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Could selection by ability solve the STEM skills gap? 16.09.16

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This blog is a personal view from Paul Noonan

Theresa May’s plans to bring back grammar schools have provoked uproar among the education establishment. Yet the nature of the criticism itself offers a revealing insight into the British attitude to education that may also help explain our STEM skills shortage.

Critics claimed that grammar schools divide children into “successes” or failures at the age of 11, and accused the Government of planning a “two-tier education system.” But these slogans contain the same implicit assumption that, in a selective system, anyone who fails the 11+ will be a “failure”, relegated to a lower “tier” of society. Could it be precisely this attitude that lies behind the decline in the number of young people who take up STEM apprenticeships?

As the head of one of Britain’s best private schools said this week, in praising the return of grammar schools: “‘An acceptance of the value of an academic education is a great step forward, but only if we also cure the British disease of disdain for a vocational education.”

These critics seem to have forgotten that the original vision for British selective education, contained in the 1944 Butler Act, was not for a “two-tier” system but a tripartite system including thousands of technical schools to teach children technical skills and supply our once-great manufacturing industry.

This vision is the basis of the tripartite school system in Germany, where vocational education is valued as highly as academic education and technical apprenticeships are valued as highly as University degrees. As a result, two thirds of young Germans undertake apprenticeships and the country has a manufacturing industry that is the envy of Europe.

Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner also attacked the plans with the slogan “segregation, segregation, segregation.” Yet is it really wrong to allow children to attend schools tailored to their interests and abilities just as different children excel at different sports?

The vision of a comprehensive education system where every classroom is a melting pot dissolving society’s inequalities is based on the view that all children are fundamentally a blank slate ready to be moulded by egalitarian teachers. Inequality is just a social construct, according to fashionable doctrine.

Yet biology doesn’t conform to this utopian vision; research has repeatedly confirmed that genes play a large part in children’s educational attainment and even their choice of subjects.

Surely, in this case, children would benefit from being able to specialise in their strongest subjects with others of a similar aptitude, rather than all being crammed into the same school. Segregating school-children in this way could even help solve the shortfall of women in STEM; in the US the Young Women’s Leadership Academy has pioneered all-girls STEM schools, which have a 100% success rate in sending their pupils on to higher education.

The old view that the 11+ represents a ‘sliding doors moment’ between success and failure has become a self-fulfilling prophecy; the longer we continue to undervalue other types of education, from technical schools to apprenticeships, the more that this will remain true.

If we valued vocational education as highly as academic education-and invested in thousands of new city technology colleges alongside new grammar schools-we could simultaneously stop ‘stigmatising’ children who fail to get into grammar schools and solve the STEM skills shortage.

And instead of a school system built on Procrustean uniformity, we could have a kaleidoscope of schools that reflect the rich diversity of human beings themselves.

If you have any questions about my blog please email me at Paul.noonan@aprilsixproof.com