Now that I am retired, I can wryly wince when this old perennial pops up again.
I don’t intend to prescribe or dictate: I’m passed all that. I do know that setting has no overall advantages in many academic disciplines. I was prepared to ignore what went on in the Maths department. It just didn’t work for mine.
The current issue of the New Yorker, no less.
Sheeping and goating
Here we are, then. The two right-wing parties are hell bent on being more and more selective.
UKIP “official” policy has been torn up, but, at the last count went like this:
The United Kingdom Independence Party advocates the retention of all existing grammar schools and encourages the creation of new grammar schools and specialist schools, which would be called ‘professional schools’. UKIP states that they would not return to a pass/fail 11-plus test but introduce a ‘Comprehensive Test’ to assess merit across a wide range of academic and non-academic abilities including vocational skills, crafts and sport.
Sorry, Kippers, if that ‘Comprehensive Test’ determines whether the student is admitted into the prestige group or not, that’s a pass/fail test. Nor will you convince us that there won’t be a prestige in-group, and a demeaned out-group, because that’s not the way parents see it, and it’s therefore not how our society works.
Note, too, the strange term ‘professional schools’. Does that mean:
- they are the preparation for the ‘professions’, and all the out-group are doomed to wood-hewing and water-drawing (jobs in steep decline these recent centuries)?
- any other schools would be staffed by ‘non-professionals’?
When we get to the ‘official’ Tory Party, there is still a clear division.
- The Cameroons want the grammar school debate to go away. The water has been well-muddied by the Govean “Free Schools” and “Academies” — which, by all accounts are intended to germinate into something selective, if only because, when that difference can be monetarized, the sponsors can reclaim their investments. And Free Enterprise rules, OK.
- When we drill into the grassroots of the Tories, the enthusiasm for ‘bringing back the grammars’ is a general ailment.
All of which brings us to the protean Nicky Morgan, the pale understudy for the late, unlamented, departed Gove. Here we have to read between the lines, at least the lines of yesterday’s Guardian report:
Nicky Morgan, the education secretary, has slapped down suggestions she is on the verge of endorsing compulsory setting in secondary schools based on ability, as the special adviser to the former education secretary Michael Gove said No 10 wanted to announce the policy as a Conservative manifesto commitment.
David Cameron has long been a personal supporter of setting, a means by which children are put in classes for specific subjects based on ability. The prime minister believes it will be popular with parents and help bright children excel.
Gove’s former special adviser Dominic Cummings said he had been told Cameron wanted to back compulsory setting.
But Morgan told MPs “there is absolutely no truth in these rumours” after the Guardian reported she was due to make an announcement, prompting an outpouring of criticism from teaching unions, Labour, the Lib Dems and some thinktanks. She said people should spend less time on Twitter or talking to journalists.
It was suggested she wanted the proposal enforced by the inspectorate Ofsted, so schools that did not bring in setting would not be given the status of outstanding.
If we were marking that checklist, it seems to look like this:
Cummings ✘ (but apparently because a DfE diktat would run counter to the longstanding Conservative commitment to enshrine the independence of academies)
Morgan ✘ (now) but may have been semi-✔︎ previously
Gove ✔︎ [“We believe that setting by ability is the only solution” etc.]
Wilshaw of Ofsted ✔︎
To the conspiracy theorist, this whole she-bang only makes real sense if Cummings leaked the notion of compulsory setting to the Guardian, to head off a gross policy mistake. If Morgan has been sequentially sat upon by Cameron, then by press reaction, she is indeed the political arse defined by e.e.cummings (no relation, I suppose).
So, here are some inescapables:
- Heaven knows there are enough social divisions in English schooling already.
- Creating new grammar schools, or having rigid streaming inside whatever system you devise, means even more social divisions than now.
- In such divisive segregation there are inevitably more losers than winners. The old grammar/secondary modern segregation creamed off the 20% notionally “more able”. This greatly pleased the parents of the privileged few, but severely annoyed everyone else. This is not good mid-term politics.
- All this was explained when, in Decline and Fall, Evelyn Waugh sent Paul Pennyfeather to the educational agency:
- “We class schools, you see, into four grades: Leading School, First-rate School, Good School, and School. Frankly,” said Mr Levy, “School is pretty bad…”
- So far every “good school”, by the simple rules of comparison, there has to be a “less-good school”. Accost any secondary-school student, and ask him or her to rank all the local schools. You will discover she/he knows the scores on the doors and his/her place in them.
- Setting may work in some situations. It does, however, mean a “bottom set”. Oh, the joys of Eleven Gorilla, last double on a Friday afternoon! I bear the stripes to this day.
We can, then neatly sum up the two right-wing parties’ education policies:
- UKIP want more sink schools;
- Some Tories may want more sink schools, but some of them are insistent on more sink classes.
The only good news here is that, come next May, we should be rid of both flavours