The 11+ is back on the agenda – but this is why it shouldn’t be

cross post from Eddie Playfair is Vice Chair of the SEA

Thanks to the prime minister, it seems that educational selection is back on the agenda again. The grammar school issue in Kent and elsewhere is one aspect of the debate but it’s worth remembering that the segregation of learners by ‘aptitude’, ‘potential’, test or exam score is widespread with the 11+ being only one of a broad spectrum of selective practices.

Education in England is riddled with selective assumptions and practices from top to bottom. Learners are routinely selected and segregated into different provision, particularly at secondary and tertiary level. We have never had a national education system, let alone a fully comprehensive one. What we have is the result of a tension between comprehensive and selective tendencies operating in a context of market competition between unequal schools in an unequal society.

The case for selection is generally based on notions of fixed, measurable potential. Despite its regular revival, most recently in genetic or neuro-psychological forms, the idea that ‘intelligence’ is a single heritable attribute which is fixed and measurable has no scientific basis. Even when advocates of academic selection don’t rely on IQ tests or similar measures, they replace the idea of measurable and fixed ‘ability’ with something called ‘potential’ which is just as fixed. Both these concepts start from a deterministic approach to learning which implies that an individual’s ability to learn and to achieve academically is substantially pre-determined and unchanging. This view often leads to practices which progressively close the doors to certain opportunities for human flourishing to certain people rather than keeping all doors open.

Selection can operate at a whole-system level, providing different types of school for different ‘types’ of student as determined by some kind of assessment of their ability, aptitude or potential. It can also operate at the intra-institutional level with such practices as rigid streaming or limiting curriculum options to particular ‘types’ of student.

The prime minister has expressed his support for grammar school expansion in Kent. He says this is because ‘good’ schools should be able to expand. However, this fails to recognise that grammar schools are not isolated ‘good’ schools, but part of a system which has selection at its core. If you think a system of selection at 11 is wrong, then you cannot really argue that it is OK to keep, let alone expand, grammar schools. If you think it is right…well, then you would be arguing for it everywhere else too, like UKIP.

If academic selection and the 11+ are back on the political agenda then many of us will want to defend the comprehensive principle because we believe that the common school, college and university, like the NHS, are part of the foundations of the good society.

The comprehensive school is a successful and popular expression of equality of opportunity which transcends all social differences. The idea that children and young people should be educated with their neighbours and their peers in a learning community which reflects the composition of the geographical community they live in is still valid, even if some have abandoned it. A comprehensive system discourages competition for positional advantage by school, and seeks to ensure that every school and every student can flourish.

If we agree that the state should shape the kind of education system we have, then we can probably agree that such a system should broadly value the things we value, reflect the type of society we want and offer the best available to everyone. Do our current arrangements reflect this? Do they serve all young people well? If we want a cohesive and open society where everyone can develop and flourish as citizens, workers and community members and an education system that works well for everyone, perhaps we should consign academic selection to the dustbin of history.

“The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.” Jane Addams.

“One of the great tragedies of the last 100 years has been our failure as a nation to take on the essential concept of human educability and thereby challenge the idea that children are born with a given quota of ‘intelligence’ which remains constant both during childhood and adult life.” Clyde Chitty.

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4 Comments on “The 11+ is back on the agenda – but this is why it shouldn’t be”

  1. terryloane says:

    I agree, John, that “notions of fixed, measurable potential are unscientific nonsense” and should not be used as the basis for grouping young people together for learning. But dare I suggest that the most commonly proposed alternative model, the comprehensive ‘mixed ability’ class, is equally nonsensical and also results in “closing the doors to opportunities for human flourishing”? One of the biggest unexamined assumptions behind most schooling is the idea that chronological age should be the primary criterion on which children should be grouped together for learning. I suggest that this is simplistic and misguided because (a) different children, certainly by the age of 11, have quite different interests, quite different aspirations and quite different previous learning experiences upon which to build (b) there are many successful models already of mixed age-group teaching and learning – (for example, when I was a secondary school music teacher, age simply wasn’t used as a criterion for membership of the choirs and bands, and within these groups 11-year-olds learnt quite happily alongside 18-year-olds). Interestingly it is generally accepted that after the age of 16 an individual’s education should be based not on their age but on their interests, aspirations and previous experiences. (Think, for example, about how and when someone chooses an apprenticeship or a university course.) All I am suggesting is that we introduce similar flexibility and choice by the age of 11, rather than requiring each adolescent to undergo a monolithic process in a group together with those of the same chronological age.

    I have written before in comments on this blog about what I see as a lack of imagination in the educational ‘offer’ of most political parties. We really have to find more imaginative and less monolithic ways of offering learning opportunities to young people. We should surely consign to the dustbin of history the notion of grouping 11 to 16-year-olds together simply on the basis that they were born within a few months of each other and live within a few streets of each other.

  2. mroberts1990 says:

    I’m teaching Year 6 and, not only does the 11+ have issues surrounding it’s selection style, but on children’s learning around the time they sit these tests. When the children started to receive the entrance exams results there was a period of time where complacency set in with some children. They had made it – why should they continue trying to learn?

  3. terryloane says:

    … and isn’t it profoundly sad, mroberts1990, that any 10- or 11-year old should be thinking along the lines of ‘I have made it – why should I continue trying to learn?’ Isn’t it sad that this instrumental (‘means to an end’) view of learning should have taken hold at such a young age? Isn’t it sad that a Year 6 child should regard learning as a game in which the main purpose of learning is to move on to the next stage of the game? Pass the 11+ and get to grammar school; do well at GCSEs and move into the 6th form; get top grades at A-level and get a place at a ‘good’ university; get a ‘good’ degree from a ‘good’ university and have a (small) chance of getting a well paid job. At no point in this game is there a need for either the learner or the teacher to value learning for the sake of what is learnt. And think of all those who get left behind in the game. What a waste of human effort and potential. What a recipe for disillusion and mental ill-health. No wonder so many young people feel they have nothing to live for ( ).