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Choices, choices: New Grammar or Secondary Modern?

By Peter Pearson - 16th Sep 2016

Director of 20Q, Peter Pearson gives a personal view that it is wrong for schools to select pupils - but quite right for pupils to select schools.

There is nothing like discussion of schools policy to arouse emotion in columnists. Theresa May’s support for the idea of more Grammar schools sends many of us back to our school days - to the excitement, embarrassment and awkwardness of being 15 again. It is very hard for our own experiences not to colour our views over how schools should be run.

If we had a positive experience of going to a Grammar school, which led us from a poor background to a good university and a successful career, we are likely to see them as a good thing. We could then focus on reports on the decline in social mobility in the past 3 decades, and the current reality of ‘selection by post code’ - of wealthier families securing access to the best schools by being able to afford the more expensive houses in their catchment areas.

Conversely, if we had the humiliating experience of being branded a ‘failure’ at the age of 11 and went to a mediocre Secondary Modern school we are likely to hate the idea of bringing this kind of selection to more areas. In argument, our focus is on the overall picture of attainment in areas with Grammar schools, and the claim that it is lower than for areas with comprehensive intakes.

In other words it is inevitable that our views about schooling are influenced by our own experiences - and those of us who are teachers are inevitably influenced by our experiences in the workplace as well as as parents and students ourselves. I’d like to argue here that it is quite wrong for schools to select pupils - but conversely in 2016 it is bizarre that families (parents and their children) are not able to select schools.

A formative experience

My first teaching job was at Obera Harambee Secondary School in rural South West Kenya in 1981. I was 18 and asked to teach English, Maths, Chemistry and Biology up to O level standard. The classes ranged in size from 30 to 72, and the age range of students was from 11 to 26. I loved it! To my surprise, I found that I loved teaching and had perhaps the happiest year of my life.

they would walk up to 30 miles to school, some with foam mattresses balanced on their heads

The single thing that impressed me most was this. The students were desperate to be in school. At the start of term they would walk up to 30 miles to school, some with foam mattresses balanced on their heads. I didn’t really face any discipline issues in the classroom because they all wanted to be there. How different from back in the UK!

We’ve got something badly wrong when learning is seen as boring and something you are forced to do. This must be to do with it being compulsory and having no choice. We don’t put up with that in any other area of life (except perhaps with our health care). We like to choose the food we eat, the work we do, the car we drive, the place we live. So what if we allowed each family to choose the right sort of Secondary education for each of their children?

Has anyone asked the children?

I remember German friends describing matter of factly how one of their children went to a very academic school, while the other went to a more vocational one. There was no sense at all of one being rejected - as far as I could tell the decision was made in consultation between the schools, the parents and the children.

So why not allow a range of schools to flourish?

There is definitely a demand for very rigorous, academic schools, where the pace is fast and the expectations high. Yet there is also a demand for excellent vocational learning. My eldest son has just graduated with an excellent degree in Engineering but over £50 000 of student loan to pay back. A contemporary of his left their comprehensive at 14 to go to a vocational school and is now earning excellent money as an electrician - and with no debt! As a society we need both, and it seems very old fashioned to label one as better than the other.

How do we get there?

I don’t see how this can be successfully planned from the centre. Why not let schools innovate and give parents education vouchers so they can choose what’s right for each child?

So I say yes to school choice, but I don’t think it’s the school who should choose - it’s our children.

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