The 11-plus exam that determined your fate for life was a cruel and simplistic way of selecting ability. The comprehensive system did away with it, but in doing so took away what many saw as a means for talented children from poorer backgrounds to be able to maximise their potential. The question is: how can we achieve selection in a way that works for all?
My solution to all these problems is quite simple: at secondary school level there should be a different school for each year. In this scenario schools would be grouped into clusters of five with one for each year up to GCSE level, or as near to that number as possible (in rural areas it would be fewer, or not possible at all). I would suggest that the school clusters are deliberately designed to span wealthy and poor areas of a city. It would mean a long commute to school for many in some of the years but then many working people have to cope with that so it’s not a reason not to do it. As a teenager I would have enjoyed going to a different school in each year as I became somewhat bored of the same teachers and going to the same location year after year. It would also mean kids could mix with a greater number of people of the same age. At school it was unusual to socialise with people more than a year older or younger and with a school of 1000 children of the same age I think school would be more enjoyable. There would have to be free bus travel for kids so those from very poor households could afford to travel across town. This cost would be considerable but free local buses for all is something I have always believed in so I regard this as an integral part of the plan, to be paid for by higher taxes on the better-off.
The key advantage of this arrangement is that it will allow for a much greater number of “streams” of ability than is possible at present. At the moment schools generally have 3 classes in each year in key subjects like maths that teach at 3 levels of ability. However, for a talented child attending a low achieving school (generally in a poorer area) the top stream will not likely be sufficiently challenging for them. The advantage of the system I am suggesting is that there could potentially be, say, 12 classes of maths, English and science in each year, and more streams than are currently in place for other subjects, therefore allowing all children to be taught with others at a much closer level of ability. A child from a disadvantaged background who had a strong ability in, say, maths would then be able to sit in a class with other highly talented children. It would provide a grammar school-style opportunity without the one-size-fits-nobody sledge-hammer approach of the ruthless 11-plus system. Plus, if a child is good at maths and physics, but not very good at English and Humanities, they could be in the top set for maths and a lower set for English, rather than simply being in a grammar school or a secondary modern.
Another advantage of having a far greater number of classes for each subject is that there could be one or two classes reserved for children with behavioural difficulties. That would mean schools could adopt a zero-tolerance approach to bad behaviour in class, and simply move difficult children into these special classes to end disruption in class for the well-behaved majority.
The teaching unions might not like the reduced level of variety in their working day but there would be no need for any change to pay and conditions. The removal of disruptive children into special classes might be very welcomed by the majority of teachers. Some teachers could then specialise in teaching difficult children. It would also mean that teachers only had a fifth as much lesson planning to do which would probably go down very well indeed.
It would also end, or significantly curtail, the nonsense of the present system where parents bend over backwards, including doing such things as faking Catholicism, in order to get their children into the right school. With all children being taught in classes at a level more closely aligned to their abilities, and with bad behaviour in class significantly reduced, then all schools could claim to be good schools and there would be far less need to move across town into the catchment area of the most favoured school.
Some of the school clusters might turn out to be a little better than others perhaps, but I believe that the gap would be much narrower than the current gap between good and bad schools. In any case, if one school had a catchment of young people who were less able on average than those in another area the system of having so many streams of ability would mean the talented child could still be taught in a class with others of high ability.
A requirement of this policy would be an end to religious state schools as schools would be drawing children from all backgrounds. However, I regard this as a positive step as I believe religious schools worsen social division. It would also require an end to the "free schools" being pursued by the current government but their value is highly questionable in any case.
As a package of measures I think this would enable selection that works for everyone and allow every child to maximise their ability.