Monday 1 October 2007

A culture of low aspirations

Last week a study showed that just 200 elite schools accounted for one third of admissions to the top dozen universities and half of all places at Oxford and Cambridge. The remaining 3,500 schools and colleges account for the other half. It is neither fair nor sensible.

While others are tempted to pin the blame on biased universities, I believe there is something more deep-rooted at work - a culture of low aspirations shared not just by students, but in many cases by their parents and teachers, too. There are many excellent teachers doing their best for the students, but it is a disturbing fact that some bright pupils are actively discouraged from reaching for the top.

That's Peter Lampl, writing in yesterday's Sunday Times. He believes that a low-aspirations mindset is reinforcing entrenched class divisions:

It is no wonder that social mobility has declined in Britain and we languish at the bottom of the international league table. Also, the relationship between children's educational performance and their family background is stronger here than anywhere else in the developed world. If you are born poor, your qualifications will reflect the fact and you will remain poor.

I think he has a point. As I've said before, as a parent I've been disappointed by the limited horizons that many state secondary schools set for their pupils, and by the tacit acceptance of an apartheid of outcomes between students at private and state schools. (This isn't to decry the dedication of many individual teachers - it's more of a systemic thing.) As someone from a working-class background for whom grammar school was a passport to Cambridge, I'm saddened to think that children from similar backgrounds today may actually have fewer opportunities than I had.

I've got some sympathy for Nick Cohen's argument that the real beneficiaries of the abolition of grammar schools were private schools, as it destroyed the competition. As Cohen wrote a couple of years back:

In public we deplore elitism. In practice everyone knows that the grammar schools, which at least selected by ability, have been replaced with private and comprehensive schools which select by parental wealth.

The dilemma: I want grammar schools (well, the best bits anyway - I'm not nostalgic for the silly uniforms or corporal punishment), but I hate the idea of selection. The solution? The original comprehensive vision of a grammar school education for every child who wants it (i.e. every comprehensive to be at least as good as a grammar) - rather than the 'universal system of secondary moderns' that Cohen rightly says exists in some inner cities. The difficulty? Besides the boost in funding, you'd need an army of highly-trained, properly-paid teachers who shared that original - socialist - vision that all children, from whatever background, have the potential to reach the heights of achievement - and that includes Oxbridge, if that's what they want.

Is this kind of thing even on Ed Balls' agenda?

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