In an article in The Daily Telegraph, Christopher Ray, High Master of Manchester Grammar School an independent day school argues that selecting pupils by ability remains "one of the great engines of social mobility" and suggests that the brightest pupils often struggle in mixed-ability classrooms.
In England, the Government has given academies considerable freedom over the curriculum, the school year and staff pay and conditions, but ministers not the power to select pupils by ability. Only existing state grammars that convert into academies can select.
Mr Ray said that successive governments had "thrown money" at schools and communities in an attempt to promote social mobility and boost education standards but social mobility "remains stubbornly resistant to such tactics":
"When the government asks independent schools to share with state schools their DNA, it fails to understand the importance of academic selection in our essential character, one which embraces social diversity which in turn vigorously promotes social mobility."
He claimed that a fixation on the "ills and defects" of the 11-plus the traditional grammar school entrance exam had made it almost impossible to have a "rational debate" on the issue of academic selection.
Manchester Grammar currently selects children using day-long assessment exercises in which prospective pupils are monitored by teachers in a series of normal classes to see how they respond. Mr Ray said that it was possible to adjust the method of academic selection to "meet the needs of the 21st century".
However, if all maintained schools could select by academic ability, what would happen to the "social mobility" of those not "selected"? Would their mobility be downward? Would a totally selective system benefit some but widen the gap for others?
Finland has been a model of success without selection while the issue of post-primary selection in Northern Ireland, post-11-plus has been fraught with difficulties.
Another independent (selective) school headteacher, Dr Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College, argues in The Guardian that "Schools should develop children’s character, not just their ability to pass exams":
" .. schools of all kinds have become too much like exam factories, concentrating their energies on securing passes at A to C at GCSE level, and have given too little attention to the overall development of the child and their character (the scramble for results has also been at the cost of genuine learning and creative teaching). The government should embrace character-building and all-round education not as an alternative to academic attainment but as an essential adjunct of it. The opportunities open to those of independent education for wider enrichment should be available to all, regardless of school."
What do you think?
Should there be post-primary selection based on academic ability or greater use of subject-based setting or streaming within secondary schools?
Would more academic selection improve social mobility or exacerbate social differences?
Can there be greater social mobility without academic selection?
Can, or should, there be social mobility for every pupil?
Do let us know your views.
Poll result (22 September-5 October 2011):