top of page
Selective education: beyond the post-war consensus?

Selection for school places – whether academically or otherwise – ranks among the most polarising topics in education policy, with equally passionate advocates and detractors. But this was not always the case, with the inception of grammar schools attracting cross-party support as part of the post-war consensus. Is there a role for such schools today? What can be learned from the successes and failures of the past?

Click on the icons below to read our authors' analyses of these questions.


The famous Education Act 1944 – the “Butler Act” – had among its central aims the widening of fee-free access to good schools, and the development of a structure which could better meet the particular aptitudes of each pupil.


At the time, its proposal to set up a tripartite school system — opening up grammar schools to academically inclined pupils regardless of background, establishing technical schools, and setting up secondary-modern schools — attracted cross-party support. Undoubtedly, the selective grammar schools did their work to the extent that they provided opportunities which would previously have been beyond their reach to academically able children, who would go on to populate the professions. By 1971, for instance – after decades of public-school domination – only four of the 21 heads of Civil Service Departments attended major public schools; the other 17 were grammar school pupils.


That consensus, of course, has since been lost, and the notion of academic selection is now anathema to many on both Left and Right. The principle of opening the best schools to pupils from every type of background has been replaced with more diffuse and less well-defined notions of “fairness”. Making the case for comprehensive education in particular, the conventional argument seems to run that because the needs of all pupils are the same, if all go to the same type of school, then all will have the same opportunities.


It seems, however, that this approach has done nothing to sever the link between educational achievement and financial background. By 2012, the Sutton Trust’s survey of the UK’s leading people found that 10 independent schools accounted for 12% of “top people”, with Eton College alone producing 330. By comparison, the two top comprehensive schools each produced 6. Fee-paying schools accounted for over half of the Civil Service, Commissioned Officers in HM Forces, and the law.


These are inconvenient facts for those advocating that selective schools reduce opportunity, but it is not difficult to rationalise how this might have come about. Curtailing a school’s ability to tailor its programme to the aptitudes of the academically most able and to select its pupils accordingly simply destroys a provision of academic excellence for those unable to pay. Viewed in this light, advocates of a non-selective system seem merely to be punishing grammar schools for doing their job, whilst doing absolutely nothing for pupils with other needs and different aptitudes.


Our focus, then, should not be on attacking grammar schools, but on shoring up those parts of Butler’s “three-legged stool” which did fail. The intended range of technical schools, designed to sit alongside grammar schools and cater for pupils with more practical or vocational abilities, never materialised.


All too often, therefore, selective education was allowed to be cast as sorting between “winners” and “losers”, and this thinking is perpetuated a persistent and damaging attitude which sees academic prowess as the only authentic success. It is telling, for instance, that many vocational qualifications have chosen to imitate the aesthetic of academia – with gowns and hoods and square caps – rather than forging their own distinct identity. Such thinking will endure for as long as vocational training is seen as something to be considered only if one does poorly at school, for as long as apprenticeships or technical courses are to be done in spite of, not because of, one’s school education.


What is required, therefore, is more plural, less prescriptive approach, unleashing the potential of individual schools to cater to the abilities of their pupils. Butler’s three-legged stool can become a many-legged stool, with schools given the freedom to specialise in particular subject areas, technical disciplines or vocational callings, and the freedom to select their pupils accordingly.


A small core of academic subjects — rather than equipping a child for some notional future job — would affirm the idea that the study of any rigorous discipline has an intrinsic value, and enshrine the merits which the process of learning has for whatever the learner goes on to be and do. Academic study must be about the opening and nourishing of a mind. It must inculcate a love of wisdom, an appreciation of beauty, and an understanding of the power of curiosity.


Outside that core, pupils could pursue their studies across the whole panoply of endeavour according to their interests, aptitudes, and ambitions, all the while honing the fundamental skills which will stand them in excellent stead for their futures.


If schools are to be given such freedom, however, so too must parents be given the freedom to make choices over their children’s education. And for those choices to be meaningful, it must be ensured that the competition is genuine. Parents must, for instance, be provided with accurate measures of performance to inform their choices and the overriding emphasis of proximity in allocating a pupil to a school must be diluted. In the same vein, we must explore what more can be done to encourage the creation of new schools and examine any artificial barriers preventing so-called “failing schools” from leaving the market.


That way, a genuinely competitive schools system can develop, incentivised always to innovate and improve in the best interests of the pupils – of all abilities, aptitudes and backgrounds – which it is its duty to serve.

Dr Robert Thomas is a scientist, writer and Executive Director of Accademia.

bottom of page