So Theresa May has announced the governments’ plans to revitalize selectivity in the UK’s education infrastructure, including a move to re-expand the grammar school systems. Basically, it’s a chance to dust off the old ‘Talent Spotting for Teachers’ manual. Labour has been quick to criticise the move as a socially backwards step, fuelling systemic inequality in our schools. It’s a standpoint echoed by Ofsted’s chief inspector and indeed the expert consensus (but then again, this country’s apparently had enough of experts so who cares what they think, right?)
The Prime Minister bemoaned in her announcement the “arbitrary rule preventing selective schools from being established – sacrificing children’s potential because of dogma and ideology”. It’s a fair frustration and you can see where she’s coming from. Parents want the best possible education for their children, we can all agree on that at least, and at the end of the day who wouldn’t fork out extra money to secure that if they’re in the fortunate position of being able to afford it. However, the point she’s trying to make is a little undercut by the irony of her language. After all, isn’t selectivity the ideological yang to inclusivity’s yin? Is this not simply exchanging one dogma for another? When it comes to education, exactly how much should any particular philosophy dictate the system anyway? If education is indeed the silver bullet to the problems of tomorrow, then which mechanism for delivering it really gets the best results?
May’s describing the present system as constrained against this ‘arbitrary rule’ of inclusivity reminds one of a similarly principled initiative under George W. Bush, that characterized education in the United States from 2001 until only last year: the No Child Left Behind Act. Like this country’s grammar school system, the Act introduced standardized tests, albeit for all students rather than just 11 year olds, conducted on an annual basis, and the standards decided on a state-by-state basis. The Act also introduced measures for tackling institutions that failed to demonstrate ‘Adequate Yearly Progress’. Like what May advocates, it’s a sound idea on principle, as is meritocracy in general, but in practice both have proven in the past to be comparatively narrow visions. With No Child Left Behind, it manifested most by enforcing teaching methods and programs only based on scientific evidence and research. Qualitative data (case studies, discourse analysis etc.) was not considered an appropriate basis for making decisions on education, and so the Act gave rise to a ‘teaching to the test’ culture for fear of a school failing to raise test scores in the eyes of the state.
Admittedly, in recent years it’s not like the UK is guiltless of leaning towards this culture either, something worth remembering as the country gears up for what looks set to be a contentious discussion on the matter. We all want our children to have the best shot in life, and different students have different skills and talents. On these, we are all unanimous. How we differ is on how to maximise both, and how able we are to make progress on one without it being at the expense of the other. Standardizing may bear ominous connotations, but it is arguably more beneficial to a collective generation of students than the individual, and it has a track record of improving social mobility. On principle however, it is a great injustice to deny any child the ability to maximise their talents through a more selective process. But what Theresa May and Justine Greening’s vision for British education, and No Child Left Behind seem to have in common above all is an alarmingly knee-jerk dismissal of the merits of alternative ideologies to their own. Surely the solution to any systemic problems in this area isn’t simply a brand spanking new package in its entirety, but rather a greatest hits compilation made from the whole spectrum of institutional education.
They say education’s a silver bullet. I say it’s a Swiss Army penknife.