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Primary Education News
News Selective schools may help poor, bright children; what about the rest?
We need an honest debate about selective education, says Laura McInerney – at the moment, people only seem to value poor but bright children, not poor but average ones
Once a quarter, right along with the utility bill, some high-profile person or organisation publicly pronounces that we should bring back grammar schools or assisted places at public schools for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Their argument is, invariably, that this is the only way poor students can attend better schools, thereby improving social mobility. Last month, it was the turn of the Welsh Conservatives to call for the reinstatement of grammars. And earlier this year, the head of £19,000-a-year St Paul's school backed proposals to reinstate an assisted-place scheme through which taxpayers would fund places at his academically selective school.
Yet not one of these people ever explains why selection by ability is so integral to their plan. And if they genuinely want to help disadvantaged young people to go to successful schools, there are many more imaginative options available.
In 2009, India passed a law, the Right to Education Act, requiring private schools to give 25% of their places to students from "economically weak" backgrounds. There is no selection by ability. Students are chosen randomly via an open lottery, with gifted children given the same chance of attending a top-flight school as those with severe learning difficulties. Students gaining places are paid for by the government. In some areas, elite schools receive more than 2,000 applications for 150 places.
Eight thousand miles away in the US, the city of St Louis also has a plan for helping the neediest young people to attend better schools. Under Missouri law, any student in a school district deemed "unaccredited" (similar to Ofsted's "requires improvement") can request a transfer to a more successful school nearby. The students' tuition and transport is paid for by the failing district. Passed in 1993, the law was ignored for decades but, when Normandy School District, the equivalent of an LEA, became unaccredited earlier this year, families were alerted to the ruling. This month, 2,600 students will take up new places in a neighbouring district with more successful schools.
In both India and Missouri, the aim is to get students from under-privileged backgrounds into the best educational facilities around. In both, the resentment among the upper-middle classes is palpable.
In India, the appeals went all the way to the supreme court before the law was upheld. Researchers have uncovered corruption in the carrying-out of lotteries and examples of segregation within the schools (for example, the poorer children being made to sit at the back of the class). Meanwhile, wealthy parents claim they fear for their children. As the Indian journalist Lakshmi Chaudhry puts it: "We want our maid to clean our bathrooms, but we don't want her kid in our son's classroom."
Parents in the successful district in St Louis have complained that the incoming students are worse-behaved, less clever and used to a "different culture". The remarks have been likened by the press to those seen during segregation: the failing district is predominantly black, the successful one predominantly white. What seems to be forgotten, though, is that the students wanting to transfer are trying to escape the kind of disruptive behaviour that the parents at the successful school are complaining about.
Neither the St Louis nor the Indian policy is perfect, not least because they divert funds from struggling schools. They do, however, show that grammar schools or assisted places are not the only way to attempt improvements in social mobility.
Unfortunately, if the reactions of parents in India and St Louis are anything to go by, some people still think putting the "weak" with the "clever" will cause schools to collapse. But why? Is it because these elite schools are not good enough to teach a diverse range of students? Or is it for the same reasons being spluttered by teachers in India and St Louis: "But they're so different from us… We can't cope… We are not made for those children."
If a similar system was proposed in Britain, I suspect we'd hear the same excuses. But if our elite schools can't cope with a diverse range of students, can they really claim to be helping the most disadvantaged young people to achieve? Much nearer to the truth, perhaps, is that they are helping only the most capable, some of whom just happen to be poor.
So why do high-profile advocates continually favour bright but poor children over the poor and average? Perhaps it is due to a deep-seated belief that children who pass tests are somehow more valuable to society, and so the protection of their potential is more important than anyone else's. If they were to admit this, perhaps we could start to have a more honest discussion about selective education. Until then, I will continue to greet their arguments with the same warmth with which I greet my gas bill.
• Laura McInerney taught in London for six years and is now a Fulbright scholar