Covid-19 is about to expose the myth behind high school selection | Fiona Millar
Jummer holidays are approaching and no one knows what the new school year has in store for us. While normalcy no longer exists, one thing seems certain: at a time when one in two children in the country have had no tests or exams, the 11-plus, the most indestructible of English institutions, must continue, come what may. what can.
There are grammar schools in a quarter of English local authorities, 12 of which are fully selective. The grammars enroll far fewer children from disadvantaged homes, or with special needs or disabilities, or from certain minority ethnic groups than their neighboring schools.
Their existence is based on the idea that there are smart kids and everyone else, and that a series of tests over a few days in September can determine a 10-year-old’s abilities and potential.
Preparation and training shouldn’t be necessary, say their proponents, because fixed ability is an almost magical property that some children have, and others don’t. But even then, its definition varies. Some selective areas use some form of IQ test, others include curriculum-based material, such as math and English papers, which inevitably stray into the area of prior learning and achievement and fuel a lucrative private lessons industry.
So how do you manage this in the midst of a pandemic? Selective zones and individual grammar schools seem at odds. Some plan to run their tests as usual in Septemberothers hope to delay until later in the fall to look like they’re helping kids on the wrong side of the digital and income divide catch up.
The draft government guidelines, which have yet to be released, suggest sensitivity to allegations of inequality in this antediluvian process. At a time when ministers are trying to give the impression that more poor children may be pushed into selective schools, they are likely to fall behind so children have more time to prepare.
But it’s proof, if we ever needed it, that selection isn’t a fixed innate test of ability – and there is no such thing. If lost learning time makes it harder for students from certain backgrounds to pass the test, then more learning time – the norm for well-to-do families in the most selective areas – must make it easier.
Most scientific opinions agree that intelligence, potential, ability – whatever you call it – is a mixture of environment and heritability. The results of any test or examination are subject to conditions on the day and the degree of preparation. At the height of the selective era, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of children fell on the wrong side of the ability limit. 11+ is as much about luck and how much private tutoring your parents can afford, as it is about innate potential.
So what happens next? These must be anxious times for proponents of selection, now in a tangle of conflicting assertions that innate ability requires time to prepare.
But the worst may be yet to come. What happens in the fall if there are more lockdowns, and what about children and families who are sick or need to protect themselves? It is the poorest families and those from BAME backgrounds who have been hardest hit by Covid-19. Will they take their entrance exams at home (which is clearly not seen as a viable option for GCSEs and A levels)? Who will decide which child is eligible for a place in a grammar school without the test veneer?
Until then, the secondary transfer process will continue and it will be necessary to find another way of allocating the places without making it even more unfair. Lawyers will have a field day.
There is a simple solution. Grammar schools could admit full intake like everyone else. The sky would not fall and there could be benefits. Some families might be pleasantly surprised by their non-selective local schools. The rest of us could see how the seemingly superior teaching of high schools coped with more diverse intakes.
A fudge will likely be found. High schools have always played by a different set of rules. They get a golden ticket in Ofsted rankings and inspections because of their input. In normal years, parents learn if their children passed the test before making other secondary requests, so as not to lose preference. The metrics used to judge others – closing the gaps for example – are largely irrelevant to them.
But Covid-19 may be about to expose the myth behind selection in a way that generations of anti-selection activists, myself included, have failed to do. Human potential is not fixed and quantifiable on a random day in September. It is something that can be nurtured and can grow. Thousands of comprehensive schools in England are experts in helping all young people succeed, regardless of their background. Let’s give high schools a chance to try.