We’ve all seen the picture of the seven animals lined up in front of a tree as a suited gentleman says to them, “For a fair selection everybody has to take the same exam: please climb that tree”. The insinuation is clear: educational equality can in fact, be inherently unequal. The goldfish in a bowl of course, could not climb the tree, where the monkey obviously could. So why do we educate our children on the same criteria knowing full well that some are better suited to the environment than others? One answer to this may be that standardised testing helps us identify which children have acquired the expected levels of understanding of a subject matter. What this does is create a culture of polarisation between those who ‘can’ and those who ‘cannot’; the winners and losers in a supposedly balanced meritocracy. What this does not do, is account for the equality of opportunity.
This is a very worn out educational debate, every educationalist, politician, journalist, parent and their dog have had their say on the ‘diabolical’ state of British education. Better known cases such as Sir Ken Robinson’s “Changing Education Paradigms”, Prince Ea’s “I JUST SUED THE SCHOOL SYSTEM” and the occasional post on how great Finland is, dominate social media with their middle-finger-to-the-system ideas. Student-led education has become very popular among liberal progressives who want to move away from a system of winners and losers, to one where the student is empowered by the school to guide their own learning. These ideas are utopian nonsense to some and the final coming of the Marxist revolution to others, but the controversy of indicators in modern-day schooling is analogous of the issue we face today with our grammar schools. Up until now the grammar school had remained a relatively quiet elephant in the room, troubling a small, but loud group of adversaries. Since Chancellor Phillip Hammond’s announcement earlier this month to introduce additional funding for selective free schools however, the voice of opposition to grammars has grown exponentially.
At the center of the grammar school debate is the notion that these institutions cement the social inequalities that they are, in theory, intended to eliminate. Their geographical positioning and freedom to select based upon academic ability is meant to equip them with the means to filter out the brightest and the best pupils, regardless of their socio-economic background. The narrative of the opposition however, has cast them as institutions of social control, dominated by the middle classes. Those who ‘could afford to move near a grammar school, or ‘could afford the tutoring needed for the 11-plus’ were the real winners. Regardless of whether this narrative is true or false, the sensitive topic of social mobility has provided a smokescreen for the real underlying issue that is so deeply manifested in the ideology of the grammar school.
I have already mentioned academic ability as a measurement for selection – this is our indicator of interest. The very existence of the grammar school shows that we know that modern schooling is better suited to some young people and not others. The very premise of selection is based upon choosing those children who are supposedly, already capable of manoeuvring their way through the school system with more ease than that of their peers who miss out. In principle, selection says to 95% of nation’s schoolchildren that they are the goldfish in the bowl.
Like private schools, the grammar school is often defended for its supposed ability to cover the shortcomings of the comprehensive. Commonly upheld as a ‘we-wouldn’t-need-them-if-the-comprehensive-system-wasn’t-so-bad’ perspective. To some extent this holds some weight and resonates with many parents, however, it is fundamentally flawed in its assumption that the grammar and the comprehensive do the same job. They do not. As discussed above, the grammar has the liberty to select ‘schoolable’ children. So where our idea of ‘schoolability’ is constructed upon test scores and academic achievement, we legitimise the inaccurate profiling of winners and losers. We authorise the view that the grammar provides ‘better’ education. The danger in this being that it both misinterprets and devalues the common understanding of the word ‘education’, painting it out as a privilege permitted only to those that ‘can’.
This message then resonates throughout all levels of schooling, strengthening the paradigm of division within a self-sustaining cycle. Breaking this cycle is not about wrapping British schoolchildren in cotton wool, to protect them from the dangers of failure – failure is a vital element of learning. It is however, about saying to the next generation that they are not second-class in the world of education, simply because certain systems favour the strengths and the privileges of the few.