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I have, over the last month, been avidly interested in the continuing debate in the UK over selective schooling for the more able. Having been a student at a UK grammar school during the nineties, and having been raised in the working classes, I was asked by some supporters of the system to provide a quote or two. This got me thinking.

Firstly, some background. The development of the state run grammar school began after the 1944 Education Review Act. It aimed to provide students of all backgrounds with a style of education previously enjoyed only by the affluent. An admissions system was developed with a test at eleven years old (the 11+), that selected the top 25% of students to attend. Other students would be sorted between those for whom a technical and vocational education was more appropriate, (these students would attend a secondary modern), and all other students who would attend a comprehensive. This system was dubbed the tripartite system. (Manning and Pischke, 2006).

However, the grammar school declined from 1965, and was further affected by the 1976 Education Act, as an increasing number of local education authorities (LEAs) decided to institute a fully comprehensive system. This did not however, result in the complete demise of the grammar. One hundred and sixty four remain (NGSA, 2011), ensuring that the English educational landscape retains an element of selection.

Supporters of the grammar school system such as Hanushuk and Wöβmann (2005, p1) will claim that selective schooling allows for “a focused curriculum and appropriately paced instruction that leads to maximum learning by all students.” Indeed, some academics have proposed that it is not the grammar school that is the problem, but the lack of them, proposing that the number of grammar schools should be increased. (Atkinson et al, 2006).

Advocates will also claim that grammar schools promote social mobility and point to the example of Northern Irish selection (McCartney, 2010). From my own personal perspective, supported by academics such as Atkinson et al, (2006), grammar schools do significantly raise the standards of those who make it in, particularly the working classes. Therefore, those who have benefitted from these tend to be very vocal in support. However, for each person that makes it, statistics based on Free School Meals, for example, demonstrate that there are many left behind. In many grammar schools, it seems to be the more affluent that gain admittance, creating a system that ignores the fact that home stability and finance play a great role upon academic success. Would this system therefore deny the meritocracy and social mobility it seeks?

Perhaps, but for me, this does not mean that there is no room within the concept of equal opportunity for differentiated schooling. Using Eysenck’s (1975, p53) statement that “conditions are optimized for each child,” perhaps a different way can be explored?

Firstly, that selection occurs within a comprehensive system. Within these schools, all subjects would be taught to students until 14, promoting a core base of knowledge that can be applied to all later academic pathways. Some of these subjects may be streamed, such as English and Maths. This would allow for differentiated learning to aid both the able and less able, but by being within a single school shall avoid social segregation, loss of ethos and the creation of elitism. At this point, selection would occur within the school, at an age which is more appropriate than the 11+.

Options could include a number of different educational pathways, based upon future occupational and higher education ambitions. These pathways would be to the benefit of industry as well as individual employers. (Brunello and Giannini, 2004). This choice should be made with all interested parties in order to promote ownership and motivation.

All students could continue with the streamed core subjects, come together for subjects such as PE and also remain mixed for lunches, breaks and co-curricular activities, (when students are not off site pursuing vocational courses). Students may therefore choose more academic pathways, using the existing systems, or more vocational units, combining core subjects with apprenticeships or occupational qualifications. Others may choose a combination of the two. Students shall gain differentiated learning but combine for much of the day, reducing the chances for elitism to develop.

Private funding may be encouraged, with firms taking a particular interest in vocational qualifications and apprenticeships. Students will be motivated to learn and behavioural problems will decrease, encouraging higher quality staff to return to the state comprehensive system.

Homework and ‘Gifted and Talented’ clubs could be run after school by paid staff in order to allow lower ability students an improved environment under which to learn. More able students can be stretched within the gifted and talented sessions, which may be promoted through private funding and scholarships.

The costs of this system would be high, both in terms of materials and staffing, although some costs can be saved from the abandonment of selective grammar schools. As an example, this could be achieved from reducing home to school transport costs (Levacic and Marsh, 2007) and selling grounds and buildings.

Unlikely to happen, perhaps, but just my thoughts!