Academic selection helps the poor – yes or no?

22 Feb 2017 |

Welcome to the Global Education & Skills Forum 2017 Debate Chamber. This debate will see both sides argue that they have the best interests of less wealthy students at heart. But what case might each side make at Atlantis, The Palm in Dubai?  

Those who favour academic selection could argue that academic selection offers a ‘leg up’ to the brightest children, regardless of background. It gives them the chance to reach the highest levels of education and employment, challenging elites and promoting social mobility.

The opposing side might say that far from promoting social mobility, academic selection inhibits it, reinforcing class division and middle-class privilege.

Opposing views for academic selection may be a common debate in general education circles, but at the Global Education & Skills Forum 2017, we will see two sides commit to winning a ‘real’ answer as it relates to Global Citizenship Education. Here’s how they might go about mounting their cases.

Why academic selection works

1          Poorer children who get into selective schools tend to do well

There is evidence that those from disadvantaged backgrounds who get into selective schools do better than those who do not.

In English selective schools in 2015 the achievement levels between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students was about three percentage points, compared to a 23 percentage point difference outside the selective system.

2          People see selective schools as good for social mobility

A survey carried out in the UK found that nearly twice as many parents thought selection was good for social mobility rather than bad.

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3          Selective schools offer opportunity to all income levels

The same survey showed a clear desire amongst parents for their children to go to a selective school. The majority was overwhelming, regardless of wealth.

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Every parent wants their child to go to the best school and this may explain the enthusiasm shown by politicians in many countries for a selective element in education.

Why academic selection doesn’t work

1          Selection can create great social differences between schools

The OECD says (PDF document) that selecting pupils on the basis of academic achievement tends to create great social differences between schools.

It also increases the link between socio-economic status and performance – it tends to accelerate the progress of those who have already gained the best start in life from their parents.

2          Better educated parents benefit from the system

In areas with selective schools, wealthier parents are able to better prepare children for entry tests through private tuition. This can distort intake, allowing less academically gifted children from wealthy background to gain places.

3          Selective schools widen the gap between best and worst off

The evidence from England suggests selective schools are benefitting the wealthy much more than they benefit the more deprived and widen the gap between the best and worst off.

The graph below shows that for both selective and non-selective schools (‘the rest’), the gap between richer and poorer students’ grades increases as wealth increases. And areas which have selective systems – shown in orange – actually increase the benefits that being richer has on grades.

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So the answer is…

Complicated. The evidence, from the United Kingdom at least, is that poorer students who get into selective schools benefit substantially. But wealthy students benefit even more.

And in places where parents have an element of choice in where their children go to school, this often increases inequality as better informed, wealthier parents are able to do much more to ensure their children get into the selective schools.

Which side will prevail? Find out by attending the Debate Chamber at the Global Education and Skills Forum 2017, taking place in Dubai on 18th and 19th March. Find out more here.