Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Grammar Schools

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a big fan of the idea of grammar schools. It is certainly preferable than the current system that operates in this country that effectively equates educational opportunity with the wealth of a child's parents. Nevertheless, introducing a grammar school system in Britain would be a tough political task - there were many manifest errors in the last system, not least the failure to properly institute technical colleges.

In theory, the system that I have seen that I most like is the German system - three different streams of secondary education, where it is possible to move up or down between the levels. Of course, the system is not perfect, even in theory (the determination of which stream you enter happens too early). Of course, those of you familiar with comparative education will be aware of the weakness of lauding a German-style system.

Since 2002, when the PISA international study ranked Germany very low among industrial nations in terms of educational achievement, there has been much soul-searching among German politicians about how to change the system for the better. The major change so far is to speed up the pace of learning; whereas children would leave school at 19, they would now leave at 18.

A UN report today will be of little comfort to the German educational establishment. There it suggests that the opportunities for social advancement in the educational system are limited indeed. Of course, it is difficult to know how far this is attributable to the system itself - it may well be, for example, that patterns of settlement cause particular problems in terms of which children go to which schools. There are many cultural factors, as we already know, which shape how a child's educational opportunities play out.

Nonetheless, what Germany's system, and today's news, shows is that simply using a social mobility argument for grammar schools isn't good enough. With education, the devil is in the detail - and while that may lead to huge debates among Labour backbenchers, it means that creating a programme of educational reform that will genuinely improve matters whilst being intelligible to the voting public is pretty difficult.

The emotional attachment that the left has to the comprehensive system, of course, means that the very notion of grammar schools is anathema to them. In a complicated terrain, a move towards grammar schools allows the media to draw a clear good-bad divide; certainly it affords them the latitude to make clear sides in any issue.

Meanwhile, supporters (like me) of a grammar school system must be able to make clear arguments in favour. It is much easier to deconstruct the current system - which is manifestly bloated and failing - than it is to construct a politically viable alternative. When a grammar school system fails to afford social mobility, though, it makes the task that much harder. How can you include caveats and nuances when any move towards selection will be portrayed by a broad brush?