The UK Government’s proposal to extend the use of selection in the process of allocating spaces in secondary schools doesn’t apply to Wales of course. I guess that means that it will be classified as an ‘England-only’ measure in the House of Commons meaning that Welsh MPs – including Owen Smith – will not have an input to the decision, no matter how much they huff and puff with indignation. The Conservatives in Wales and their ideological chums in UKIP will, no doubt, renew their demands that Wales should follow suit, and open selective schools here.
To listen to the opponents in Labour’s ranks, one would think that they are totally opposed to selection in education. But that simply isn’t true – we have selection now, including here in Wales, but it’s selection based on wealth rather than ability. Whilst it’s true that there are fewer private schools in Wales than in England, and their role in the education system here has always been more peripheral, they do still exist, and in any event, parents can always send their children over the border to an English school if they wish. It’s an aspect of the education system which Labour has, at the very least, tolerated for generations, and they still show no sign of wanting to end that selectivity.
Over and above that, sending children to private schools isn’t the only way in which wealth can help secure a ‘better’ education. Again, this is less common in Wales than in England, but the use of private tutors and the ability to move into the catchment area of the ‘best’ schools are options which are simply not open to all parents.
On the Tory side, whilst the argument that it is better to select on ability than on wealth has a certain ring to it, there’s a lot left unsaid by such a simplistic formulation. The first and most obvious questions are how we define ‘ability’ - and then how we measure it. Plus – where is the evidence justifying the choice of 11 as the magic age when children’s ability and potential can definitively be judged? Even if there were clear evidence that it is even possible to assess the long term academic potential of children from one simple test, given that children develop at different rates, how has the catch-all age of 11 been set as the basis for making a determination?
It strikes me that a lot of those arguing for selection are really pining for the past; a golden age (in their memory at least) when the old certainties held sway. It was a time when the middle class sheep were largely separated from the working class goats (although a small number of the latter were allowed in as long as they showed the potential to become middle-class sheep in time). But effectively it wrote off the potential of a lot of children at the age of 11. Some overcame that with time, but a lot did not.
One of the great failures of the comprehensive system in the UK has been that, for all the well-meaning words, we have still not succeeded in giving equal value to different types of ability and success. Schools and pupils are judged as being successes or failures overwhelmingly on the basis of exam scores, rather then on the contribution they make to society as a whole. In that sense, at least, it’s true that comprehensive education has not lived up to its promise - but is that the fault of the approach or of those making judgements on such a narrow basis?