Kids are different; it's time we accepted that

Roger Scruton recently argued for the reintroduction of selective schools - working from the premise that ‘knowledge benefits the child, but not as much as the clever child benefits knowledge’. He thus argues it is in the government’s interest (indeed in all our interests) to reintroduce selective schools—in the end, the whole of society benefits when the brightest individuals are educated to a higher level

Different sorts of education are needed for different people. The state’s role should be to promote society’s interest in general, not specifically reduce educational ‘gaps’. Those with other abilities would benefit from technical schools—like the “realschule” which arguably underlie much of Germany’s continuing success in manufacturing—schools of equal importance, but with different goals. We should not succumb to the notion that equality between individuals means identical skills. This may have brought about a dumbing down of our education system.

Scruton’s argument is very persuasive. Every child should have the right to be educated, so the state has a ‘duty’ to provide each child with an education. The state should not discriminate in the irrelevant areas, i.e. wealth and social status. But there should be discrimination in the relevant areas – i.e. academic ability. Assessment at any age is essentially arbitrary, but evidence suggests that ability is very stable through the lifespan from age 11. 

However, Scruton’s argument is short on empirical evidence.

Critics such as Chris Cook suggest such selection would be a ‘radical departure from educational orthodoxy’. Cook shows that in Kent and Medway, where there is extensive selective schooling, kids from poorer backgrounds do worse than in the rest of the UK. But this is confounded by the possibility that many families who would be in that position may leave for comprehensives elsewhere.

And US evidence suggests that universal ability testing actually helps find bright kids from less privileged backgrounds. Harris Westminster Sixth form may be a good English example. According to James Handscombe, its principal, 33% of its pupils are from deprived backgrounds (compared to national average of 29% and typical selective schools average of 10%).

Furthermore, this narrow focus on academic results is exactly what is wrong with the current system. These results are only relevant for some: the difference between a C and a D is largely irrelevant when it comes to university or careers requiring academic ability. We need more relevant measures. Many children find academic tracks stifling, boring and irrelevant—surely we should help them develop skills more relevant to their interests and desired careers. It is simply not the case that any individual is capable of following any career path.

A significant proportion of young people are now coming out of university with expensive degrees which are not preparing them for the world. Indeed there is a lot of evidence that apprenticeships have probed more valuable to both their prospects and self-esteem. According to the Office for National Statistics, more than a quarter of graduates in 2013 were paid less than the £11.10 an hour average for those on work-based training schemes.

More recently, the Sutton Trust found that people who had completed level five apprenticeships (equivalent to a foundation degree) were expected to earn £52,000 more over their lifetimes than graduates from non-elite universities. And with the average debt for university leavers now at £44,000, apprentices may find themselves better off in the long run. 

Challenging orthodoxy has been how we’ve made progress in every field. Where would science be today if Galileo had not challenged the Church’s monopoly on truth and power or if Darwin had not challenged special creation. Such challenge is the very essence of progress. There is always room for doubt and that, in and of itself, gives us the freedom to challenge orthodox views.