Non-selective education is a myth. There is no such thing as a non-selective school, because there is no school which can admit every pupil who applies. That is a practical impossibility. Every school has selection criteria. Priority is given, for example, to those with statements of special educational needs. And is anyone going to tell me that such statements are evenly and justly distributed among the population? There are all kinds of reasons why some children end up with them, and others don’t, whatever their difficulties might be. One of those reasons is that their parents pay for a dyslexia report to be done.
Then, of course there is the selection by location. This makes some of the country’s so-called comprehensives some of the most expensive schools in the world, because their postcodes contain such expensive property. There’s one near where I live where you have to be a millionaire to buy a family house in the neighbourhood. This, of course, works in the other direction, with property prices being depressed by the perception of poor local schools, as middle class parents move out in search of better opportunities.
The fact is, that whatever policy the government introduces, those with more money and cultural resources will find ways of getting better opportunities for their children. And why shouldn’t they? I was happy when my nephew got a place in a grammar school. He’s less likely to be persecuted for being intelligent there, as both his father and his uncle were when they went to the local comprehensive. I have every sympathy with parents who are just trying to do the best by their children.
There is no way of flattening the whole education system into a single standard. Even within the same school, a child may have a better or worse teacher, which will have a significant impact on their education. Flattening everything out can never be achieved while the human race is so infinitely various. Like all utopian socialist ideals, this goal simply ignores human reality, perhaps because it is proposed by those who don’t really believe in the existence of humanity: in the existence of rational beings who are radically free to make choices for themselves.
Still, the government’s energies are not best spent on reintroducing academic selection. The best way of ensuring that as many children as possible receive a decent general education, regardless of their background and despite the variability of teachers, is to produce a proper, knowledge rich national curriculum and a set of excellent resources for delivering it. This is the hard business of actually making decisions about what children should be learning and how they should be learning it. Fiddling about with systems of governance and selection is just a political sideshow in comparison to this.
Image: ‘Little Schoolboy of Bonmahon’ (circa 1915) by Edith Collier (1885-1964).