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Tuesday, January 31, 2023

When ‘choice’ is a mirage of ideology


When ‘choice’ is a mirage of ideology

The UK schooling system is an example of the mirage of choice and how the mantra of ‘choice’ is used to reduce choice, opportunity and promote ideology.

Take a look at secondary schools. There are multiple systems. These include:

1.  Comprehensives, select on distance from home.

2. Grammar – select on an exam taken at the start of the last year of primary school

3. Faith – select on religion of parents.

On top of this are academies. These use the exam of Grammar schools, and then inject a lottery element, so applicants are banded and a % of intake comes from each band. Some inject a geographical element too, which is sometimes at first sight counterintuitive: 50% of intake form a particular distance, 50% from more than that distance. It is possible to be one of 1-3 AND an academy.

A decade or so ago I spent some months with a mate gathering information to understand the system and its subtleties.

What I learned was.

1. Faith schools reduce choice. Those with a faith may argue against, but there is plenty of time outside school to pursue their faith and each faith school restricts choice for the majority, simply because only a minority are of one particular faith.

2. Comprehensives that select on distance suffer a major ‘neighbourhood problem’. That is students that were together in primary stay together. This is not good simply from the perspective of child development. There are times in life when you need a clean start and it hampers the secondary school in its efforts to instil a new culture, appropriate for the new level of education.

3. Once I understood the idea behind academies I realised that these were a step forwards. The feedback from heads that converted from comprehensive (or in some cases faith schools with large local catchment) to Academy was that the greater mixing enabled the generation of a new culture in year 7, which had a knock on positive effect on student performance.

3. The perceived success of grammar schools is due to selection. This is not because the students are inherently more able, since an exam assessment in year 6 primary has no predictive value on ability as an adolescent or adult. It is simply due to the fact that it selects for advantaged families. These advantages include ones that are intellectual, e.g., a family that reads a lot, economic, e.g., a family that pays for tutoring, and social, e.g., a family where parent(s) enforce performance. Selection in grammar schools delivers a student body in year 7 that like the academies is not geographically rooted and which is driven, either by the student (not a bad thing) or the parents (likely a bad thing).

Choice is limited, because wherever you live there are many unsuitable schools (faith, wrong faith, geographical selection and so on). If you live in the right part of town, which ironically is often not the leafy suburbs, then choice can be reasonable, but this is not universally true. 

There are many simple improvements to be made, not the least of which is simply to convert all secondary schools to academies, with zero faith element. This promotes mixing

However, this fails to solve a central issue in British education, which I learned from reading a document written by my father. The distinction primary/secondary is merely historical. That is, it evolved with the growth of universal education. It has no basis in human development and biology, as it mixes prepuberty with puberty and post puberty. So running primary runs up to around year 5, middle school to year 9 or 10, secondary to year 13 and tertiary reserved for adults of all ages would be a more efficacious system. This is what is found in many European countries. As someone who teaches in a University, I have found that students from educational systems with a middle school produce far better (in the sense of proactive learners) students than the UK system, though this is a personal view based on experience rather than a large-scale serious study.

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