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This house supports selective education
This house supports selective education
Selection can take various forms but for the purpose of this debate it means the overt selection by ability, usually on the basis of a test. This usually happens at secondary level; very few primary schools are selective. Selection does occur in higher education, however this is a separate topic and will not be covered here.
Comprehensive schools, on the other hand, are mixed-ability and pupils are accepted regardless of their ability. The vast majority of education systems in developed countries are now comprehensive. Nordic countries are almost completely comprehensive, whilst German-speaking countries tend to be almost completely selective with a three tier system. English-speaking countries do have some features of both; England is almost completely comprehensive but has retained 164 Grammar schools, where, like some schools in some states in USA and Australia, pupils are selected following an exam. But what are the costs and benefits of each system? Which produces more equal outcomes? Does one produce more intelligent, more employable individuals than the other? Who does selection actually benefit? The debate below will focus on the arguments for and against comprehensive and selective systems and will look at each perspective in greater detail.
|Points For||Points Against|
|Selection makes it easier for teachers||Comprehensive Education has had proven success|
|Selective schools get better results||Comprehensive systems create more equal outcomes|
|Selection bypasses discrimination by social background and can help with social mobility||There is no good way of dividing up children so they all go to the right school for them.|
|Schools should cater for individuality in children||Comprehensive schools have a more diverse population which teaches pupils may positive virtues|
Remember to choose a winning argument!
Selection makes it easier for teachers
Teachers are the most important resource in the classroom, without them students have nobody to lead them. However often teachers are poorly paid to 'manage' a classroom of poorly behaved students. Even though most teachers may see their work as a vocation, such pressures can cause stress and depression. The National Union of Teachers estimates that half of all teachers in the UK have considered leaving the profession citing the above factors as the basis of this1. This poor behaviour of the students may have a multitude of causes such as frustration that the lesson is too hard or too easy. In selective classes teachers can target a certain level at the class and don't have to try to cope with a wide range of abilities, thus allowing the teacher to fulfil their chosen vocation rather than to only discipline the students.
1 'Stress of term time is putting teachers' mental health at risk, says NUT' (2009) accessed on 16/06/2011,
In no school can there ever be a class of identical ability, even in selective schools, there is a divergence. The mark of a good teacher is in being able to juggle varying abilities and differentiate the lesson appropriately. This should be an important focus in teacher training courses. Giving teachers an easy time is a poor way of justifying such an elitist education. In any case, the problem is a relative one; weaker students within a selective school may become unmotivated and perform less well than they would have done as more able students in a mixed-ability school.Improve this
Selective schools get better results
Selective schools consistently score higher in league tables1 because all the students are of a similar ability the teacher can teach to that level, stretching or supporting them as necessary. Bright children can make faster progress and study more subjects at a higher level. There will also be less bad behaviour as bright children won't be getting bored with a slow pace, and less able students won't feel left behind. For example, in 2006, the pupils in England's 164 grammar (selective) schools produced more than half the total number of A grade A-levels in 'harder' A-level subjects than those produced by pupils in up to 2,000 comprehensive school2.
1 'Losers in school league tables face closure' Polly Curtis, accessed on 15/05/2011
2 'The Comprehensive Failure' NGSA (National Grammar School Association), accessed 23/06/2011,
Yes, the pupils in selective schools get better academic results than mixed-ability ones because they have creamed off all the brightest students and exclude children who may have special educational needs. However it is misleading to say that selective schools have higher performance. According to the 2009 PISA survey the education systems with "high performance and an equitable distribution of learning outcomes tend to be comprehensive" and "in contrast, school systems that assume that students have different destinations with different expectations and differentiation in terms of how they are placed in schools, classes and grades often show less equitable outcomes without an overall performance advantage." Furthermore the proposition does not take into account the 'value added' (a measure of the progress students make between different stages of education) by comprehensive schools. Students in mixed-ability schools improve by being in them; whatever their ability level when they enter the school.
Selection bypasses discrimination by social background and can help with social mobility
Selection creates the opportunity for talented but financially unprivileged children to access academically excellent schools. The majority of parents are unable to afford private education and it is unfair to condemn children to a second rate education because of their parent's earning power. This creates a more mobile society in which your ability matters more than how well-off your parents are. For example in Northern Ireland, which has a system of differentiated education consisting of grammar schools, secondary moderns and no independent schools, 42% of students from the lower income groups go to university, compared with only 28% from similar income groups in England.1
1'Letter to David Cameron' NGSA (National Grammar School Association), accessed 10/08/2011,
For disadvantaged children to access the benefits of a grammar school requires that they pass an exam in the first place, demonstrating their ability, before receiving the education they so desperately need - a catch-22. The exam entry system merely keeps out those who need to get through, because they won't come from privileged backgrounds that groom them for passing the entrance exam. Melissa Benn states that "selective options within the state system tend also to benefit the middle class families; those with the knowhow and the spare cash to negotiate the shadowy world of tutors, Sunday schools and school scholarships, and of course the reassuring, winning manner when facing a headteacher's interview for a secondary school place"1. Furthermore, well-to-do parents will often buy houses in the catchment area of a good grammar school, and so effectively pay for education through their mortgage and in the process squeeze out low-earning families (The Undercover Economist- Tim Harford).
It is clear that disadvantaged students do not have equal representation in selective schools, in Germany pupils are allocated to schools based on their academic abilities, seemingly discounting any idea that pupils are selected according to their social background. However only 11% of working class children attend Gymnasiums (the more academic schools), while the percentage of children of civil servants remains at 50%2 and in UK only 2% of the Grammar school population receive free school meals, compared to the 14% national average (CASE). The disadvantages of pupils from the lower sections are maintained by the education system as they are streamed into the more vocational routes and separated from pupils from the higher sections of society who are placed within the academic route.
1'The Right to a Comprehensive Education; Second Caroline Benn Memorial Lecture given by Prof.Clyde Chitty of Goldsmith's College', 16 November 2002
2 Hans Hahn, Education and Society in Germany (Oxford: Berg, 1998)
Schools should cater for individuality in children
Children are different and there should be different kinds of schools to meet their individual needs and talents. Children with a talent for music or sport should go to special schools to help them develop their gifts. Less academic children need a vocational education – one that gives them useful skills to pre-pare them for the workplace. Bright children need more academic schools that push them to learn and achieve as much as they can. Selecting students by ability is the way to make sure we provide each one with the best type of education for them. For example in Germany pupils are streamed into a specific educational route at the age of 10 or 11 year olds where they largely remain for the remainder of their statutory education. A mixed-ability Gesamtschule was introduced “to pursue a common base for learning”1 but the majority of pupils enter the traditional selective system which is divided into three main types of secondary schooling. The Hauptschule offers some vocational-oriented courses as well as general subjects and leads to part-time enrolment in a vocational school combined with apprenticeship training until the age of 18; The Realschule leads to part-time and higher vocational schools and the Gymnasium, based on the classical education, leads to the Abitur and prepares students for university or a dual academic and vocational credential. It is possible for students with high academic achievement at the Realschule to switch to a Gymnasium on graduation. Germany scores higher than the average of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in maths and literacy and has continued to improve these scores over the years as well as raising the achievement of the lowest per-forming pupils (PISA).
1 Susanne Wiborg, ‘Education and Social Integration: a Comparative Study of the Comprehensive School System in Scandinavia’, London Review of Education (2002) 2, 2.Improve this
Children are different but they are all of equal value. With selective education brighter children are valued more highly because of the attitude society has to academia, and the rest end up in much worse schools. In mixed ability schools all children are valued equally and can learn a lot from each other. Weaker students gain a lot from having more able children in their class, and brighter ones can be stretched by being asked to help those who need support. Children are often good at some subjects but weaker at others so selection on ability can make little sense. Such differences are best catered for by having streaming within a mixed-ability school. Furthermore, in such a school pupils can still get individual attention based on their ability. For example, Finland is almost completely comprehensive structure and the Finnish Ministry of Education states that within this, "all children are guaranteed opportunities for study and self-development according to their abilities". Germany may score above average but countries such as Finland consistently score 1st or 2nd in reading and maths (PISA) whilst retaining a comprehensive system of education.Improve this
Comprehensive Education has had proven success
In UK, comprehensive schooling has undoubtedly been one of success. Since the introduction of comprehensive schools in the UK in the mid-1960s there has been an increase in the proportion of entries achieving 'top' grades or their equivalent1. Studies have proven that selective education gives no advantage whatsoever and that pupils from comprehensive schools do better at university in comparison to their counterparts at selective schools. A report in the UK by the Sutton Trust2 found that a comprehensive school student with A-level grades BBB for example is likely to perform as well in their university degree as an independent or grammar school student with A-level grades ABB or AAB – i.e. one to two grades higher. Comprehensive school pupils also performed better than their similarly qualified independent and grammar school counterparts in degrees from the most academically selective universities and across all degree classes, awarded to graduates in 2009. This may be they feel they have to work harder to compete against the selective school students, who take their abilities for granted and don’t work so don’t work as hard.
1‘The Right to a Comprehensive Education; Second Caroline Benn Memorial Lecture given by Prof.Clyde Chitty of Goldsmith’s College’, 16 November 2002 available at http://www.socialisteducation.org.uk/CB2.htm
2The Sutton Trust (2010), ‘Comprehensive students outperform independent and grammar pupils in university degrees’ accessed on 15/06/2011, available at http://www.suttontrust.com/news/news/comprehensive-pupils-outperform/Improve this
If more people are achieving the same level this downgrades the value they have. Is this of any benefit to the future development and competitiveness of the world? A country's standing in the world economy depends on a skilled workforce and jobs that can be filled by educated people. For the best to be stretched they need to be challenged and educated to the top. Selective education produces these world-beaters. In today's world the best brains possible are needed. Country's economic futures depend on education and technology, and making the most of the abilities of all citizens. Selective schools do this by allowing bright children from all social backgrounds to get a high quality education. They can then become the researchers, engineers and business leaders of the future.Improve this
Comprehensive systems create more equal outcomes
It is notable that all the countries PISA identified as equal have comprehensive systems of education at a lower secondary level, whereas amongst the most unequal countries three have selective secondary systems and two have highly marketised comprehensive systems. Unlike Germany, Finnish pupils are not selected and remain in mixed-ability classes until upper secondary schooling. PISA showed that Finland has low variation between schools and high ranking academic scores which is attributed to its egalitarian comprehensive structure of schooling. PISA found that in Germany variation between schools was almost twice the OECD average, calculated at contributing to 66.2% of student performance, showing that the type of school a pupil attends has a huge impact on their educational outcomes. This figure is less in the other countries, accounting for 23.5% in the UK and 4.7% in Finland1, showing that the type of school a pupil attends has less effect in UK and Finland than Germany. Finland was also one of the countries with the narrowest gap between highest and lowest performing pupils.
1 The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), accessed on 16/06/2011,
It is a bit premature to look at Germany's 15 year olds in isolation from the rest of the nation. Although PISA shows that Germany produces unequal outcomes amongst 15 year olds the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) shows that these inequalities level out amongst adults. According to this survey Germany's measure of skills inequality in adults is 1.17, one of the lowest within OECD countries. So, despite the selection and inequalities at lower secondary level it seems Germany is still fulfilling the function of education to increase the skill and knowledge base of a nation. Furthermore, in the UK working class pupils are still under represented in universities and higher paid jobs and according to IALS only 15% of adults in UK have only the rudimentary level of literacy skills "making it difficult for them to cope with the rising demands of the information age". Thus unlike Germany the inequalities are never corrected but are reproduced and maintained in further education, the job market and society as a whole.
There is no good way of dividing up children so they all go to the right school for them.
Usually selection is done by an exam taken in the last year of primary school, like the 11+ in parts of the UK. Such tests are not a fair way of selecting children as this is too young to make a good measure of their abilities. The exam may test some things (e.g. Maths ability) more than others (e.g. language skills). And in a one-off test, any child may do badly – what if they were ill, or there was trouble at home? Some very bright children react badly to the stress of a test situation. And no one has yet come up with an exam that paid coaching cannot help with, so richer and pushier parents can give their children an advantage.Improve this
There is no magic way to select children by ability, but tests are a good way to decide. Every child in an area takes the same exam so their results can be compared fairly. Some types of test may be better than others but that is a reason for coming up with improved exams, not one for scrapping the whole system. In any case, testing is not the only way to choose the best school for students. An alternative to testing is to have primary school teachers advising on the best type of secondary school for each child. This is done in Germany with some success.Improve this
Comprehensive schools have a more diverse population which teaches pupils may positive virtues
Within a mixed school, pupils have the opportunity to mix with other pupils from different backgrounds including different social classes, cultures and This "provides the context for creating students' awareness of equity1, and provides stimulus for pupils to learn tolerance and understanding2. Comprehensives inculcate lots of positive virtues as a result of this diverse intake such as tolerance; appreciation of diversity; community; greater appreciation of opportunities given. Students will learn about working with others, of all abilities, outlooks and backgrounds and understand how challenging but rewarding it is for us to work together (CASE). Selective schools create social and racial segregation and findings have shown that cohesion benefits would flow from an end to selection in schools3.
1'Why does the school mix matter?: equity from the students' perspective' Stephen Gorard, Vanita Sundaram and Emma Smith, University of York, UK, September 2006, accessed on 20/06/2011
2'The Right to a Comprehensive Education; Second Caroline Benn Memorial Lecture given by Prof.Clyde Chitty of Goldsmith's College', 16 November 2002
3 DfES (Department of Education and Science), The Organisation of Secondary Education (Circular 10/65), (London: HMSO, 1965)
This argument is flawed as the pupil population in comprehensive schools is not always representative of the population as a whole. If a school has a good reputation, middle-class parents will take measures to ensure their child gains admission. For example parents moving to an area closer to the school, paying more for a house that parents on a lower income could not afford or lying about the faith of their child to gain admission to a ‘good’ faith school. This makes class divisions worse and is less fair than an entrance test for selective schooling.Improve this
Sirkka Ahonen,'From an Industrial to a Post-Industrial Society: changing conceptions of equality in education', Educational Review, (2002) 54:2, 173
DfES (Department of Education and Science), The Organisation of Secondary Education (Circular 10/65), (London: HMSO, 1965)
Hans Hahn, Education and Society in Germany (Oxford: Berg, 1998)
The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), accessed on 16/06/2011, available at http://www.oecd.org/pages/0,3417,en_32252351_32235731_1_1_1_1_1,00.html
Susanne Wiborg, ‘Education and Social Integration: a Comparative Study of the Comprehensive School System in Scandinavia’, London Review of Education (2002) 2, 2.
- The Grammar School Question: A Review of Research on Comprehensive and Selective Education - David Crook, Sally Power and Geoff Whitty
- The Reality of Selective Education - Ray Bryant
- Education Equality and the New Selective Schooling - Harry Brighouse
- A Tribute to Caroline Benn: Education and Democracy - Melissa Benn and Clive Chitty
- Education, Equality and Social Cohesion
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