Sitting in the library of the RSA I saw that fellow Fellows were having a debate about grammar schools on the RSA’s website following a blog post from Julian Astle. I decided to post my contribution and get involved in the debate.
I would like to re-cast the whole debate into a discussion about the advantages of 'setting' over 'streaming'.
I am an Oxford-university educated product of a grammar school and son of educated middle-class parents who could not have afforded a private school. (I also had to work to pay most of my maintenance costs at university.) I don't feel unduly guilty about my educational opportunities and I would certainly not want my grammar school closed down or converted to a comprehensive.
But, I don't think we should create any more schools which 'brand' children at the age of 11 and reduce their opportunities from then on. Grammar schools are effectively examples of 'streaming'. Streaming is a system in which pupils are labelled in accordance to the average of their abilities in each subject and then taught right across the curriculum with all the pupils of a similar average. This is utterly disheartening and militates against educational aspiration and social mobility.
Even in a selective grammar school I found that in the subjects I was good at I suffered the frustration and boredom of 'mixed ability' teaching. Having read several Shakespeare tragedies and being able to compare and contrast them, it was a teeth-grinding experience to share a lesson with someone who could barely understand or read out a single soliloquy, and a nerve-wracking experience for that fellow pupil to be bewildered by a textual analysis discussion. The one subject which was 'set' was maths. All those fellow students who were much more mathematically gifted than I must have been profoundly grateful that we were taught in different sets.
Everyone accepts and understands the promotion and relegation of sports teams. Comprehensive schools should adopt the same approach for every single subject on the school curriculum. Some pupils will be in the top football, gymnastics, and art sets, in middling sets for history and geography, and maybe in lower sets for maths and science. All pupils will have a completely unique 'profile' of sets.
To enable this arrangement, the sets will have to be determined on the basis of some tests. Thereafter, an end of year test will determine which five pupils are promoted to the next set and relegated to the one below. This system avoids branding anyone as 'grammar' or 'secondary modern', gives scope for aspiration, and allows the flexibility to respond to the different rates at which children develop physically, mentally, and emotionally.
So I am in favour of mixed ability, non-selective schools but competitive and selective education.
Marek Effendowicz FRSA is Director of FFN Consulting Ltd which offers interim management and consultancy.
Read Julian Astle's blog on grammar schools here.