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Sir Michael Misses the Point… Selection benefits the many, not just the few

Sir Michael, in one of the paradoxes of education professionalism, both misses and makes the point.

The war on selection since a Labour  government first took an axe to  grammar schools in 1960s –  one in which Conservatives joined in principle – while  in practice leaving alone those schools which escaped the cull, has had consequences for the whole system. Not only has it led our public education system to fail many of the brightest pupils – something which Sir Michael and others in the profession would like to deny. It is also linked to other, grievous, failings, which are acknowledged by Sir Michael and the others: poor vocational standards, teacher shortages and, as I have come to believe, the failure to attract the brightest subject graduates each year into teaching or to keep those who do begin teaching in the profession, and it is linked to the dismal educational standards with which this country, though the fifth richest in the G20 nations, has limped along for four decades at least pre- Gove.

In the pre-Gove system, teachers were obliged to dish out a curriculum based on the bizarre notion that mastering the central knowledge of a subject (such as mathematics, history, physics, a foreign language, or geography) to the highest  possible standard  was not the aim. Dipping, mixing, finding one’s own way through any number of modules or eclectic themes, was the order of the day in the classroom and for the exam. Teachers  ‘facilitated’ their pupils’ learning without having themselves to be masters of the subject knowledge they facilitated, for many had (and have) not been educated beyond A level by taking a university subject degree to joint honours (or even pass) standard. The upshot was that the curriculum, tailored as much to teachers’ ignorance as that of their pupils, lacked academic rigour and vocational ambition. That is, until Michael Gove sought to change it.

I share the Chief Inspector’s view that those reforms were and continue to be critical. But, reluctantly, I consider that they are not sufficient. Until we tackle the militant refusal in England and Wales to allow differentiation of schools and the curriculum  (except in marginal areas, at specialists academies), so that the system caters  expressly for  different abilities, aptitudes and talents, the failures will continue, though probably not so starkly as before the Gove era.

We need only look to the selective systems in German and France to see that selective systems benefit everyone, not just the brightest. On any range of measure, standards across the whole system, opportunities and life chances, the recruitment of good teachers, these systems trump our own. Each is selective France: from 16 and Germany from 11/12.

Each of these countries is, like Britain, a developed, post- industrial economy with over 60 million inhabitants, and each has a population diverse in social and now ethnic background. Each has the different sorts of problems posed for urban and rural schools. Each is a rich country: with the UK, they occupy places 4-6 in the IMF’s rich list.

Two factors mark these selective systems out by contrast with our own. They have higher educational aspirations and standards for all their pupils, and they do not suffer the same problems as we do in recruiting and retaining both high powered, educated graduate teachers and vocational specialists.

Vocational education in both takes place in separate, dedicated vocationally oriented or professional schools, often combined with work-based training, and always with a continued emphasis on core subjects, such as mathematics, language, history and geography. Students have the chance to learn on the job on sandwich courses with designated employers, applying and acquiring practical knowledge: for instance, electricians in a Siemens factory, mechanics or engineering in BMW.

In those core subjects in Germany, we see that even for the lower attainers, the standards reached can be on a par with those reached by our own most gifted A level mathematicians.   For the small proportion of young people who do go to academic schools, via a system of self-selection by family, student and teacher, we see that the whole system benefits from the existence of these schools for the academically gifted. Like the Premier League, their existence helps to raise the level of aspiration for the best and brightest across the system. It also makes for excitement about entering a profession where the most able, gifted and academically competent aspire to belong. The high status of the teaching profession is reinforced. The bar of standards across the system is raised. Education, like everything else in life from football to the most complex heart surgery, is seen to involve mastering a chosen metier, with each helped to fulfil their potential and succeed to the highest possible standard. The whole of society gains. All are the richer.

As Sir Michael quits, he should recognize that attitudes towards selection are a matter of ideology. Grammar schools are anathema to the education professionals and the teachers’ unions, just as they are to the leaders of the political left. They have lost touch with the people of this country, those who pay their salaries. Almost 60 per cent of people in this country want more grammar schools. Perhaps, more important, they have lost touch with the truth:  the self-serving evidence concocted by their closed and narrow educationalist circles ‘proves’ whatever they want proven.  For others, for whom a good education has freed them from the preconceptions of class and party, the evidence from beyond our own shores is that selection brings gain to the many, not just to the few.


Dr Sheila Lawlor

Dr Sheila Lawlor is Politeia’s Founder and Director of Research. Her background is as an academic historian of 20th century British political history, having started her working life as research fellow at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge and Churchill College, Cambridge. Her academic publications include Churchill and the Politics of War 1940-41 and for Politeia she has written on social, economic and constitutional policy.

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