I’m not a parent yet, thankfully – it’d hardly do much for my career progression, as a 21-year-old undergraduate – but as somebody with a personal interest in how school background affects diversity, and who sat (and failed) an 11-plus, attitudes to selective education have always interested me.
From what I’ve observed – which, admittedly, has been confined to a world of lower-middle-class people from Greater London and the home counties – parents fret about securing the ‘best’ schooling for their children. But ‘best’, here, always seems to implicitly mean ‘selective’, with a focus on academic performance alone. It’s self-evident, apparently, that the school with the highest grade average is the best for their child – always.
I wonder, however, at this logic. True, a selective school might seem a better pick than a non-selective school, because on average the students achieve higher marks. But that in and of itself isn’t evidence that the school itself was responsible. The very nature of a selective school is that it selects – so, even before the school has taught anything, should score higher on tests and achieve better grades. The figures you should be looking at are how much children improve between joining the school and leaving, compared to others. Otherwise, there’s no evidence that the average will affect your individual child.
It’s also important to consider that grades really aren’t everything. All else being equal, it’s better to achieve high grades than lower; but unless a child’s set on academia, they’ll also need a multitude of other factors to secure and succeed in a job. An A* in, say, Philosophy, proves you can write a complex, often long, theoretical essay. It doesn’t prove you can clearly communicate basic concepts quickly and efficiently, grasp the real-life commercial and business effects of events, or understand other peoples’ perspectives.
Consider, for example, the skills most employers rank highest: attention to detail, time management, interpersonal skills, and the ability to work well both individually and in a team (which school and academia really doesn’t prepare you for – sitting a test by yourself isn’t remotely similar to a professional team structure). With the honourable exception of attention to detail, academics don’t test, stretch or improve these important skills in the same way that workplace experience and peer collaboration does.
So, an academically selective school isn’t necessarily the best option – higher grade averages are no guarantee that your child themselves will achieve higher grades. And even if it does, several other skills are just as important, if not more so, which pure academia simply isn’t designed to nurture. In fact, some skills – particularly the ability to work with people from all walks of life – might well be better cultivated in a comprehensive school. But that’s a debate for another time!
- This post was originally written for Norton Rose Fulbright’s internal blog
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