Sunday, 11 September 2016

Not too cool to be clever

Many years ago I wrote a blog post on then topical subject of selection in education.  As they say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.  With grammar schools back in the news I was thinking about this again, and in particular my own experience in selective education, and comparing it with stories I’ve heard from my peers who didn’t go through the selection process.  And the one thing that seems to come up again and again from them was the stigma of being clever.

Being a geek and having been to university, my friends are a certain type, and being intelligent is very much part of that type.  And the thing that comes up again and again from them is that being intelligent is something that not only wasn’t valued by their peers in school, but it was a trigger for bullying.

This is something that I have trouble with.  Despite having had other problems, I was never bullied at school for being clever.  Every kid in my school had passed an exam to be there.  Being clever wasn’t something to pick on people for, because everyone knew that they had been selected on that basis.  This meant that nobody had to hide the fact that they were bright and, indeed, pupils even respected it.  The top of the class might not be the most popular kids, but they were never picked on for it.

The corollary of this, of course, is the other kids.  The ones who failed the magic test and were sent off to the other school.  This is the big problem with selection based on academic ability.  Those kids are the ones who were tagged as being failures at eleven years old.  Some of them will, of course, recover from that stigma and go on to live happy, productive lives.  Others won’t have.  I left Northern Ireland many years ago and don’t have the experience of living in that society and seeing how the selective education split affected the it, but my gut instinct is that it can’t be good.

(Incidentally, I wonder, in all the sound and fury of the current debate going on in England, if there’s been any research on how selective education has worked in Northern Ireland over the course of the last 50 years, given that it was only abolished properly a decade or so ago.  But then, since we’re all tired of experts, I would imagine probably not).

So for me, the big question is not about selection, but about how we go about having inclusive schools where intelligence isn’t something to be sneered at and a cause for bullying. Where children of all abilities can be educated together in an atmosphere of mutual respect, whether your gift is academic, musical, sporting, making or whatever. How do introduce this culture into families where the parents might have been the ones doing the sneering at the “swots” in their own school days? This is where the Government should be focusing its resoures, not bending backwards for the middle Englanders who want to go back to a golden age of education that never existed.

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