July 12, 2004
Selection is good: "When I first taught him, he liked to flick rubber bands and attack some of his school mates …"

Yes it is, says Francis Gilbert in this Telegraph piece:

Once, like many of my Left-wing teacher colleagues, I would have been enraged by the idea of selection. However, my experience as an English teacher in London comprehensives and the example of a naughty 12-year-old boy called Rees have taught me to welcome it.

Two years ago, I started teaching at The Coopers' Company and Coborn School, which is nominally a "comprehensive". Set up by a livery company during the reign of Henry VIII, it still caters for children from all over east London. Much like the London Oratory, where Tony Blair sends his children, its "faith school" status allows it to interview children and pick bright, articulate students - whatever their background.

Rees was one of our chosen. He was very much an East End lad: highly intelligent and streetwise. He lived with his mother in a tower block and I knew the school he would have gone to if he hadn't come to ours. Many of the children there were unable to read and write fluently and a hard-core would be thoroughly disruptive. In such places it is simply not "cool" to be academic; so many of the students just refuse to learn. Indeed, some are often bullied if they work hard, so the few cleverer children are dragged down.

At Coopers, however, most pupils want to work hard. And when he got here, so did Rees. Seeing him tackling ambitious subjects and clearly benefiting from the experience, changed my mind about selection.

I can hear protests of the cossetted educationalists: "Ah, but what about the schools in his area that are deprived of pupils like Rees by selective schools?" But in my experience it is the disaffected, clever children who are by far the worst behaved. They have too little to do; they have time to be disruptive. And Rees was indeed a badly-behaved boy. When I first taught him, he liked to flick rubber bands and attack some of his school mates if he was not fully engaged.

In an typical comprehensive he would have probably become a serious threat to discipline, but he didn't with us because he soon found himself challenged by his work. I saw a miraculous change come over him as he progressed. He became competitive about his work when he saw that other boys – tough characters like himself – wanted to do well. Because the standard was higher than in his previous school he had to fight harder and much of his energy was diverted and absorbed in trying to succeed.

Here's a link to the school that Gilbert is writing about, where as you can see here he is the Head of English.

The good thing about this is that Gilbert deals head on with the claim that the good pupils raise up the bad, and counters it with the observation that the bad are just as likely to bring down the good.

For me, regardless of the particular consequences in this or that case, selection is but a particular manifestation of the general principle of Freedom of Association. X and Y should only have to associate with one another if both consent. If X wants out, he should be allowed out, however much Y likes him and wants him to stay. If Y wants X out of his property, despite X's bitter regret, tough. That's how everything, including education, should be. For me, any policy other than "selection" is the outrage.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:41 PM
Category: Selection