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.