Friday, 23 September 2016

How much has really changed?

I’m more than a little confused about the education policy of the Conservatives in Wales.  At one level, I welcome the statements made this week that they don’t want to follow the policy of the English Government in reinstating grammar schools, and that selection at 11 is divisive.  But how much of a change in policy is this in reality?
In 2013, they proposed reintroducing the “best elements” of the old grammar school system into Welsh education, but without re-introducing the 11+ exam.  The meaning of “best elements” wasn’t spelled out as far as I can see, but in essence, they were proposing a “dual education system” where children were split into two streams at 14.  “Best elements” seemed to amount to “selection at 14”; if that isn’t what they meant, then I don’t know what they were saying.
According to a BBC report, this was a proposal which didn’t find its way into their manifesto for the 2016 election.  However in the leaders’ debates prior to the election, Andrew RT Davies was still making the same vague and unspecific argument for incorporating the “best elements” of the grammar school system into the Welsh education system.  Again, if that did not mean splitting pupils into two streams in some shape or form, then I really don’t know what he was talking about. 
What they did say in their 2016 manifesto (albeit by implication rather than outright statement) was that they were still wedded to one key element of the 2013 proposals, namely that there should be a new post 14 phase in education allowing the promotion of a more skills-based approach.  It sounded to me then, and still does re-reading it today, as though they still intended to introduce some sort of differentiation into two streams at 14, although it wasn’t made clear whether their intention was to achieve that by pupil choice or through some form of selection.
Nothing in their statements this week says that they’ve backtracked on their post 14 proposals.  My suspicion is that the apparent opposition to an 11+ exam isn’t the change of heart as which it’s been presented, and certainly isn’t actually opposition to selection at all.  Merely changing the age at which selection occurs or the form which that selection takes isn’t the same thing as opposing selection in principle. 
There is an underlying ‘truth’ behind the argument for grammar schools, and that is that not all children respond well to a particular approach to learning and not all children have a natural aptitude for all subjects.  However, the jump from that to a selective system (or “dual system” to use the Welsh Tories’ preferred euphemism) depends on accepting a number of other much less well-evidenced assumptions, namely:
·         That there is a particular age for all children at which this difference becomes apparent
·         That it applies to all subjects
·         That it cannot be coped with in a single learning institution and requires that children be split into two distinct categories.
What the evidence inescapably shows is that, however ‘objective’ the tests used to split children into groups may be, one of the prime determinants of where children in a selective system end up is parental income.  It’s not a 100% correlation, of course – a fact which supporters of selection twist into a suggestion that selection supports ‘social mobility’.  But for those who are not selected, it actually entrenches social immobility, and it invests more in the education of the selected.  I’m not convinced that the Tories’ position this week actually moves them very far from their traditional stance in support of that.


Anonymous said...

UKIP have also raised the reintroduction of Grammar Schools in Wales this week and now Wales is heartily endorsing UKIP policies I reckon the Tories and UKIP will eventually get their way and Grammar Schools will be back in Wales in the near future with the help of Labour, Lib Dem and Plaid Cymru capitulation in the Assembly.

Anonymous said...

Well, I am no expert in the matter of education but I do know that I was educated wretchedly in a comprehensive school with class sizes of 32 and over. Quite how anyone is expected to learn in such an environment is beyond me.

For sure the more schools we have, and the more types of schools (assumedly all well funded), the greater the competition for pupils and the better the choice for parents. I see no reason why grammar schools can't be part of this mix. Faith schools too. And plenty of other types of school. And I like the idea of multiple entry (and exit) points for all. Small class sizes and plenty of choice. What's not to like.

Gone should be the days when you take GCSE's at a certain age and A'levels two years later. It should all be about taking these important exams at an time when you are ready to take them, at a time when you will be sure of passing them. But pass them you must, academically inclined child or not.

If all kids are better educated they can secure better employment and better employment invariably leads to greater household prosperity. Social mobility becomes irrelevant. Everyone is educationally mobile!

For sure not all kids have a natural aptitude for all subjects. Or so we have always been told. But we know this is tosh and it's time we staring shouting it from the rooftops. All kids can and will learn everything and anything we choose to teach them, it's just a question of how we set about the 'teaching', and having the time and the patience.

As for the matter of parental income being a prime determinant in a selective system I don't see the problem. Parents should be encouraged to work hard, to accumulate wealth and to spend it in a manner of their choosing. What better way to spend than on their own child's education? If we have enough schools all furiously competing for new pupils and all pupils being educated to the exact same level, irrespective of school type and funding, the only differentiator is time. How long does it take each and every kid to work his or her way through the schooling system.

And with everybody living longer these days the one thing we can be certain of is that out kids have time. Plenty of time to be kids and plenty of time to learn as kids.

John Dixon said...

There's a lot there that I'd debate, but I'll stick to just this one point:

"As for the matter of parental income being a prime determinant in a selective system I don't see the problem. Parents should be encouraged to work hard, to accumulate wealth and to spend it in a manner of their choosing." You make it sound so easy - all we need to do to eliminate differences in parental income is encourage people to work hard and save. What colour is the sky on your planet, I wonder?

Cibwr said...

I have no problem with setting, I have huge problems with streaming. The idea that all children are universally good or bad at all subjects simultaneously is clearly not born out in reality. Some subjects work best in mixed ability groups and some in same ability groups. Grammar and Secondary Modern schools failed as they had exclusive curricula that decided what role you would have in society at 11. We need a more nuanced approach where we tailor choices based on the needs of the pupil, which means a mix of vocational and academic studies with a broad base to give a rounded education - to give the pupils the tools for life. Not to train for a specific job or role in life.

Anonymous said...

Imagine a country where no-one can earn a living from driving. No driving a train, no driving a bus, a lorry, a van, a forklift, a taxi, a tractor, an ambulance and so on.

This is just what is going to happen in ten years time, there will be no jobs for drivers.

Now perhaps we can start to understand why teaching is way too important a profession to be left in the hands of teachers. Teachers who dislike streaming but rush to categorise their pupils as academic and non-academic. Long gone are the days when anyone should be allowed to describe a child, any child, as 'non-academic'. Children are there to teach. They must be taught!

We've had sixty years of excuses from teachers. It's time we demanded better results.