Most people do not know that Gordon Brown went to a grammar school? In fact, many successful Labour Party politicians were educated in grammar schools. They include Dennis Healey, Barbara Castle and Harold Wilson. It is ironic that the Labour government elected in 1945 introduced the tri-partite system of grammar, technical and secondary schools. Ellen Wilkinson, secretary of State for education in 1945 was very sceptical about mixed ability teaching due to her own experience of non-selective schooling in Manchester, "The top few pupils were intelligent and could mop up facts like blotting paper," she explained, "but we were made to wait for the rest of the huge classes ... We wanted to stretch our minds but we were merely a nuisance." (Quoted in ‘Austerity Britain 1945-48 - A World to Build’, by David Kynaston).
Even though Labour created the system that gave so many of its politicians the opportunity to succeed, it has, ironically, promoted mediocrity ever since. The comprehensive system is a failure because it functions on ‘selection by area’ and not ‘selection by ability’. Those of us in education know that testing regimes are not perfect but it is possible to create a more appropriate educational system if children’s abilities and talents are taken into account.
Now, we have a new government that is talking about ‘Free Schools’ and giving all schools the opportunity to become academies. However, there is one sticking point. Will the same mixed ability regime stay in place? If it does, we are just re-creating more comprehensive schools which will be called, ‘Free Schools’. Also, simply freeing up some cash from a local authority and changing a comprehensive’s name to an academy will not radically alter what goes on inside it. If this is all that is happening, it will mean that nothing has really changed, other than moving the pawns to a different position on the chess board.
A fundamental reform is required to ensure that children receive ‘education fit for purpose’. Those who are academically able need to be stretched to the highest level and those who are more vocationally or practically orientated need to receive training, along with being given the numeracy and literacy skills they require. Why should this be so controversial? Why does fairness have to mean watering everything down? Surely, it is about doing what is right and appropriate for each child and ensuring they are best equipped for the place they will occupy in our society. It is not second rate to follow a vocational option, if that is best suited for the child. What is second rate is to offer a non-academic child a highly academic pathway where they will struggle to fulfill their true potential.