser'. Even if those schools are theoretically 'comprehensive' rather than the old 'secondary modern', they have still had the most academic children 'creamed off the top', and that is not to their advantage.
So we have a system with no real advantages, blighted by disadvantages. Not getting in to the grammar school, whichever school you end up in, creates a 'social stigma' that can last a lifetime - as much as we like to say it isn't so, or that it shouldn't be so, having 'the right school' on your CV can be a positive advantage in later life (and 'the wrong school' a disadvantage). Beyond even that, though is the issue of social division - those who are in schools separated by 'academic ability' don't have the daily opportunity to associate and socialise with one another that they would if the were in the same school. The live in 'different worlds' from one another right from the start. Add that the the reality that entry is not just 'academic', but also very often dependent on 'class' and/or 'money' - peer pressure at an early age, and parents coaching children and/or paying for private tuition to get them through the 11+ (or whatever selection system is used), have a huge effect. That's not creating 'social mobility', but a kind of 'social separation' at an early age that is likely to introduce a mindset of 'us and them' that could last a lifetime. That, I would argue, is a very bad thing for society.
However, before we get carried away, we need to understand that comprehensive education hasn't been exactly perfect either. Aside from issues like 'mixed ability teaching' experiments, this single multi-ability school has often been operated under much the same kind of system of academic prejudice that the grammar and secondary modern system did. We changed the school, but often didn't really change the idea of 'academic snobbery' nearly enough. In my case, for example, I went to a 'streamed' comprehensive school - that system had many advantages over the grammar system in the way that it operated, but by 'streaming' kids according to whether they were 'Academic', 'Average' or 'Remedial' (their terms, not mine!) we still reinforced the same kind of thinking. We were still engaged in 'rating' children according to academic ability, as if that equated somehow to their 'worth' - the 'best' ones got the best education, but the 'lesser' ones were largely taught the same subjects but just at a lower level (with a a kind of assumption that they were 'never really going to get it'). It was assumed that being good at one thing meant being good at everything else academically too, and that's also a bit of an issue. I think we need to think about things a little differently.
We also have 'setting', as I've already mentioned, and that is a lot better as an idea because it allows for people having varying abilities. One problem, however, was that that was still done within those 'streams', I suspect at least partly because of the sheer complexity of timetabling. Another was still that issue of the 'lesser' children being largely taught the same academic subjects - since they usually weren't going into academic beyond school, I'm going to suggest that was sometimes really only useful as an exercise in giving them something to occupy their time in school, while enhancing the impression that they just 'weren't good enough', or were even 'too stupid'.
So how do we address this? Well, I'd say the first principle is to stop rating kids purely by academic ability in the first place. We shouldn't be primarily thinking about whether they are good at academic subjects, but thinking about what each child is best at. That may seem like a subtle and idealistic change, but I think it's an important one. We do here about ideas like 'technical schools' and 'vocational training', but we've not really made a clear commitment to that idea of 'equal worth, with different abilities' in the way we operate our school system. I think we can do that within the comprehensive education system, and I think we can use the 'streaming' idea in a different way.
An important aspect of that is 'choice' - not just the 'parental choice' that we so often hear about, but also 'pupil choice' (an often neglected notion). It shouldn't just be about the school or education system judging a child's academic ability, but about making a choice between 'academic' and 'technical', or 'theory' and 'practicality', or 'intellectualism' or 'trade', or however you want to put it. That should be a choice in which schools, parents and children participate actively, based on desires and talent, and without any hint of the 'well you're a bit thick, so we'll teach you woodwork' prejudice that has so blighted our system. That, of course, needs us to really properly address how we deal with those who choose the less theoretical path, and what tools they need to leave school with in order to prosper in their future lives. It also needs us to think about a 'Careers Service' not being something that delivers a quick interview and a couple of leaflets just before the age when you can leave school comes - one that is integral within the school system from a much earlier point, and is able to understand individual needs (I hope it has moved beyond it now, and I suspect it probably has, but it certainly was the case at one time, in some places, that any girl who wasn't planning A levels was simply asked whether they wanted to become a hairdresser or a secretary - that was quite obviously completely inadequate!).
So let's deal with our three 'streams' in turn. First, the 'academic', or 'theoretical' stream - they are the easiest to deal with here in many way. In this day and age, we can reasonably assume that most of them will be looking towards continuing education and study beyond the age of sixteen, and even beyond the age of eighteen (given our current levels of university participation). We can probably broadly treat them in a fairly 'traditional' was educationally, teaching them academic subjects in a fairly theoretical and intellectual way, examining their academic work, and so on. I do think we can still improve on that, not just with continuing research into educational approaches, but by allowing more specialisation, and wider range of academic subjects for them to choose, and by introducing programs to attract more specialised teachers (for example, by employing PhD graduates to teach part time in a school while spending the rest of their time working as researchers in nearby universities or even private research facilities - part time teaching, part time research doesn't need to involve only university-level teaching). More on 'specialisation' in a moment.
Secondly, we have our 'practical' or 'trade' 'stream'. I'm sure there are better names out there, but the point is to not characterise people according to being 'not so clever', 'merely average', and so on, but in a positive way according to choice. Here's where we need a total rethink - we need to treat this group as something different, not merely a 'lesser' version of the 'academic' group, and a group with equal but different positive talents to be developed. That doesn't mean simply not teaching any of the traditional subjects, but thinking about the way we teach them in a different, much more practically applicable and relevant way.
Is there any point in teaching the finer points of Henry VIII wives in history, for example? Perhaps not, but the key skills of critical thinking and assessing evidence are really important for everyone (as I have noted in a previous blog post) - perhaps we could teach those in a more 'practical' way, giving them the tools they need to apply them, while removing the need for an academic exam about which women had their heads chopped off centuries ago. OK, that was a slightly simplistic case, but it's the point of 'boiling down' those subjects to make them relevant to practical skills for life rather than an exercise in heady intellectualism being coached mainly for the purpose of getting through irrelevant exams. Similarly, many tradesmen and other practical people could really use a practical grasp of business, taxation, and so on (and very probably before the 'academic' group need them, and that group will have the study habits to be able to learn them themselves more easily by the time that they do need them (though I'm not suggesting that they shouldn't have any business education, of course!)) - they probably don't need simultaneous linear equations in their maths lessons so much. It's not about teaching 'at the appropriate level', but 'the appropriate things in the appropriate way', and I'm not convinced that we've always been terrible good at doing that.
Really, though, their main efforts should be directed towards the practical skills that they could use to go into trades. We used to allow them to leave school earlier and become apprentices much more, of course, but why can't we actually turn them out with the trade skills ready for the workplace - as we turn out 'Newly Qualified teachers', why don't we turn out 16 year old 'newly qualified plumbers', for example, with all of the skills and knowledge necessary, ready to move on to a year of supervised and mentored work before becoming 'fully qualified'? Obviously we can't expect every school to teach every trade, but that again brings up that issue of 'specialisation' in schools.
So what do I mean by 'specialisation'? Well it's not about only teaching certain subjects and not others, of course, but about each school developing its own 'centre of excellence' in certain subject areas for post-14 education, and offering the facilities and teaching expertise to deliver full education in particular trades and additional academic subjects within their particular area. This then goes to the heart of parental choice about which secondary school they should apply to get their children into - it's no longer about which is 'best' (or even 'in the best place to get the richer kids'!), but about what subject areas each school has specialised in.
For example, in a town with three comprehensive schools, there should be coordination so that each chooses a different specialist area for each of its 'streams'. School A may choose to specialise in Languages (so offering Dutch, Mandarin and Russian at 'GCSE' in addition to the usual French and German, or whatever) and Physics (teaching different specialisms rather than one 'Physics' GCSE) academically, and in 'trades' it may choose 'Car Mechanics' and 'Plumbing' (developing full facilities for both for 14-16, or even 18 ages, while only teaching others at a more basic level to younger children). School B might choose History and Computing (offering a range of options within those at 14-18) along with Carpentry and Masonry. School C might choose 'The Arts' (Music, Art History, and so on) along with Hair and Beauty and Performance Arts as 'trade' options. I should obviously mention there the difficulties in more rural areas with less available school choices, but I think the same things can largely still apply - it would perhaps require examination of funding to ensure that there was the ability to provide a reasonable choice of options (so a more rural school may 'specialise' in more subject areas, but without going as far in the options it offers for each, but would still need to be able to provide appropriate facilities on the 'trades' side particularly).
Finally we come to the third group or 'stream' - what, in my day (I sound so old!) were often very badly referred to as 'remedial'. This is a group with a massively diverse set of different needs, and needs to be treated accordingly. How we name them is a matter for debate, although I guess we could take a lead from the former 'Special Olympics' and call it the 'Parastream' or something. Again we have to be very careful with assumptions about different abilities, difficulties and additional needs. I'm no expert, so I'm not about to define exactly how we should deal with them, apart from saying that we obviously have to recognise them as individuals and support them accordingly, rather than lump them together as all requiring the same. This is another area where 'specialisms' come into play between different schools, with different ones (as they often do now, of course) specialising in dealing with different particular kinds of need.
I have, perhaps, wandered a little from the discussion of grammar schools versus comprehensives as such, but I think it was an important road to go down. the important thing is that all three groups need to be integrated in all areas apart from the actual teaching if we are to have a society not divided by academic ability and/or issues of inherited wealth (and let's be clear here - that is what grammar schools all too often broadly divide us by, even if it isn't the case for every single child (which it certainly isn't)). For example, the ability to play football is really not academically related (although common characterisation of football players and fans may lead some to believe that to be the case!). At the basic level, school football games should be between teams based on football ability, not the 'posh school' or 'swot school' against whatever less than complimentary name may get applied to others. Academic ability should be entirely irrelevant to football between schools, but more than that it should be entirely irrelevant within schools too.
Beyond the school team we should, of course, be encouraging physical activity for all youngsters, and school sports lessons are a social experience that all academic abilities should be able to experience together and without barriers. Indeed, we should also be considering the third 'stream', and those in all streams with physical disabilities - there are 'Paralympic' sports that can also be enjoyed by able-bodied people, and we should be encouraging the development of these in schools as a shared social experience. Other social experiences are much the same, of course - whether you enjoy a school trip to a theme park (and no, I don't believe that all school trips need to be entirely 'educational' - socialisation is important for kids too, as indeed is 'fun'!) isn't actually dependent on whether you are going to be a professor of mathematics or a bricklayer in later life, and the more those different people share positive mutual social experiences at an early age the better it is for them and for society as a whole.
This kind of issue was dealt with quite well (though not by any means perfectly) by the school I went to, in fact, by using a system that has sadly now been removed from there. It was quite a simple idea - morning registration, form periods, school assemblies, school trips, sporting competitions, and so on, were all organised by non academic groupings ('forms'), while only teaching itself was by 'academic' groupings ('classes'). It's really not hard to do, and it does get kids to socialise positively on a daily basis 'across academic lines', so to speak, and in a way that simply isn't possible within a grammar school system.
Finally, I just want to touch in the issue of 'free schools', 'academies', and the like. This is something that I am really not in favour of, personally. Having said that, I don't doubt that some schools were being 'choked' by the previous systems of local authority control. There has to be a practical 'middle way' solution, though - something that allows local democratic control and coordination of all schools, but without becoming mired by prescriptive diktats over budgets and so on. It seems to me that the solution of providing some schools with an 'escape' rather than not addressing the issue properly is one that should never have even been considered as a solution - it is, again, divisive, promotes the idea of parental choice for 'better schools' over 'worse schools', and leads to perceived (if not actual, which they may be) funding deficits and disadvantages. I think that we can do better than the current mess of a two-speed approach, in the way we run our schools as well as in the way we allocate our children to them.