Editorial: Academic excellence - without the 11-plus

An obvious way to improve education – allowing schools to select by ability – is still taboo

Share

Educational surveys have a habit of focusing on the more obvious failings of our state schools: the drop-out rate, truancy, the proportion of pupils who leave with no qualifications, the poor standards of numeracy and literacy that place our school-leavers at a disadvantage when compared with better-educated East Europeans. And it is right that so much attention is paid to the chances of those at the bottom. It is they who, most clearly and urgently, need help.

This does not mean, however, that everything is rosy, or even satisfactory, elsewhere. In a report with a self-explanatory title – “The most able students: are they doing as well as they should in our non-selective secondary schools?” – the education inspectorate, Ofsted, trained its lens on the other end of the school spectrum and answered its question with a loud “No”.

It found that in 40 per cent of state secondary schools, the brightest children, as identified by primary-school scores, were not reaching the standard they were capable of, and that two-thirds of those who did best in English and maths at primary school failed to achieve A* or A grades at GCSE. It spoke of thousands of bright children being “systematically failed”, and said that many of those who had excelled at primary school became “used” to performing at lower levels.

Regrettably, such findings chime with criticisms made periodically since they came to government by both the Prime Minister and by his Education Secretary, to the effect that many apparently good schools were “coasting”. No less regrettably, they also confirm the concerns of many parents with children at state and private schools that many state schools entrench low expectations and fail to “stretch” the brightest – a defect reinforced by an exam system that demands too little.

The laxness of the exam system is now being addressed – in the face of fierce hostility from the teaching establishment – though provision for those of a less academic bent will remain neglected. And if there is anything more depressing than the findings of this latest Ofsted report, it is the defensiveness, even denials, that at once poured forth from teachers and their leaders.

They began by challenging the inspectors’ methods, complaining that Level 5 achievers at primary school formed too wide a band to be considered the brightest, or necessarily capable of an A at GCSE. They continued by insisting on the excellence of most schools (and, of course, most teachers) and they blamed league tables for distorting incentives. Of these excuses only the last, a reference to the pressure to lift pupils from a D grade to a C, holds water.

One proposal is that secondary schools should “set” or “stream” pupils by ability from the start. Another is for closer parental scrutiny of comparative performance, which will not necessarily improve relations with teachers. But an obvious solution – allowing schools to select by ability – remains taboo, even though such a system produced some of the greatest social mobility this country has known.

There is no need to reintroduce the dreaded 11-plus. Sats give primary schools a good grasp of their pupils’ ability. Nor need 11 be the age of selection. The rigidity of admission to grammar schools was one of their biggest downsides. Standards and facilities in schools catering to the less academic must be far better than they were then. But to reject academic selection on ideological grounds alone is to fail many of our most promising pupils just as surely as many of the most disadvantaged are also failed.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

KS1 Teacher

£21500 - £31500 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Would you like to work...

Java Developer - web services, XML and API

£330 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Lond...

Maths Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Reading: Maths Teacher required to teach Furthe...

Primary teachers required for schools in Norwich

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Primary teachers requ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Brooks Newmark  

If Brooks Newmark is ‘sick’ what does that say about the rest of us?

Simon Kelner
Adiala Jail in Rawalpindi where Mohammad Asghar is being held  

Mohammed Ashgar: A Briton on death row in Pakistan who the Government must act to save

David Morrisey
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
Witches: A history of misogyny

Witches: A history of misogyny

The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style