Mixed-ability classes prevent pupils from reaching their potential

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Selection, for critics and protagonists alike, is a highly moral matter. Margaret Thatcher summed up my position when she addressed those who claimed that grant-maintained schools would become selective: "You may think it wrong. But I, I do not think it wrong."

The contenders in moral debate often couch their arguments in terms of a conflict of interests between individual children and the wider school- going population. Given these emotive terms, it is almost impossible to reconcile the opposing camps, no matter what education research is deployed to carry the day. Each side clings to moral certainty.

I believe that there are practical reasons for selecting pupils by ability. It is difficult to stretch each child to the full if the pace of teaching is pitched to either end of the ability range, or, for that matter, steers the safe middle course. One way round this problem has been to organise classrooms in ways that allow for individual (or group) work. The lesson has been that these techniques work, provided teachers are superb. But if they are less than superb, teachers are simply not up to the task physically or intellectually. The classroom is hard place today. Teachers are dealing the children who are less accustomed than in the past to the unquestioned acceptance of authority. The consequences of family breakdown make learning more difficult.

But there is one reason above all for selection: the pursuit of academic excellence. We must work to restore the intellectual framework of education, damaged by successive reforms as each reforming minister has exposed the relatively fragile institution of the school to the forces of a progressive state, local and central.

Comprehensive schooling on a mass scale became possible only by changing the nature of the classroom. It became a place where pupils learn how to "do" things rather than where they learn how to think. Theteacher, in the degrading speak of the Eighties, became the facilitator who enabled children to acquire skills. This change was necessary given the difficulty of imparting knowledge over a wide ability range. Exams and curriculum reflected the transformation. It is clear that the anti-intellectual nature of education in the UK results from the dogmatic imposition of comprehensive schooling.

Of course, selection is not the only basis for successful teaching. And it would be wrong for the state to dictate to schools and parents the kind of teaching they must follow. That choice must be left to schools and parents. We need a genuinely permissive framework in which the Government stands aside and lets schools and parents decide for themselves about selection.

In short, there are pragmatic reasons for selecting children on grounds of ability. It may help teachers to teach and stretch their pupils. But there are more important grounds: the future of education in this country. If we want schools to be places of real intellectual endeavour, we should look to the further use of selection.

The writer is director of Politeia, the Forum for Social and Economic Thinking. She was formerly deputy director of the Centre for Policy Studies.