The challenges of choice…

So, farewell then General Studies A-level, that much-mocked qualification beloved of too-busy-to-prepare-for-lessons headteachers who wanted to stay in touch with the classroom. It seems that offering this subject actually narrowed choices for our students beyond school because universities rated it (along with anthropology, engineering and performing arts) so badly.  Sometimes less can mean more in education.

Last Summer I had the privilege of editing a small collection of mini-essays by leading educationalists entitled ‘If I were Secretary of State for Education’.  You can read them online here. The responses from the contributors ranged from the idealistic to the pragmatic, from the worthy to the wise, and from the sensible to the impossible.  I will leave you to decide which fall into which category.  Ever since I finished reading these mini-manifestoes I have thought about what works, and what does not work, in schools.  And what struck me was how many perceived difficulties come with such choice.

Working in education today is exciting: I cannot recall a time when there was a comparable number of original thinkers working in every sector.  And, crucially, they are easily connected via social media and email.  Schools doing transformative things in the US (such as those implementing ideas promulgated by, among others, Doug Lemov, Angela Duckworth and Carol Dweck) see these ideas being rapidly adapted  successfully by schools around the world.  In the not-too-distant past such ideas would have taken years to cross the Atlantic.

In the UK we have one of the most complex educational landscapes in the world: private and maintained schools are only a part of a fragmented picture that now includes academies, free schools, studio schools, sixth form colleges and, as announced this month, the first new grammar school in fifty years. We live in a Wal-Mart of educational options.  We are spoilt for choice.

And so it might seem odd that enough parents feel that the solution to perceived academic underachievement is to reach back half a century to a model that has been out of favour with Prime Ministers ranging from Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair.  Or, perhaps more likely, they probably both felt that re-introducing greater selection through the 11+ was too toxic, and too costly among floating voters, for even their very secure administrations.  David Cameron, in the final four years of his Premiership, clearly feels no such inhibitions.

Such a decision, predictably, provoked a twitter storm of puffed-up indignation and virtue-signalling. This should be no surprise because, than most things in this country, education is something which everyone is an expert on (probably because everyone has experienced it). Furthermore,  it creates a visceral response unlike any other subject I know of:  Daisy Christodolou is right when she writes:

If you want to make yourself enemies in education, probably the best way to do so is to have a decided opinion about grammar schools. They are a litmus test for a whole range of other political and educational beliefs, particularly those to do with equality and elitism.

Personally, I celebrate diversity: a rich rainforest of schools meeting the different needs of a highly developed society is far better than a monochrome plantation that fits one model. In educational terms Britain’s school system differentiates, rather than aiming squarely at the middle.  And if you don’t like what you see then set up a free school and see if you can do better.  But what all schools need if they are to be real engines for social mobility are the resources to attract and retain good teachers.  It doesn’t really matter if those schools are called academies or grammar schools; indeed, such arguments are a distraction or, worse, a deception used to hide system-wide underfunding.

Very often those who scramble for the high moral ground often do so from different degrees of privilege: their local schools might be outstanding or, if they are not, they might be able to ‘game’ the system to ensure their children get into the best schools (as Giles Coren comments on provocatively here) and have access to private tutors to help boost grades. Either way, they are doing so from a relative position of power.  But for those without such power, who have no choice, and who cannot afford to pay for their children to go to a private school, having a good state school nearby is of profound importance.  

I have friends, both real and online, who are opposed to selection and elitism in education (although, strangely, they don’t mind either in areas such as sport, or business).  And when they opposed the new grammar school in Sevenoaks I asked them one simple question: if your child had the choice between going to a failing school in special measures, or an outstanding grammar school, which would you choose?  The choice, suddenly, becomes no choice at all.

Real choice, rather than the false choices offered by indistinguishable school models, or selection by postcode, matters.  Choice is deeply embedded into our everyday life, and it seems perverse to accept it at every opportunity except when it comes to our children’s futures.  The choices we make as adults involved in education should, at every step, put the life chances of our young people at their heart.  Too often, however, we play politics with their lives, choosing our preferences over theirs.