Is selection good for the kids?

The Government wants schools to select more pupils. Two experts debate the pros and cons; The return of grammar schools will reinforce social divisions
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Lord Tebbit led us to believe that the Sixties were decadent years, but for those of us just starting our teaching careers they were the most exciting of times. Comprehensive schools were beginning to take root and 11-plus failures like myself who, in the earlier years of our lives, had felt humiliated by the social stigma attached to us, welcomed them with open arms. No longer would future generations of children have to be branded like cattle at a most sensitive time of their development. Selection was out.

Thirty years after the legislation that brought in the comprehensives we are now seeing systematic attempts by Conservative and Labour politicians to undermine their credibility. Harriet Harman will be sending her son to a grammar school miles from her home. David Blunkett asks us to "read his lips" about there being no academic selection under a Labour government while at the same time suggesting that comprehensives have failed.

More sinister is the work of the Tories who hold the levers of power. Step by step they are introducing measures designed to distort the comprehensive ideal and bring back the grammar schools for which so many of them yearn.

Yesterday's speech by Education Secretary Gillian Shephard was yet one more indication of the open dislike that the Tories have for comprehensives. By further increasing the proportion of students that schools will be able to select by ability, she has confirmed my worst fears that we have merely reached another staging post on the road to full selection.

The effect of these measures will be to intensify the dogfight between local comprehensives that has emerged in recent years. These measures will ensure that many of our comprehensives, situated in unattractive, deprived areas of our cities, will rapidly become the secondary moderns of yesteryear.

How will the schools, with their new powers of selection, choose their pupils? You can put your mortgage on the fact that most will try to incorporate an interview into their procedures. Interviews give you a clear indication of the social-class of the parents and headteachers will be falling over themselves to try to offer places to the supportive middle-classes.

It would be terrible shame if the education system was forced into selection. Our comprehensives are not the pits of mixed-ability teaching that right-wing politicians would have you believe. Most have been into "setting" and "banding" by ability for years. Many recognise that for many of our students such arrangements get the best results.

I might be wrong, but I strongly believe that the push for selection once again highlights the social class divisions that exist in our society. The activists in favour of selection secretly believe the bright middle- class youngsters at secondary level ought not to have to tolerate the behaviour of their more roughly hewn peers from working-class homes. An out-of-date theory? If you don't believe me, talk at length to some of the middle-class parents in Islington, where I live, who are about to choose secondary schools for their children.

The writer is headteacher of Rutlish School, London Borough of Merton.