Theresa May’s move to end the ban on grammar schools has unsurprisingly received mixed reception. Whereas some such as Shadow Education Minister, Lucy Powell MP, have attacked the move as supporting “entrenched advantage”, others have favoured the increased choice and competition it would bring to Britain’s educational landscape.
The introduction of the comprehensive schooling system in 1965 aimed to promote a universal curriculum which was broad, balanced, and inclusive to all. This stood in contrast to schools which enabled individuals to specialise in specific areas as had been prevalent under the tripartite system of grammar, modern, and technical schools.
With such an emphasis on student outcome rather than opportunity, the personalised learning ethos that the tripartite system had sustained was replaced by a more impersonal and uniform one. Out of the 3,000 grammar schools which used to exist, there are currently 164 left in England, a substantial number of which are based in Kent.
Those who reject the extension of grammar schools in favour of state comprehensives ground their opposition in two main claims. Firstly, it is argued that the inability of the eleven plus entrance examination to ensure an equal playing field for those who can attain additional educational training discriminates against those without such resources. In turn, it is said to capitalise upon wealth inequality and competition.
As the comprehensive school system currently operates under a post-code lottery system, where parents with higher levels of disposable finance are able to move to areas which harbour good or outstanding schools, there is an inherent inequality based on family wealth. The outcome of this is that educational competition has shifted away from individual ability towards parental income. For me, this is the gravest injustice in the current education system and holds back individuals with academic potential, but without the wealth to afford a good education.
It is also argued that the eleven plus system fails to recognise the difference in educational attainment an individual can achieve between the formative years of 11 and 18. According to Welsh Government statistics, in 2013/2014 only 63% of children had achieved level two qualifications by the age of 15. This went up by over ten percent to 72% by the age of 16. This is undoubtedly a significant figure, and indicates a need for more personalised learning opportunities that encourage individuals to achieve higher grades at earlier ages.
Although this is a compelling argument, it is not a flawless one. Whilst grammar schools are almost exclusively based on proven academic ability, emphasising the ‘plus’ aspect of the 11+ system can introduce a worthwhile alteration. If students in all years were admitted through an annual intake, this could enable the so-called ‘late-bloomers’ to join later on in their education journey at the ages of 13 or 16.
The second objection to grammar schools is the claim that the universality of state comprehensives secure greater levels of social integration amongst a wide diversity of backgrounds. This, it is argued, develops social awareness from an early age, and that this exposure to a wide range of cultural attitudes prepares individuals with the knowledge and understanding to succeed in the wider world. As sociologist Talcott Parsons argued, schools act as ‘bridges’ between the closed family environment and the more spontaneous nature of wider society.
Although this argument is undoubtedly compelling, it is not infalliable. Speaking on the Andrew Marr show earlier this year, Education Secretary Justine Greening argued that the range of schooling pupils can receive in England and Wales has changed enormusly as the demands of the economy have also.
However, the traditional structure operated under a binary between state and private. There is now an educational landscape which encompasses a wide range of different schools that promote different themes.
I have previously argued in favour of a post-EU British economy that emphasises the importance of economic versatility as well as technological specialism. As one of the most effective tools in enabling young people to equip themselves with the skills and knowledge that a more sophisticated economy would require, ensuring that young people are supported by a curriculum that nurtures their own individuals talents is essential to this. Such a curriculum would allow young people to develop an holistic knowledge of elementary subjects, whilst also having the autonomy to specialise in a chosen number of subjects.
The outcome would be that whilst individuals would be able to calculate complex sums and recall specific facts of general enquiry, they would also be sufficiently specialised to compete in an advanced market, demonstrating their expertise as widely as possible. This type of arrangement is already in operation within the educational systems of nations such as Poland. Operating under a tripartite system, students are chanellised towards general, technical, and vocational schools and receive an education which is tailored towards their own abilities and aspirations.
Although the drive towards apprenticeships and lifelong learning has indicated the start of a transition towards a diverisified model of education within the UK, there remains much to do. With investment in the extension of university technical colleges, learning could be revolutionised as to go beyond research to actual practice and scientific innovation.
In addition, recognised qualifications for vocational subjects with a similar status to university degrees could result in a change in which vocational learning becomes viewed to be as valued and important as academic education. Such reforms have the potential to plant the seeds for greater economic and individual success in years to come.