The select few

10 August 2004
The Guardian
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Tony Blair has laid out a five-year plan for schools that will mean the "best schools" will be able to abandon the shackles of local-authority control, and pay teachers according to the market. The Conservative party has similar proposals to allow all schools freedom from LEAs. Both parties are promising parents the chance to choose the best school for their child.

There seems to be little to separate the two parties, apart from the issue of selection. Blair is against it; Michael Howard, the Tory leader, wants to give secondary schools the power to choose their own pupils.

I believe the Labour party has dug itself into a big hole in this regard over the past 30 years. During the 1960s it introduced the comprehensive system. In most boroughs grammar schools were abolished. Yet, three decades on, it is unnerving to see that most of the cabinet are either public-school educated or from grammar schools.

Isn’t it disturbing to see that very few comprehensive pupils, especially ones from working-class backgrounds, have made their mark on society? Look at the upper echelons of the BBC, or the media, or the legal system, and you will see that they are dominated by people from public schools and grammars. It is even more worrying to see two public school boys – Tony Blair and Charles Clarke – dictating education policies. And it is positively alarming to note that the prime minister himself sends his children to a school that is in effect selective.

"Faith-based" schools such as the London Oratory can select pupils on the basis of their religious orientation. In practice, this means that headteachers can interview children and glean much information about their academic abilities as well as their commitment to a faith. "Faithbased" school is code for "selective" school, for those in the know.

Blair is telling parents to send their children to the local non-selective comprehensive, yet he and his family are benefiting from the opposite system. I am a parent who lives in London. I also work at a state-funded secondary school, which is losing its ability to select pupils because of Labour party policies. The school interviews pupils and judges them on seven criteria, including extracurricular interests and belief in a Christian ethos.

The bottom line is that the headteacher is looking for pupils who are bright and articulate – whatever their background. Because the school is nearly 500 years old, and was based in Mile End Road until the 1970s, it has seen its remit as being to educate children from many areas in the east end. It is now based in the leafy suburb of Upminster, but serves a very wide catchment area.

Teaching at the school has made me aware how important it is for highly intelligent children to learn in a friendly, intellectual environment.

Unfortunately, my experience has been that clever children can often – but not always – become disaffected in classrooms where there are a lot of kids who are struggling with the curriculum. There’s no one to compete with. In such contexts, it’s much easier for clever kids to switch off and think up intelligent scams for winding up the teacher. In non-selective schools I have taught in I have seen quite a few very bright pupils – boys in particular – give up entirely.

In my school, where results are among the best in the country, boys achieve at more or less the same level as the girls, because the competitive atmosphere to succeed spurs them on. Such levels of achievement among boys are unheard of in most comprehensives. Seeing this has made me think that perhaps cities like London could benefit from schools that select according to ability. The trouble is, many cities like London are tremendously polarised. Adhering to a non-selective system has created ghettoisation in urban schools. Many are dominated by one social or ethnic group. Giving schools the power to select pupils is a good way round this: it means a mix of pupils from different backgrounds can be achieved.

Ironically, it is the non-selective system, whose champions pride themselves on being so inclusive, that is the most divisive.

Why should the prime minister be one of the very few people who has the opportunity to send his children to a state-funded school that is selective in all but name?


  1. I agree, the other selective Catholic School at the time was John Fisher in Croydon Surrey. John Fisher was massively oversubscribed and was interviewing boys and their parents from all over London and home counties.

    What is lesser known is that schools like John Fisher and the Oratory were also taking some pupils based on ability and music places too. John Fisher became stopped selecting boys 12 years ago using the interviews and other means- Oratory only stopped selecting boys in 2006/2007.

    from Charlotte
  2. Charlotte:-

    As a resident of Lingfield (Surrey) I can tell you that due to the lack of excellent state schools in our area Catholic parents had little choice other than to drive their kids to St Bede’s in Redhill or put them on the train to JF or LO.

    It was and remains a sad fact that for many parents sending their kids across county lines or into Central London to highly selective faith or Grammar schools are the only alternatives unless you have an extra 15-20 grand for school fees.

    John Fisher was forced to stop selecting its boys in the year 2000 meaning they can no longer interview boys from all over South of England but must take local candidates instead. Same applies to Oratory but they take only the most devout Catholics from all over London, it’s just a different type of selection.

    from David Clarke
  3. I think Tony Blair and Harriett Harman should not be criticised for actually putting their kids through selective Catholic schools in the 90’s as they actually broke the notion that you had to send your kids to independent schools.

    There was no chance Blair would have sent his boys to a non-selective school in Islington.

    from David Clarke
  4. And neither did Nick Clegg, a very decent man who everyone saw what a dilemma this was for him (his choice of secondary school for his eldest son).

    I predict you will now see a mad dash for formerly selective Catholic schools like the Oratory, John Fisher and Coloma Convent from parents priced out of the fee-paying sector and not wishing to risk not getting into the few Grammars.

    It is well known that these schools are mainly filled with middle class kids, from middle income homes, they only accept the most devout.

    from Charlotte
  5. As someone who attended one of these schools at the time, I can tell you that they were highly- in fact EXTREMELY selective. John Fisher which is a single sex boys comp in Purley (Croydon, Surrey) used to have an intake of around 100 boys per year prior to going non-selective in ’99/00.

    This meant the school was a small Catholic school, but it was interviewing and testing boys from all over the South East.

    I think the Oratory is still flying high on the league tables along with Coloma (girls, also in Croydon) and Cardinal Vaughn (Chelsea) but whereas these schools used to give a kid from a rough side of town a chance of attending, they only take the most devout Catholics from their often expensive catchment areas.

    from W Rhys-Jones

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