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Is Britain’s Experience with Selectivity Instructive for the US?

October 3, 2016

This past weekend the NYTimes published an op ed article on the impact of Britain’s shift away from selective grammar schools by Kenan Malik. Titled “Why Britain Fails in Class”, Malik gives a brief history of the English grammar school’s rise and fall since the end of World War II. Immediately after the war, Britain enacted a three tier system of schooling: grammar, technical and secondary moderns. The problem was that few “technical” schools were ever built and so Britain was left with two kinds of schools: grammar schools whose entrance was determined by a test given at age 11; and “secondary moderns” who presumably prepared children for vocational careers. By 1965, the British discovered what Americans should have discovered at that time but instead denied:

Over time, it became clear that what separated pupils in the two types of schools was not ability, but class. A vast majority of children in grammar schools were from middle-class backgrounds; a vast majority of poor children were condemned to secondary moderns. In 1965, the Labour government began replacing grammar schools and secondary moderns with a nonselective “comprehensive” system, under which all children went to a single type of state school.

Since 1965, the number of grammar school has declined to the point where only 3% of the schools are selective grammar schools and the rest are nonselective “comprehensive” schools. But, alas, the anticipated leveling of classes has not resulted. Instead, things have gotten worse!

A landmark 2005 study from the London School of Economics, which described social mobility in Britain as “low and falling,” showed that two children born, respectively, into poor and prosperous families in 1958 were more equal as adults than two similar children born in 1970. More recently, a 2010 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that on social mobility Britain came near the bottom of the class among rich nations.

Britain’s new Prime Minister, noting that the decrease in the number of selective grammar schools and the corresponding increase in the number of nonselective “comprehensive” schools has decreased social mobility, is advocating a return to the days when selective grammar schools were in place. But  Mr. Malik thinks otherwise:

The fact that neither selective nor nonselective school systems have improved social mobility in Britain might suggest that the problem lies in the very idea of using schools to engineer a more equal society. A decent education system can help a few individuals progress beyond the circumstances of their birth, but it is unlikely to change fundamentally the social and economic structures that entrench inequality and restrain social mobility.

In focusing on social mobility, what has gone missing is the idea of education as a good in itself. One of the reasons people regard grammar schools with nostalgia is that they seem to represent a standard of good education. But they do so for only a few.

At the heart of selective schooling is the assumption that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are better off getting “vocational” training rather than being intellectually challenged. The trouble is, that sentiment has persisted in the nonselective schools, too. The result is that Britain has ended up with a state system in which every child receives an equally mediocre education.

Mr. Malik concludes that social mobility decreased because “comprehensive” schools failed to adopt the higher standards of grammar schools and instead sought to provide less demanding and less challenging “vocational” training.

Can we learn anything from Britain’s failed efforts? It seems to me that our “reformers” are thinking in the same fashion as Ms. May with their advocacy for privatized charter schools that draw from parents who are engaged the schooling of their children and/or set entry standards that effectively screen out the underachievers and disruptive children. At the same time our political leaders are advocating metrics based on job placement, making utilitarianism the focal point of even post-secondary education. Maybe we should look at Mr. Malik’s ideas and compel all our schools to meet higher standards and provide them with the same level of funds that our elite public schools receive to accomplish that end. At the same time we might allow children to enjoy learning for learning’s sake by encouraging them to become self-directed in determining the content they study. That kind of impractical and self-paced learning just might result in better schooling for all children, and, who knows, the children may grow up to be adults who love to learn and, as a result, thrive in whatever employment they seek.

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