Theo Hobson

A meritocratic private school system

A meritocratic private school system
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Northern Ireland is trying to decommission its grammar schools. The case against selection is being made with the familiar vehemence: a system that allows an 11-year-old child to fail a test and be branded second-rate is retrograde. This seems to be the official line of all the main political parties in mainland Britain.

But none of them quite believes it. The problem with this line is that, if strictly adhered to, it would lead to the banning of private schools. For many middle-class children fail to get into the top private schools, and such failure might come at the tender age of seven. Such selection is part of the daily reality of private schooling. But this is irrelevant, you might say, for little Ophelia will be sent to another good school if she fails to get into the very best. Yes, but many pupils from poorer backgrounds sit scholarship exams to private schools, mostly at around the age of ten, and failure means staying in the state system. Should these scholarships be banned, as they entail subjecting children to a selection process?

I might seem to be arguing for the return of grammar schools, but actually I am not. The solution is to recognize that we already have a large selective sector: the private schools. Of course this sector chiefly selects on grounds of parents’ wealth rather than children’s aptitude, but this could change. Private schools should be made more meritocratic. Half of all places, at all high-performing private schools, should be state-funded scholarships. Maybe in time these schools would become entirely meritocratic, like all universities are. Some public schools are trying to move in this direction, but we need legislation to shift the paradigm.

This is the only way of breaking down the educational apartheid that mars our society. Or rather, it is the only way other than banning private schools altogether, which is generally agreed to be an illiberal move. Once opened up to a wider pool of talent, our best schools would deserve to be called ‘public’ again.