Grammar (selection-based) schools - are they socially divisive?

Our new Prime Minister, Theresa May, has announced her plans to expand the number of grammar schools in the UK (Guardian Article).

For those who don't know grammar schools are state-funded schools that select their students based on academic performance. In the UK children move at age 11 from primary education to secondary education and at this point they take an exam called the eleven-plus. Grammar schools are then free to select from the top students on this exam. 

After their initial popularity in the post-war years grammar schools went out of fashion in the 60s and a lot of them were closed down in the 70s and 80s. Only a few hundred remain throughout the country now. The rest of state-funded secondary schools (the comprehensives) are not permitted to select students based on academic performance.

Most opponents of grammar schools claim they are socially divisive because whilst the claim is that they select based on academic performance, in reality more children from a high socio-economic background end up going there. Also, opponents claim that the psychological affect on children who are not selected is significant.

Arguments in favour include the opposite claim that grammar schools actually help social mobility because they select only on ability and not background. Also it is claimed that grammar schools help those who are strong academically achieve more than they would in a comprehensive school.

May has put this forward as part of making Britain "a great meritocracy".

Are more selection-based state schools a good idea?

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@Matt, I'd like to preface this with the disclaimer that I am playing devil's advocate here. I am not strongly in favour or opposed to grammar schools. I think there are arguments both ways.

"Grouping the high performers with other high performers drives higher performance"

I think this is probably true but the question is whether this is inherently a good idea during secondary education. It may sound like a contradiction in terms but there is an argument that schools up to the age of 16 should not necessarily focus on academic performance. We are teaching these children to become adults and that should encompass every aspect of adulthood. For me, university is the time to really start creaming off the academically talented. 

Currently, I think the trend is exactly backward. During school we focus too much on exams and performance, etc and then we try and send as many people to university as possible instead of just focusing university entrance on the highest academic performers.

"So, these opponents of grammar schools are basically saying it isn't fair because poor people aren't smart enough to compete... Sounds disgustingly classist to me."

I don't think it's that necessarily, I think they're saying that although the idea is to select by academic performance alone in reality it doesn't work out like that, i.e. the selection process is corrupt. Kind of like stupid rich kids going to Eton or wherever just because they're rich.

"Do you have enough selection-based schools to service the current level of high academic performers in your society? If not, then more would obviously be better."

You say it would obviously be better but that is based on the assumption that the best thing for society as a whole is to make sure the high academic performers are segregated off and allowed to be all that they can be. Whilst that is great for them, what about the people who are left out of that process?

I think an educational system is designed based on a fundamental choice: 1) the best possible outcome for the individual or 2) the best possible outcome for society.

In other words, if you stress individual outcomes, you may hold back better prepared or brighter students and thus, oh, cancer doesn't get conquered. If you stress  societal outcomes, you may have to resign yourself to the fact that not everyone is going turn out to be a Nobel Prize winner. Society also needs auto mechanics, restaurant managers, and bank tellers, after all. And not everyone wants to get a Ph.D., either. Some people simply want to get through the system and get a job. Some can't even stick it out all the way to graduation.

These decisions may shape subsequent choices. And then all depends upon how wise the system's choices are from then on. l, for one, want to give the best students who have the intelligence and drive the best chance of succeeding.

If it turns into a system where people advance on irrelevancies, like wealth, influence, and power, then we're in the area of bad choices.

One last thing: I don't see a lot of discussion centering on helping the students get what they want. They are talked about like they are pawns.

They are talked about like they are pawns.

From the point of view of government policy, aren't we all?

I think this is probably true but the question is whether this is inherently a good idea during secondary education.

It would of pushed me to perform better in secondary education. I was entirely capable of it, but the people around me showed little interest in doing well, so neither did I.

We are teaching these children to become adults and that should encompass every aspect of adulthood.

I agree, secondary schools should include more focus on every day life. They should also support the academically inclined to reach their fullest potential.

For me, university is the time to really start creaming off the academically talented.

In Australia, if you weren't academically focused in grade 12, you wouldn't be able to do much at uni other than an arts degree. Not that there's anything wrong with that, it's just that we're talking about academic performance needed for STEM fields. law, medicine, etc.

we try and send as many people to university as possible instead of just focusing university entrance on the highest academic performers.

Right, so if we separate the academic performers in secondary school, they will be well placed to enter university on academic performance. Either we support the kids in secondary school and have tight selection of university entrance or we keep secondary school how it is and have easy university entrance. It doesn't work if you try and do it both ways.

the selection process is corrupt.

So fix the selection process... this isn't an argument against selection-based schools.

You say it would obviously be better but that is based on the assumption that the best thing for society as a whole is to make sure the high academic performers are segregated off and allowed to be all that they can be.

Optimising the highest performing components for highest performance makes alot of sense. It will cause an increase in science and technology, bring respect and demand for the skillsets available in the country's workforce, better doctors, nurses, and medical care in general.

Whilst that is great for them, what about the people who are left out of that process?

What about them? They go on to live their lives without wasting years of it trying to perform academically when that isn't something that they are capable of/interested in. They do apprenticeships and other training and contribute to society in their own way. Academic performance isn't the be all and end all... it's an important component to building an advanced society, but that doesn't mean the people who are low academic performers don't also have their part to play.

Yes, there is an unfortunate tendency to think that saying that someone is not strong academically is the same as saying they are stupid. In no other field does this apply. We don't think that someone who is not talented at football, engineering, art, photography, etc are stupid or worthless. And yet if we try and say that some people are better at reading, writing and arithmetic than others this is branded as elitism.

We insist upon elitism in things like sports. No-one is going to pay top money for a season ticket to watch average footballers kick the thing around. Yet apparently the ideal goal is to send everyone to university. It's nonsense.

Indeed. In fact, if we send everyone to university for under-grad degree, then under-grad degrees become the new "finished high school", and we get to stereotypical point where we have university graduates putting their expensive degrees to little or no work in coffee shops and mcdonalds.

This topic makes me think of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s Handicapper General.

I had the same association.

:D

Maybe those who are opposed to the two-track system favor having a Handicapper General to ensure that nobody has any advantages.

What say you all? LOL

When I read the story, I remember thinking that no one would WATCH a TV program that involved just "average people" doing things we are used to seeing done by talented people, and then realized that if that was all that was on, and their brains were mostly fried anyway...they probably would.

I'd rather bring up the bottom than handicap the top though, overall.

:)

Are you talking about shows like Dancng with the Stars or America's Got Talent and their ilk? 

I think people watch them for two disparate reasons. First, sometimes remarkable talent is discovered (esp. in America's Got Talent, The Voice and similar audition shows). Secondly, they watch to see people fail or make fools of themselves (Dancing with the Stars). A sport like auto racing obviously draws people who hope to see a crash. Why else watch cars go round and round?

I may be odd in that I've watched (albeit it rarely) not for caring about the winners and losers, but to watch people try, and to watch how judgers judge. My cynicism is more about how people overrate judgement itself than it is about watching for the crashes.

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