In praise of selection and educational elites

The Belfast Telegraph is giving away mock 11+ papers each day this week. A reminder, if such were needed, Northern Ireland sits outside the emerging consensus on the undesirability of grammar schools. However, that’s not how the Economist sees it. It argues not simply that selection is good, but that the real problem is that government is not fully harnessing the power of the market ensure resources flow the ‘hard to teach’ kids as well as to the bright poor.

The British system produces some world-class high-flyers, mainly in its private schools and the 164 selective state “grammar” schools that survived the cull in the 1960s and 1970s when the country moved to a non-selective system. But it serves neither its poor children nor its most troublesome ones well. The best state schools, especially the grammar schools, are colonised by the middle classes, and the whole system is disfigured by a long straggling tail of non-achievers.

Last week David Willetts, the Conservative education spokesman, set out what the Tories would do to rectify these failings. He said a lot of sensible things about freeing up the supply side in education and opening lots more independent state schools in poor areas. But the headlines came from his announcement that if the Tories came to power, they would open no more of their cherished grammar schools: in his view, they are no longer a ladder for the poor but bright.

In political terms, the move seemed an odd mixture of bravery (reacting to statistical evidence, caring about social mobility) and cynicism (despite now thinking that selection is a bad idea, the Tories will keep the existing grammar schools and their middle-class votes). Either way, it was a mistake: selection—and, yes, even elitism—are useful.

The old argument against the grammar-school system was that by selecting the brightest it condemned the masses to the scrapheap. But the point of a market is that competition brings innovation. If decisions on how to select pupils were really delegated to schools, some would undoubtedly offer a highly academic education to those with the ability to thrive on it. Others would specialise in music, or fine arts, or technical subjects—or, indeed, children who are hard to teach (especially if the latter came with the most state money). This point helps answer another longstanding concern—that, by creaming off the brightest, grammar schools are short-changing the average child, who loses the benefit of their company. That would be less of a worry if the alternatives to a highly academic education also become more attractive.

The new concern, rightly raised by the Tories, is that grammar schools no longer help enough clever poor children. Mr Willetts worries about meritocracy. Here his diagnosis seems right, but his remedy wrong. With richer parents coaching their children furiously, the few grammar schools that remain are largely middle-class enclaves: only 2% of their students are entitled to free school meals, compared with 12% in their local areas. This is indeed a shocking figure. But it is surely an argument for better early teaching for poor children or building more selective secondary schools, not an argument to abandon even that 2% by banning academic selection.

Social mobility is a good thing, and the Tories are right to want to foster it. But so is an elite. After all, there’s not much point in moving upwards if there’s nowhere to go.

  • Ziznivy

    Good article.

  • pondersomething

    Encouraging to see Cameron recognise that two-tier Education is no more appropriate than two-tier Healthcare in today’s United Kingdom.

  • The debate on this contentious subject usually turns on whether there should be selection or comprehensive schooling. I think there is a more significant argument.

    The real choice is whether you have selection that is as fair and open as possible, or a covert form of selection where success depends on the parents being of the right religion or able to afford houses in the right catchment areas.

    That’s the legacy of comprehensive schooling and those who scream blue murder at the thought of up-front selection should decide whether they want fair selection or unfair selection.

  • joeCanuck

    There is no selection in Canada and we turn out lots of graduates and our fair share of high flyers.

  • barnshee


    Yeah all those illiterate innumerate students all went to canadian universities and graduated??

    Says a lot for standards or maybe the universities had entrance criteria

  • joeCanuck

    Since when did “lots” = “all”?

  • heck

    The US has no selection and it’s population produces more than its fair share of high flyers. As to barnshee’s comments about universities, I went as an undergraduate to Queens and a graduate student in the US and the university students are as talented in the US.

    Selection is nothing more than class based apartheid.

  • “Selection is nothing more than class based apartheid.”

    Oh ffs hang on til I go vomit.

    That’s better. If I had a choice between academic selection and economic selection I know which sounds better.

  • Selection Sucks


    “I went as an undergraduate to Queens and a graduate student in the US and the university students are as talented in the US.”

    The quality of students, teaching and research at any of the tier one schools in the US is infinitely superior to anything you’ll find in Ireland.

    As for the 11+, yet another reminder that norn iron is well and truely stuck in the dark ages.

  • heck

    Selection Sucks,

    I agree with you. I read what I had written (quickly during my lunch break-and I wasn’t clear.) I meant to say that university students in the US are as good as (or as you would say infinitely superior) to those in Ireland. The academic level of students at a major American university is very very impressive.

    I will stick with “as good as” because I have met some really bright Irish (and British!) students, but the idea that selection turns out superior university students is total nonsense.

    In spite of what beano says, selection IS about class. The grammar schools enable the Mrs. Buckets (from keeping up appearances!) of the world to pretend that their offspring go to a public school-lite. The shop owner’s daughter will not have to mix with the miner’s son. The whole ethos of a grammar school is that of a watered down British public school while the secondary modern tells kids that they are set for a life servitude.

    Selection at 11 should be eliminated. Adulthood is time enough for separating people on class lines. While I believe in a meritocracy all children should be given the same opportunity to succeed in life. Suggestions that selection is about education is elitist hogwash.

    My solution—put Martin McGuinness back in charge of education.

  • Gerry Kelly

    Grammar schools make sense. It gives the downwardly mobile a chance to reverse direction through hteir kids, rather than the bomb and the bullet route McGuinness etc used.
    The British government igivng grants fir kids like PH Pearse to do the Inter was the saving of the Christian Brothers (insert your own silly joke here).
    Most American university students are thick simply because there is no selection. Any of you see this:

  • New Yorker


    You said “the US has no selection” – the US has plenty of selection. There are exams and a selection process for virtually all private and elite public (non-private) secondary schools. The same goes for all colleges and universities. Are you sure you were in the US?

  • Encouraging to see Cameron recognise that two-tier Education is no more appropriate than two-tier Healthcare in today’s United Kingdom.

    Oh, you mean he’s promised to shut his old school down then?

    Oh, silly me, he means selection isn’t appropriate for the proles. Elite public schools will, of course, continue to select ruthlessly and provide their pupils with a network of contacts that ensures they float to the top.

    The US has no selection and it’s population produces more than its fair share of high flyers.

    This is a stupid comment on so many levels ikts difficult to know where to start. In fact, it’s a prime example of what the American education system produces!

    a. The USA has the lowest level of social mobility of any developed country – that’s not all about education, but education plays a major role.
    b. The US education system is beset by apalling class and race disparities in outcome.
    c. Private education in the USA is as selective as anything that exists elsewhere, and educates a vastly larger proportion of the school population than our virtually non-existent private school sector in NI.
    d. The US school system produces so few potential scientists and engineers that the US raids the brain factories of China, India and Eastern Europe for thousands of qualified scientists, engineers and graduate students every year.
    e. The US has a university system that still asks multiple-guess questions at Masters’ level. I mean, wise up!

    It’s not that the best in the US isn’t excellent – it obviously is. But there’s a long, long, tail in educational performance in the USA and it certainly isn’t a model to be emulated.

    PS – unless you allocate children to schools by random lottery, there will always, always be selection, and it will always, always be manipulated by the middle-classes to their best advantage. There’s no point saying “It think children should…”. That’s like saying “I think it should only ever rain at night.”

  • Cahal

    Sammy, the simple fact is that US universities turn out the best students and the best research. Why do you think all those Asians and Europeans go there?

    The reason there are so few US born scientists and engineers is that the brightest US students can make a ton more money doing an MBA, a law degree or MD.

    As for the multiple choice Masters degree questions…..I’ve never seen or heard of that before. Where did you see that?

    Speaking of Master’s degrees, an MS is a 2 year program in the US invloving research and extensive graduate level course work. In Ireland it invloves taking a few more classes for 12 months.

  • Bohereen

    Do all the people who complained that the transfer tests were some form of torture realise that each and every Primary Five child will sit computer generated tests in maths and English in September and October this year? These are called Incas tests.

    Although they will be externally marked, in Durham Uni, I believe, the conditions in which the pupils sit them are entirely up to the school.

    Without the externally marked and supervised transfer tests being available to select pupils for the grammar schools, these tests will surely be the basis for grammar heads to select their pupils.

    It stinks.

  • heck

    Come on Sammy, you have really gone over the top. The suggestion was made that selection at 11 was good because it produced a better caliber of university student. My reply, based on my experience having attended Queens and two universities in the US, was that this was nonsense. Of course there are problems with the US education system. No one can deny that but there are also problems with Nor Iron’s education, including the fact that they condemn 75% of kids as failures at 11.

    You are right that there is de facto selection based on race and income in the US and this is a bad thing but this is not state policy. We all know about local governments busing students from one side of town to another to try and correct it. In the United States race is often a substitute for class and the reason a lot of whites took their kids out of the public school system and put them in private schools is because they didn’t want their delicate sons and daughters mixing with poorer black kids. That is the same reason that middle class Belfast parents want their kids in grammar schools and not mixing with kids from the Falls or the Shankill.

    In my own part of North Belfast I know of catholic parents who send their kids to BRA and this seems to me to be a status statement rather that and educational one.

    As to “The US school system produces so few potential scientists and engineers that the US raids the brain factories of China, India and Eastern Europe for thousands of qualified scientists, engineers and graduate students every year” can we say that the fact that there are Pilipino and African nurses in Norn Iron means that selection results in a failed education system.

    Anyone who suggests that selection at 11 produces better university needs their head examined. Telling a kid at 11 that he or she is a failure is just plain cruel.