Evidence-based arguments against selective education

Teacher and students in classroom

By Dr Will Curtis (Director of Academic Studies)

It was the Secretary of State for Education before last who explicitly divorced educational policy from educational research. In his attack on ‘the blob’, Michael Gove didn’t try to disguise his contempt for the academics and practitioners who theorise and research on learning and teaching. Writing in the Mail in March 2013, he set educational policy-making in direct opposition to the research of academics (who he provocatively referred to as the ‘enemies of promise’).

The result of the chasm he created is plain to see. This week the current incumbent, Justine Greening, announced the government’s intention to bring back selective education – apparently giving all schools the opportunity to be grammar schools. Given the weight of research evidence against, you’d be hard pressed to find many colleagues in university education departments welcoming this news.

There are so many evidence-based arguments against selective education. But let me focus here on just one.

The 11+ examination, that determines whether or not a child can attend a grammar school, was conceived in the first half of the twentieth century when we knew very little about the nature of intelligence. We thought intelligence was fixed, quantifiable and straightforward – something that could be measured and compared by children’s responses to a set of logical-mathematical puzzles. Since then, research evidence irrefutably informs us that intelligence is complex, multi-faceted and dynamic – there are many types of intelligence that interact and change over time. Most importantly, we know that intelligence is malleable – if you and others believe you can achieve something than you are far more likely to be able to do so. If you’re told you can’t do something, in all likelihood you won’t be able to. Selective education systems like the one this government plans will tell 75% of children they can’t!

I’d encourage Justine Greening and Theresa May to read a little educational research before they systematically destroy the hopes and aspirations of so many of our children. Howard Gardner’s seminal work on ‘multiple intelligences’ would be a great start for them. More recently, Guy Claxton’s work on ‘real world learning’ would really help them to understand something about what learning and intelligence are. Neither of these are Marxist radicals – they’re thoughtful evidence-based explorations of the nature of how we think, learn and develop. And, combined, they present the most forceful evidence one could find that high-stakes testing of 11 year old children is unreliable, untrustworthy and inhumane.

About the author

Dr Will Curtis is the Director of Academic Studies at the Centre for Lifelong Learning, University of Warwick.

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