The Guardian’s view on selective sixths: elitism for teenagers | Editorial

A contradiction is at the heart of the British education system, and more particularly of the English system. This has been the case since most secondary schools in England moved from a selective to a comprehensive system in the 1960s. The contradiction is that the principle of co-education was never extended to higher education , which continues to be highly stratified. Entry into a handful of elite institutions remains the ultimate prize. As school politics sought to create a less divided society, in which people from different backgrounds were expected to mix, universities (and the policymakers who oversee them) clung to hierarchies. Data on admissions over the decades have shown that they were social as well as intellectual, with the better-off claiming a disproportionate share of the places.

The development of a new framework sixth form of super-selective state, which the government has pledged to accelerate as part of its race to the top strategy, is designed to address this. The all-rounders struggle to compete with the greenhouse conditions of independent schools and grammar schools, some of which have had ties to Oxbridge for centuries. A few academic elite sixth graders have had striking successes.

If the goal is to increase the chances of a handful of underprivileged teenagers getting their hands on one of those golden tickets, teaching them in a highly competitive environment might seem logical. The problem is that the goal of post-16 education is much broader than that. We need a system that benefits society as a whole, including devoting more resources to improving career options, as advocated by the three-year-old Augar report. The worrying signs are that the trend towards increased selection at 16 will amplify the harmful tendency to focus too much on the few, while ignoring the rest. while around 85% of 17 year olds in England are in full-time education, less than half of 16-18 year olds go to A-levels. The continuing education sector is currently fighting to save BTecs, whose replacement with T-levels has been delayed.

Of course, competition is part of life, which young people must learn to manage. The brightest sixths from the poor regions have every right to aim high. But increased selection brings defeats as well as successes. And there are good reasons to postpone painful experiences of rejection (the impact of failing 11-plus was one of the reasons why comprehensives replaced grammars in the first place). This is all the more urgent given the extremely disturbing evidence of deteriorating mental health among young people.

Education, and in particular skills and training, is essential to any strategy to reduce inequalities. The age of 16 (when most pupils take the GCSE) is a crucial stage. But there is no evidence that dividing students at this stage results in a higher level of achievement. The good results displayed by the selective sixths may simply show that they have succeeded in eliminating the most capable and determined members of a cohort.

The upgrade program promised by the Tories should have taken them straight to the colleges, which have been particularly hard hit by austerity, and also to the underfunded careers service. But instead of investing in local institutions, developing their links with employers and improving their offer to older learners, ministers have delivered on the promise of a few extra ladders to top universities, while cutting access to higher education in general. Elite sixth forms are a gimmick, not an answer to the question of how to level up.

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