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Editorial: Academic excellence - without the 11-plus

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

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.