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Sunday, July 16, 2006 

Selective and mixed ability systems
Sunday, July 16th 2006

In his column 'Perspectives' in the Guyana Chronicle over the past two weeks, Dr Prem Misir has argued that a significant goal for policymakers is to reduce the influence of socio-economic status in education, so that "no child would be left behind." If he means that educational opportunities for all pupils no matter what their background should be equal in a general sense, and that the society should become more meritocratic so that everyone (no matter what their background) fulfils their potential as far as that is possible to do, then no one could have any quarrel. However, it may be open to question whether Dr Misir is a believer in a more meritocratic society, although he certainly wants to eliminate inequality in the system, which he is convinced will be achieved through the abolition of the SSEE and the introduction of mixed ability schools throughout the secondary system, including in the 27 'top' schools.

The old Guyanese school system, while retaining idiosyncracies of its own, took its inspiration from the one in England. It is still, it seems, influenced by the changes which have taken place there, since many of our local educational reforms - both proposed and already in place - bear a close resemblance to those introduced a long time ago in England and Wales. These include the abandonment of a selective secondary system in favour of comprehensive (mixed ability) schools, and the abolition of the Common Entrance exam. While the circumstances of the two national systems are not exactly equivalent, nevertheless, the English experience can serve as a kind of laboratory for us, which would allow us to get some indication of what the consequences might be if we took exactly the same route.

Dr Misir quotes two British educational researchers, Drs Galindo-Ruedo and Vignoles in support of some of his contentions; however, not everything they have to say perhaps, would supply reinforcement for all his positions. In a 2003 paper they concluded that the achievement of the least able pupils had increased substantially in the mixed ability system in the secondary schools, but what they call "cognitive ability" had a less important role to play in the educational outcomes of English children educated under this system than of those who receiv-ed their schooling under the old selective regime.

Whether one regards the reduced role of ability in determining educational achievement in a positive or a negative light, depends on what kind of 'equality' one is seeking in the school system. As said above, for his part, Dr Misir might appear not to be comfortable with any kind of meritocratic ends, writing approvingly of arrangements "which could now be responsible for reducing the disparity in educational achievement between the most able and the least able students."

However, the two British researchers have a word of caution: in 2003 they expressed themselves uncertain as to whether the attainments of the least able in a comprehensive school system represented a genuine increase in achievement, or a "dumbing down" of the content of qualifications. In a paper last year, they were a little less hesitant in their conclusions, saying that many commentators had argued that the "comprehensive experiment" had reduced standards, and that "to some extent" their findings had borne this out. In addition, they found that the most able pupils did "somewhat better" in selective schools than their counterparts of similar ability in mixed ability schools. In other words, the most able would be afforded greater opportunities to develop in a more competitive structure.

The real problem from Dr Misir's point of view, however, is the discovery that those who benefited most from the mixed ability system were not less able pupils from poorer socio-economic backgrounds as anticipated - although they did benefit - but the less able wealthier children, whose educational achievement increased more than that of any other group. That was something, the researchers wrote, which "the architects of the comprehensive school failed to predict." In England and Wales at least, therefore, far from a mixed ability system eliminating socio-economic background from the educational equation, it appears to have reinforced it, although in an unexpected way.

It is possible, of course, that there may be special social reasons why this happened in England, and that the effect might not be replicated here; however, it is a lesson that in human systems sometimes the best-intentioned plans can have quite unpredictable consequences. In any case, owing to falling educational standards the English and Welsh have moved a long way from their blanket mixed ability system of two decades ago, although the hybrid arrangements which now operate are far removed from the old selective grammar school system of the 1950s either. Having said that, there are grammar schools still in place in certain parts of the country, some of which are at the top of what are called the 'league tables' of schools, although their continued existence is a matter of controversy.

In its simplest terms most societies nowadays want to raise the educational standards of their entire school populations equalising opportunities as far as they can, at the same time encouraging the talent on which every modern state depends. The findings from the UK studies mentioned above might seem to indicate that the most able children do better in selective schools, and the least able in mixed ability schools, the qualification about the wealthiest benefiting the most from these schools notwithstanding. But of course there is no incompatibility about having both mixed ability and selective arrangements in place at the same time. In fact, the research in England might seem to suggest that the most able pupils can be educated in selective schools without any deleterious effect on the achievement of other pupils in mixed ability educational institutions.

At the moment we do not in this country have equal secondary opportunities for all, since there are not enough places in secondary schools to cater for everyone. However, it is the intention of the Ministry of Education to completely abolish community high schools and primary tops, and increase the number of secondary schools to a level which can accommodate for the entire 11+ population. It is largely because of the deficit of secondary school places that the ministry for the time being is retaining a semi-selective system in the form of the 'top' 27 schools, access to which will depend on marks from 'assessments' in the primary schools. What it may be worthwhile for them to consider is retaining some variant of these arrangements (with an in-built flexibility), even after they are able to provide proper secondary schooling for everyone.

© Stabroek News

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