Mr Balls runs an education system based on parental income

Ed Balls is playing to the left wing gallery again. He wishes to give them the impression that he is against selection, determined to write fairness into dishing out school places. Maybe he should take stock of just how much selection there is in English education, before asking himself the important question Is all selection wrong?

Many Labour figures regard selection by academic ability as especially pernicious. They dislike the grammars which used to give many a child from a modest background a better chance in life, including many of the Labour politicians themselves. Yet they happily preside over a system which uses academic ability as the main criterion for selection at 17, to allocate the scarcer places in College and University. They allow academic ability to be a criterion for selection at 11 and 13 in the private sector.

The government accepts selection based on ability when it comes to sport, music, and dance. Young people with an aptitude and passion for elite sport, dance and music are selected on ability, sometimes at young ages, to be given a superior training in these fields by the best teachers.

Labour mainly prefers selection by the income of parents. The children of the richest can obtain places in independent schools, which include the most prestigious, most academically successful and best resourced schools in the country. If your parents are poor and live in a low income borough or district, you will be sent to a comprehensive nearby. If your parents are better off and live in one of the more affluent areas, you will be sent to a neighbourhood comprehensive there. The gap between the achievement levels of comprehensives in the leafy suburbs and in the concrete jungles remains stubbornly large in favour of the richer areas, despite much larger sums of public money being spent on the poorer districts.

Labour also allows selection by religion of the parents. There are many flourishing faith schools in the state sector, offering a choice to people of various faiths. Whilst it is true that the government has sought to prevent discrimination against people of no religion or differing religions to that of the school, in practise people of religious faith in a local religious community have some choice in many cases.

It is time Mr Balls used some of the intelligence he is said to possess to give us an honest account of how our education system works. I would like to hear him explain why he thinks it is better to select children mainly on the basis of their parents income, rather than mainly on the basis of their own aptitudes and capacity for hard work.

Within limits I do not think young people are born natural sportsmen and women or natural academics. It is mainly what they choose to do and how much effort they put in, allied to how well they are taught and inspired. Yes, some people are brighter than others, and some people have larger feet (good for swimming) or longer legs (probably good for distance running). However, the biggest difference between a good sports person and the rest of us is the amount of training they do. The biggest difference between a good academic and the rest of us is the amount of reading they do.

Mr Balls needs to address the injustice that selection by parents income creates. I would not myself do that by banning good schools for rich people – that would just drive them offshore or to find some other way round the rules. What we need instead is a fair way of choosing and motivating children who do not have rich parents, so they too can shoot for the stars. That has to include selection, whether by competitive exam and specialised academies or through setting and streaming.


  1. john t
    November 3, 2008

    Agree – but at what age? I think 13.

  2. DiscoveredJoys
    November 3, 2008

    My wife and I are both ex grammar school students and we have both worked in jobs where cleverness and knowledge was important. This education was part of what enabled us to 'do better' than our parents (who were no less intelligent but had had less education).

    So yes, I support streaming, or even separate schools, for those who benefit from an academic education. However I regret the attitude (of my generation) that Secondary Moderns were only for the less able. Real life has shown me that many good people have made decent lives for themselves even though they were not suited to academic education.

    Perhaps we should adopt something like the Dutch system where those who are not so academically inclined benefit from a vocational education? This should not be intended as a dumping ground for the less able and a source of manual labourers and servants for the rich, but an opportunity be successful in another way. It need not be a soft option as it could include education about how to set up your own business, project management, practical accounting, and so on.

    One 'drawback' though – you have to accept the principle that children have to be assessed and encouraged to follow either the academic or vocational route. Not every child 'can win prizes' no matter how much you want equality, but you can make sure that more children have the opportunity for success.

  3. Blank Xavier
    November 3, 2008

    Amen to that, Mr. Redwood.

    I feel most intensely the loss of individual freedom in the States selection of education for children.

    If I am rich, I can choose where my child goes. Of course, I'm *still* paying for a State education which I'm not using.

    If I am not rich, or if I reasonably well off but decide to have more than one child, then I cannot afford to pay for the education I wish my children to have – while also paying for the State education they would not use. I must send them – *my children* – to be taught and grow in a place chosen by a civil servant who has never met me, or my children, or been to the place where they will be taught.

    And of course in all of this is when people pay for their childrends education the travesty of making them also continue to pay for a State education.

    If I buy myself a new car, and I forced to continue paying Stagecoach for their bus services?

    Having said this, education is important and I can see a case for arguing for State involvement to ensure educational opportunity. However, this must surely only be a tax-and-redistribute scheme, whereby everyone receives a voucher for education which they can spend as they wish *and add more to as they wish*.

    This would propel vast numbers of people into a position where they could afford private education, to the huge benefit of their children.

    Furthermore, it would encourage the development of a budget private educational sector which I suspect would so vastly surpass the State sector we would thankfully see the latters demise.

  4. Lola
    November 4, 2008

    Ed Balls won't do it as it will involve fessing up to another failed socialist mantra along with nationalisation (!). Once Labour scrapped cl4.4 it accepted that socialism was flawed and doomed. It will hang onto nationalised education and healthcare like grim death otherwise it will have nowhere to go and it will use every convolution of sophistry and statistics to 'prove' its case.

    Mrs Lola is a teacher and a very good one in a large comprehensive. She is wildly underpaid in comparison with other professionals in the law or accountancy or medicine. She is exploited by a monopoly that also overcharges its customers, us.

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