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Professor Tony Gallagher, head of the School of Education at Queen’s, answers readers’ queries....

Published 24/08/2009

Q: Leave the grammar schools as they are, they are not the problem. Should we not instead put the effort into raising standards in the non-selective secondary schools?

(Realist Parent, via email)

A: Almost all grammar schools achieve consistently high standards, while the pattern of performance among secondary schools is much more variable.

This has led some to argue that grammar schools should be left alone and that any problems in the system largely reside in some of the secondary schools, or may even have roots earlier in the education system, at primary or even pre-school stages.

This view is not consistent with the Department of Education’s plans for school improvement which assume that all schools need to improve — a high performing school may not be pushing its pupils to achieve their full potential.

The accepted wisdom internationally is that schools are not autonomous, but operate as part of a system.

Furthermore, systems which involve early academic selection exacerbate social divisions between academic and non-selective schools, impose different status on the schools and lead to wide inequities in overall performance levels.

If this view is accurate then significant improvement can only be made if the system as a whole is changed, rather than particular parts of it.

The more important point, however, is that ending or retaining selection at 11 is only one element of a much wider range of issues that need to be addressed if we are to develop an education system that truly encourages all pupils to maximize their potential.

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