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Debate: Selective education

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Are selective schools better for children?

Background and context

In most countries state schools teach children of a wide range of abilities together, in mixed ability (comprehensive) schools. In some countries, however, secondary education varies according to ability, with the most able children attending selective schools (grammar schools in the UK, Gymnasia in Germany) until the age of 18 and then going on to university. Children who are judged to be less academic attend different schools, receive a more vocational and technical education and typically leave at 15 or 16 to look for work, with little prospect of higher education. This kind of system applies in most German Lander, and in parts of the UK where some areas (including the whole of Northern Ireland) retain grammar schools despite a general move to comprehensive education since the late 1960s. The actions of the UK Labour government since 1997 have been contradictory on the role of selection in education. Initially they were very hostile, and set up ballots to allow grammar schools to be abolished. Since then however, there has been a shift away from the "one size fits all" model for schools, with comprehensives being described as "bog standard" and "wouldn’t touch some of them with a bargepole". Despite this, grammar schools are still not supported by the government.

Contents

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Argument #1

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Yes

Selective education produces better results. Studies have shown that children of equal ability at age 11 go on to have different results at 18, depending on whether they were at a selective school or at a school with children of a mix of abilities.

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No

The results are skewed because the mere presence of selective schools mean that certain able pupils and certain able teachers move on, not giving others a chance. A fully comprehensive system would ensure good results for everyone. The process of selection is also unfair as the tests children take at 11 attempt to measure their current ability rather than their long-term academic potential. Social class and parental pushing, the quality of their primary school, recent illness, etc. can all play too large a part for the process to be objective.

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Argument #2

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Yes

The widespread use of academic streaming to separate children in a mixed-ability school into classes of different abilities recognises that children have different needs. This should be taken further. It is a more efficient use of schools wholly to stream or be selective. It is also more meritocratic, as bright students from poor homes get the kind of academic education that the rich can purchase for their children in independent schools.

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No

The plan is flawed in that not all children who are good at English are good at Mathematics, for example. Streaming allows a child to be in a high-ability class for one subject and a remedial class for another, which is not possible in a fully selective school. Yet the main objection is that the system is shockingly and openly elitist. Education is a right, not a privilege. A good education should be available to all, not just the elitist stratum whilst the majority are left to rot.

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Argument #3

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Yes

The pupils of all abilities benefit from selective education. Rather than aiming at an ill-defined and vague medium, selection allows specialist teachers to stretch the able or give proper support to students with learning difficulties.

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No

Effective streaming within a mixed ability school can do this. The difference is that in between lessons, at break times and lunchtimes and going to and from school, pupils mix together socially. This fosters a sense of community, prevents stratification and means that the less able feel valued and more able feel less ostracised. In addition, even in unstreamed classes teachers everywhere succeed in teaching to a wide range of abilities; often the most able students can help to support the slower learners, and gain themselves from the experience.

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Argument #4

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Yes

It is not fair on the majority in a class to have their lessons ruined by troublemakers. Those that want and have the potential to learn should be allowed the chance to be educated properly. If selective education is not provided free by the state, there is a danger that parents of bright students will opt for private education or home schooling instead, if they can afford it, further isolating brighter children from poorer backgrounds.

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No

Whilst the rest are dumped! The bad schools are those where all those who can get out, have. Funding, pupils, teachers all move on and you are left with those who can’t. How is it equitable, or morally justifiable to dump kids on the scrap-heap at eleven? Abandoning the easy option leaves good teachers open to all, thus showing the troublemakers that are valued and thus remain feeling that nobody cares about them.

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Argument #5

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Yes

Our standing in the world economy depends on a skilled workforce and jobs that can be filled by educated people. For the best to be stretched they need to be challenged and educated to the top. Selective education produces these world-beaters.

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No

This is not necessarily true at all - many leaders of industry, politics and the arts have gone to mixed ability schools. The negative effect is in also producing an underclass. Studies show that those who commit more crimes, truant more, have children earlier, take children earlier take more illegal drugs went to schools in sink areas. It is not acceptable for this to be happening. We cannot abandon the majority at eleven to concentrate on an elite few. All children deserve a good education and the only way that this happen is by ensuring that good teachers and good pupils are taken along the same path as not so able children. Davidster 16:29, 24 February 2010 (EST): My mother attended a comprehensive school and my father attended a grammar school. Both of my parents entered the Civil Engineering industry in the public sector. My mother's salary is currently over five times larger than my father's. Attending a grammar school does NOT guarantee leadership in an industry, and neither does attending a comprehensive school guarantee failure in an industry.

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Argument #6

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Yes

Selection makes it easier for teachers. They can target a certain level at the class and don’t have to try to cope with a wide range of abilities. Most of the problems in schools come from pupils either not being challenged or being given work that they don’t understand.

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No

In no school can there ever be a class of identical ability, even in selective schools, there is a divergence. The mark of a good teacher is in being able to juggle varying abilities. Giving teachers an easy time is a poor way of justifying such an elitist education. In any case, the problem is a relative one; weaker students within a selective school may become unmotivated and perform less well than they would have done as more able students in a mixed-ability school.

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