OPINION: In increasing selection, Britain is going the opposite way to the rest of Europe, says Donald Hirsch

Click to follow
A Swedish, Italian and French parent would be perplexed by the ferocity of the debate in the UK this week over the choice of a leading socialist to send her 11-year-old to a state-run school reserved for clever children. A German, Swiss or Dutch parent would be less surprised by the fact of selection but just as bemused by the controversy.

Most industrialised countries long ago abolished the division of pupils at the beginning of secondary school. In Western Europe, the prevailing pattern is to keep children together throughout the compulsory school years, with the aim of giving a sound basic education to everybody in schools that are equal in resources, status and curriculum.

Streaming starts in the "upper-secondary" phase, at 15 or 16, usually giving options of vocationally or academically based "tracks", leading to qualifications at 18 that are deemed equivalent.

The idea of equal status at this later phase is usually a fiction. But countries such as France and Sweden would consider the idea of going back to selection at 11 as about as appropriate for the 21st century as replacing e-mail with carrier pigeons.

The German speaking countries - Germany, Switzerland and Austria - plus the Netherlands still stream most children into three or four different kinds of school at the end of primary education. At the top of the hierarchy in each case is a Gymnasium, similar to our grammar schools.

But the durability of these systems has depended not on what is at the top but what exists further down. Unlike secondary-moderns, these have not been seen as "dead end" options. In the middle are schools for children destined for higher-level technical studies - in Germany in Realschule. At the bottom is a school (in Germany the Hauptschule) whose 15-year-old leavers normally become apprentices.

Even at the Hauptschule, children have a strong incentive to learn. They know employers give the plum apprenticeships to students who have done well in subjects such as German and maths.

However, there are two good reasons for Britain not to follow these countries down a selection route. First, they work very differently from the way we are likely to operate selection. And second, because they are starting to break down.

None of the continental systems has an 11-plus. We may find this odd, but any child is allowed to enrol in any of the streamed schools. In practice, the main influence is the primary headteacher's recommendation. If a parent insists, they may go against it. But they are warned of the danger that the child may not be able to keep up with cleverer children.

One reason this has worked is because parents in these four largely conservative societies are willing to fit in with the social and educational status quo. There is even a large degree of self-segregation. In the Netherlands, the lowest of four streams has become dominated in many places by immigrants, whose families are encouraged to think that their children might feel uncomfortable in other settings. I once visited a gymnasium - at the other end of the hierarchy - in Haarlem, with only four children from ethnic minorities. Some schools in the same city had more than 70 per cent Turks and Moroccans.

Semi-voluntary segregation has been acceptable up until now partly because of the social and economic stability of these countries. Parents have not felt unhappy to enrol their children in a "lower" stream where that seems likely to destine them for a "craft" job and a recognised position in society.

But in Britain, the language of school choice combined with league tables hardly encourages parents to see schools with lower academic attainment as acceptable. They rightly associate higher academic attainment at secondary school with better job prospects.

Meanwhile, the social and economic conditions that have allowed selection to work in some European countries is breaking down. Children and parents who used to be happy with less are now thinking in terms of university. In Germany, the proportion of 12- to15-year-olds enrolled in the Hauptschule fell from 64 per cent to 34 per cent between 1960 and 1990.

Parents increasingly ignore advice to stick with the stream that suits their child. One result is that 40 per cent of German children now are kept down for at least one year in secondary school because they fail to make enough progress.

Europe's selective systems are starting to make modest efforts to reform themselves by delaying segregation. The Dutch are trying to create a common curriculum and more integrated classes for 12- to 15-year-olds. In Germany, Lower Saxony has delayed selection from 10 to 12. The Swiss canton of Valais now allows children to stay in the same school until they are 15, though they are streamed in core academic subjects. These are modest steps towards the comprehensive principle. Only in Britain do things threaten to go in the opposite direction.

The writer is an independent policy consultant and author of the OECD report 'School, a Matter of Choice' (HMSO, 1994).