Are comprehensives undermining social mobility?

22nd August, 2011 3:30 pm

School gateBy Ian Silvera / @ianjsilvera

The New Labour Party and the Conservative Party would have you believe that social mobility and egalitarianism are equivocal. However, this is not true. Social mobility refers to a social group or individual’s ability to move up through the social classes. In contradiction, egalitarianism refers to the position that society should be more equal.

With their differences in consideration, it would seem that attempting to mix social mobility and egalitarianism into a successful piece of public policy would be bring about disappointment. Our current comprehensive school system has become a symbol of this disappointment.

Social mobility has been in decline for many years and the comprehensive experiment – based on egalitarianism – is to blame. Nonetheless, an enormous straw man wanders through our political landscape declaring that universities should discriminate in favour of working class and ethnic minority students to solve the problem.

Both the New Labour Party and Conservative Party favour discrimination in our higher education system, rather than improving our secondary education system. As an example, Peter Mandelson, the ex-New Labour business secretary, proposed that top universities should stop relying on A-level results to determine a student’s admission. More recently, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, argued that Oxford University should introduce quotas for ethnic minority students. Mr Cameron’s and Mr Mandelson’s proposals are sincere: working class and ethnic minority university students are under-represented in our top universities. But lowering our university standards will not improve educational standards.

Comprehensive schooling is a Sisyphean task. Sisyphus was punished by the Greek Gods to roll a boulder up a mountain to find it rolling back down ad infinitum. Comprehensive schools, like Sisyphus, aim to achieve the impossible: treating students equally while trying to improve their grades.

The comprehensive schools that do achieve good results are socially exclusive. A vicious circle has embedded itself into our secondary education system. The better a comprehensive school gets, the more expensive the property in that school’s catchment area becomes. Eventually working-class families, the people who need a better education most, are forced out of the school’s catchment area. As a result, working-class students have to attend worse schools and their grades drop. Understanding this point unravels the myth that comprehensive schools do not select on a socio-economic basis.

The sensible alternative to comprehensive schooling, grammar schooling, is scoffed at. Bizarrely, those who scoff at grammar schools most loudly often either attended or send their offspring to a grammar school.

The opposition against grammar schooling rallies around an easily resolvable point. Grammar schools select students according to their educational ability. Accordingly, prospective students sit an examination during their last year of primary education. This examination is known as the 11-plus.

The 11-plus attracts controversy because students are selected at an early age. Obviously grammar schools should examine prospective students at different stages of their academic careers – before secondary school, before GCSEs and before A-levels. However, even if grammar schools did follow this advice, the egalitarians would not be satisfied. They would argue that introducing grammar schools would create a two-tiered society made up of students who attend grammar schools and those who attend the modern equivalent of secondary-moderns. The egalitarians’ opposition outlines the conflict between social mobility and egalitarianism.

For those who want to improve our young people’s prospects there is a choice. You can abandon egalitarianism and acknowledge that students have different intellectual abilities and support grammar schools.

On the other hand, you can refuse to acknowledge – like our political class – that our comprehensive school system is failing its students and blame our top universities for not lowering their standards.

This post was originally published here.

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