Opinion: Is Selective Education Harmful To A Nation? A Look At The History of British Education.

Recently there has been increased dissatisfaction of the education system in Europe and the United States. While the United States has had a long history of “public schools,” Britain was slow to move towards schools that educated many students. This is not to say that the United State’s early schools were all inclusive and comprehensive schools, but they moved to that model by the early 1900’s. Most children were attending local schools for at least some education by that time.

Currently there are a lot of questions about whether a public education that serves many students, and prepares students for a slathering of jobs, is the best way to educate children. Specifically in Great Britain there has been a large increase in families choosing to home school their children verse attend a public school. This is not too far off from Britain’s historical perspectives. Traditionally most British families felt that selective schooling (private schools or specific trade schools that were exclusive) were best for society. However, selective schools tended to keep children born to poverty in poverty, and the wealthy families continued to afford better education.

To examine this issue a little closer, I started looking into the history of Britain’s education. Since Britain has been slow to move to public schooling, and is now showing interest in more homeschooling, I wanted to explore their educational history more.


British Educational History

Like many of the earliest schools, British schools were linked with churches. These were anywhere from 600-1100 A.D. and were to teach priests either songs or Latin. By the 13th century, the concept of universities began to spring up. Society demanded a way to learn to practice law or medicine. Most of the liberal education was focused on rhetoric or art.

Eventually by 1800’s, the British government mandated that children who were learning a trade also receive several years of reading and writing instruction. During this time, “Sunday Schools” (schools to teach poor how to read the Bible), “Schools of Industry” (schools to teach a specific trade), and “Monitorial Schools” (schools that started a more modern concept of multiple students in one room) started to pop up and allow a specific audience to attend. All of these schools were started by people who believed in mass education and at the time were typically found to be unfavorable.

Eventually Britain started moving towards public elementary schools, however, they were far behind other countries. Due to this fact, they realized they needed a mass education system to produce an educated workforce. These did not look like our modern schools though, these were selective schools and typically kept poor children in trade schools. A fascinating quote by Sir David Eccles says,

“One has to choose between justice and equality, for it is impossible to apply both principals at once. Those who support comprehensive schools (mass public education) prefer equality. Her Majesty’s present government prefer justice. My colleagues and I will never allow local authorities to assassinate the grammar schools (selective schools mostly for the rich).”

What a fascinating quote! Even TS Elliot had doubts that mass education was “lower standards” and would not be good for their “culture.” This quote implies that equality and justice were viewed as different outcomes. Whereas today, we typically talk about these two words in tandem.

During the 1960’s public schools were not widely available but were gaining more favor. Middle class families wanted their children to be educated, and started looking for options. Similar to many issues facing the United States today, the richer families wanted selective schools, while families with less money were in favor of comprehensive schools. Wealthier families wanted their children to be in school with other wealthy children. Middle class families were looking to raise their children up. Families who were in poverty were still most missing formal schooling and were attending trade schools and apprenticeships.

During the 19th century, Great Britain was able to be the leading world power in industry. This was probably due to their selective schools that provided trade apprenticeships for people going into labor fields. However, they were quickly surpassed by the US and other countries in the 20th century. The US was pumping out a larger work force by having a larger percentage of its students go into industry. Near the end of the 20th century, Britain started to increase their ability to be a world power. While there are many factors that go into an economy, one factor was the continued spread of “comprehensive” schooling. Children all over the country were attending school.

Going back to their education reform, in 1993 the Education Act was passed and made it the governments responsibility to educate all children. It also included educational rights for students with disabilities and required school attendance. I can not possibly imagine what Sir David Eccles would have been thinking. Perhaps equality would systematically make the nation dumber?

Source: Gillard D (2011) Education in England: a brief historywww.educationengland.org.uk/history

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What Does This All Mean?

Currently there is another movement for change in Britain. Parents are looking again towards more selective schools (schools who do not admit everyone), or quite frankly, home schooling where they can be as selective as possible.

As I go back to my original thoughts, I cannot help but see some flaws in continuing to allow selective education. Looking at Britain, their education system was far slower (about 50 years slower) at evolving into a more modern approach. It could be argued that because their schools were selective, and their classes were so divided, they ended up isolating themselves. Putting students together that have the exact same background does not necessarily facilitate many new ideas. It is possible that if this divide was as extreme today, isolation would not occur due to the internet.

Additionally, one could add that leaving a portion of the population with no other options than trade schools keeps whole families away from wealth. Why should a child born in poverty be destined to stay there? Going back to Sir David Eccles quote, is it justice to allow a system that keeps a portion of the population to be destined for poverty?


A Conclusion and Additional Thoughts

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I am not championing public schools. I am the first to say that I have been unimpressed with many of the policies “comprehensive” schools have to offer. For many students with special needs, private schooling has been a complete game changer. That being said, an education that is meant to equalize the disparity between the rich and poor, cannot be successful if large portions of the rich are choosing other schooling options. When this occurs, the education is not equal. Different settings means different education. As I mentioned earlier, this is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that public education is not a crutch we can lean on as our method to “raise up our poverty.”

As far as globalization goes, it’s hard to predict how a nation of selective schooling (schools who only let specific students in) would effect our nation’s ability to be globalized. Would the internet completely null and void that concept? It’s hard to say.

What I do know is this: As of last June 2016, there were more babies born to minorities than to non-hispanic white people (Pew Research Center: It’s Official: Minority babies are the majority among the nation’s infants, but only just.If the US continues to have gaps in education (read the statistic here) between students who are white and students who are from minority groups, then we will have a majority of our population poorly educated.

Educational research shows that separating students on tracks, magnet schools, ESL classes, or even special education classes, typically create greater divides in educational achievement. If we want our current model of education to equalize our families who are in poverty, we all need to buy in and attend our local public schools.

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