EGALITARIAN EDUCATION

 

(April 1996)

 

Recently there has been some debate on selective education, partly as a result of furious noises made at certain MPs who sent their children to schools with entrance exams, or streaming; partly as a result of proposals that selective grammar schools should be reintroduced. Both my parents were teachers in working class areas of London, and I think that mixed ability teaching is a crazy idea, if the object is actually for something to be learnt.

 

However, I am sure that the reintroduction of selection would only be a sticking plaster on the gaping wound of state education. (Counting the universities as part of state education.) In my day state primary schools used traditional methods and there seemed little chance of anyone with an IQ of 130, whatever their origins, failing to get a grammar school scholarship. The teaching profession reacted to the ineradicability of ability differences, which was made more obvious by efficient teaching, by giving up teaching altogether (so to speak). This actually increased the weighting of environmental influences because a middle class person became more dependent on parental teaching, and less on his own ability. So nowadays, if selective education were reintroduced, clever children with inattentive parents might well be at a disadvantage.

 

Recently I met a number of people who finished their education fairly recently, some with bad degrees, and some with none. The exam results which they had achieved in the course of their careers plainly bore no relation to their academic potential. They seemed to be opposed to the idea of selective education, being worried that someone who needed to get a grammar school scholarship might just fail to do so. They did not appear to realise that they would have been the sort of people who would have passed grammar school scholarships easily, and might have been successful and even got something out of academic work as it was presented some forty years ago.

 

The story below is an illustration of how the situation in grammar schools had deteriorated by the beginning of the 1960s, so that even though selection was still in force, the advantage of getting a grammar school scholarship had decreased.

 

One person in particular, educated as one of the last few intakes before her school went comprehensive, whom I knew to be serious and conscientious about her work, had an incomprehensible array of low-grade passes. I believe the work is simply not presented in a way that makes it possible for people with academic aptitudes to latch on to it, although it is difficult to define how this is being done.

 

One factor is probably that teaching methods are designed to minimise differences of ability by teaching things in ways from which everyone will be almost equally bad at learning. In her first year of French this person was not allowed to know how anything looked in writing or what the individual words meant, but had to learn to repeat sentences which were suitable in certain contexts. So she learnt that you made a noise something like welly-voo if you wanted to find out where someone was going when they walked out of a door, and thought it had something to do with wellies.

 

I think that the difference between a non-state school and state school is far more crucial than whether the state school is selected or not, and this difference has probably become greater rather than less. In my day a state grammar school was only potentially lethal to really high IQs, such as mine, but I think such a school nowadays would be lethal at much lower IQs.