I recently read an article which pointed out that, if there were a school with two dinner queues, a short one which specially attractive dishes reserved for those pupils who scored As and Bs for their work, and a much longer one with more mundane food for the rest, we should be horrified.
But by selective education we do exactly that, and the reward for the selected is not just a tastier lunch, but all the best opportunities in life.
I trained as a teacher in the late 1950s and the evidence about grammars versus comprehensives has not changed much since then. Research consistently shows that, in a selective system the "best" do not perform significantly better, but the "middle" do significantly worse than in a comprehensive system. The reason seems to be that the presence of the "bright" stimulates and inspires the "less bright." Analysis of the GCSE and A-level results in areas such as Kent, which still has grammar schools, shows that their over-all performance is below that of areas with a comprehensive system.
Even if there were advantages, it is universally understood that selection at the age of 11+ is highly unreliable (children develop at different rates, even if they are not "hothoused" by private tuition) and the stigma of non-selection (ie rejection) can niggle for the rest of one's life, as this letter from a "late developer" Dr Michael Paraskos shows.
So Teresa May's decision to allow grammar schools to be established where none exist at present will do harm rather than good. If is yet another government decision based on prejudice rather than evidence. What Mrs May does not emphasise is that for every 20% liberated from consorting with the the rest of society 80% will be rejected: each grammar school will be accompanied by three secondary-moderns (though in a piece of convoluted jargon Education Secretary Justine Greening has described them as "High Quality Non-Selective Schools" - who (she'd probably prefer "whom") does she think she's kidding?)
Mrs May claims that that the aim of the policy is to promote social mobility and create a more efficient meritocracy. Not only is it more likely to do the reverse (the established middle classes will bust a gut to make sure their kids are in in the shorter dinner queue), we also need to ask ourselves if that is the sort of society we want. Michael Young, who coined the term "meritocracy"back in the 1950s, regarded it as a warning, not as an ideal. The concept had been satirised even earlier by R H Tawney, who in his Halley Stewart lectures of 1929 vividly described it as follows:
“It is possible that intelligent tadpoles reconcile themselves to the inconvenience of their position by reflecting that, though most of them will live and die as tadpoles and nothing more , the more fortunate of the species will one day shed their tales, distend their moths and stomachs, hope nimbly onto dry land , and croak addresses to their former friends on the virtues by means of which tadpoles of character and capacity can rise to be frogs”
Surely the purpose of true education is not to enable a minority in climb higher up as social ladder but to
enable everyone to develop their talents, whatever they, are to the full, and to live a fullest possible life in a society where all are equally respected.