The BBC are reporting an interesting speech by David Cameron in which the leader of the Conservative party describes the rough shape the British education system might take if he were to be elected as Prime Minister.
The chunk of the speech I’m going to focus on covers Dave’s views about the future of selection:
Mr Cameron, distancing himself from Conservative sympathies for the grammar system, said: “I want to say absolutely clearly, the Conservative party that I am leading does not want to go back to the 11-plus, does not want to go back to the grammar school system.”Well, I say hoorah to that old bean, and a round of champers to you and all your pals.
And he dismissed the “backwards looking” arguments over admissions and selection – arguing instead that instead of debating school structures, the central issue was raising standards in state schools.
The mechanism for this would be to increase the use of “setting”, in which pupils of different abilities would be taught in different groups within a school.
The fight over Grammar schools vs Comprehensives is one of the great symbolic rucks of British political life. I’d bet reasonable money that if you were to buttonhole a randomly selected member of any Conservative Association in the country the probability would be that they’d be hard-pressed to choose between the return of the 11-plus and that of the birch as their most favoured policy measure; and on the other hand, that the utterances of the average member of the Labour party when asked for their views about Mr Tony’s obvious preference for Grammar schools would not be printable on a family blog like this one.
I’m pretty firmly on the Comprehensive side, which is why I welcome Cameron’s comments, and like the Deputy Prime Minister, I have some autobiographical explanation for my gut feeling on this score.
I was a relatively late developer academically, and spent most of my early years looking for the pencil I’d just lost. (I don’t think my first teachers would have been at all surprised that I ended up pursuing postgraduate studies in philosophy given my evident talent for staring abstractedly out of the window.) I was fine with words, but couldn’t seem to get the hang of maths at all. I’m told that it’s a very strong possibility that I might easily have failed the 11-plus given my complete lack of interest in the whole numeracy thing at that age.
As it happened, I had some very good maths teaching when I was in my early teens, which got me through my ‘O’-level with a respectable mark after a lot of diligent slogging. And at the same time, I had some absolutely inspirational, life-changing teaching in History and English that set me on course for Oxford. Because in the school I attended I could be placed in a top set for the latter subjects and a much lower one for the former, I was taught at a level which, in each case, pretty much fitted my aptitude. (Later, when I came across the branch of maths called Logic, a different side of my brain started to wake up a bit.)
The relevance of this bit of personal detail is that I had the good fortune to attend an excellent Comprehensive school in a small English market town. It was genuinely comprehensive in that my classmates really did include the children of doctors and dustman. There was no real reason for anyone to send their offspring to the private school down the road unless they were trying to buy an accent, so very few did.
There was a pretty decent school orchestra in which I played the viola astoundingly badly, an excellent cricket team which they were quite right never to let me anywhere near, and most of the other accoutrements of what we may as well call a good school, including a pretty horrible uniform. Amongst my peers I can count a reasonable smattering of City solicitors, NHS consultants, and architects. I take it that by conventional standards, this counts as success.
Now, I know very well that things can be different in big cities, and that the Comprehensive ideal has fared less well in large parts of London, for instance. I know good-hearted people whose gut instincts are pretty much mine, but who face a pretty nasty dilemma when they consider how they should handle their own kids’ education given the state of their local schools. Since I don’t have children of my own, I’m certainly not going to judge their choices.
But I do feel that it must be a particularly good thing for the Conservative leader to be both blowing the whistle on the 11-plus and insisting that the way forward is to figure out how to tailor teaching to individual pupils in the context of a single school.
I’d add that the party that proposes making the rhetoric of parental choice real by assigning pupils to schools in a particular area by lot will have a serious claim on my vote.