Let’s roll out elitism in education so poor children benefit too

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 4 January 2016 in Diary
Nicky Morgan's next move should be to create a very small number of state schools with the freedom to select the most gifted children regardless of their wealth

Imagine if the single best school in the country was a state school. Imagine if dozens of young people from this school went on to Britain’s top universities every year and imagine that most went on to challenge for the highest-paid and most respected jobs.

In modern Britain, where independent schools dominate league tables, it is impossible to imagine. However, if we truly believe in offering the best education to all, regardless of family wealth, this must be our aspiration. How do we get there?

Michael Gove’s revolutionary education reforms – driven forward by Nicky Morgan – were welcome and vital. They have created the conditions for a mass improvement in the state sector. Creative outsiders now have the opportunity to introduce innovative new teaching methods and to follow whatever curriculum they consider best. Obviously only a minority of schools will choose to teach a radically different curriculum. However, those that achieve success in doing so will act as examples to the rest of the system - and the rest of the system will have the freedom to follow them.

This new, diverse system will raise standards across the board – which should be the main objective of any country’s education system. As I have written before on Total Politics, a campaign to expand parents’ and pupils’ understanding of what the country’s best schools teach and expect will also help to raise standards. However, while the primary objective should be to raise the quality of all schools (while ensuring that the most gifted children have access to the materials they need to help them meet their potential), we need something more to create truly world class state schools.

Realistically, the only way we can do this is to create a very small number of state schools that have the freedom to select the most gifted children regardless of their wealth – perhaps just several thousand in a given year - and which provide these children with the most academically demanding education available anywhere in the country. 

Such elite academic institutions would run their own admissions systems. Exams and interviews to test children’s aptitude would measure intelligence and gauge potential – doing whatever possible to avoid the sorts of tests that reward either extensive coaching or the confidence and eloquence that more middle class children are more likely to receive from their parents. While they would be free to design their own curriculum – in the same way that Free Schools and Academies can – there would be a clear expectation that they would learn from the best comparable schools in other countries.

This would likely mean that they would teach a very broad curriculum to 18, rather than following the traditional British model of early specialisation. That said, these schools would likely focus particularly heavily on Maths and Science – subjects that enable children to be truly creative in a range of important disciplines such as computing, medicine, engineering and design. And it is also likely – inevitable really – that they would follow a knowledge-rich curriculum that emphasises the need to learn and process information.

These schools could begin when pupils start preparing for their GCSEs, or even when they first begin secondary education. Either way, it is vital that they provide multiple opportunities for gifted children to join the school. A criticism regularly levelled at grammar schools is the fact that many children develop later but find themselves excluded from an academic education that might have suited them. While these schools would not be responsible for writing any children off – because they would be taking such a small amount of children in the first place – gifted students should be able to apply at more suitable times.

These elite state schools would have little in common with grammar schools. While they would be formally in the state sector, their small size means that they would have no impact on the wider school system. Assuming that, for example, these schools would take in around 60 children a year, that means that most schools would not send any children at all. While competition for places at such schools would no doubt be extremely competitive, most parents (and pupils) would know whether their child was truly gifted, and therefore whether they should apply. Because of this, it seems unlikely in the extreme that parents would begrudge their creation in the first place – few parents would feel like their child was genuinely losing out. The Government should have no fear about relaxing the rules on selection for these schools.

While parents would not oppose such a move, there would clearly be ferocious opposition from those that find elitism in education uncomfortable. Reality check – we allow it already, with highly academic schools in the independent sector charging vast sums. It cannot be right that such an elite education is only available to the extremely rich. Children from poor backgrounds and ordinary middle class backgrounds should have the same opportunity to receive an elite education too, assuming they can cope with the standards required.

The increasingly diverse and creative education system that the Government has created is far more suitable for gifted children – and in fact children of all abilities – because it can be so much more responsive to the demands of children. But the truly gifted need something that most schools cannot give them – extremely highly qualified teaching, a very demanding curriculum that stretches them permanently and not just occasionally, university level coaching and access, and perhaps most importantly, other gifted pupils that they can work with.

Yes, such schools would have very high expectations and with that would come pressure. Such an environment would not suit every child. But the education system has a duty to get the best from every child. Just as we rightly worry about those with learning difficulties and behavioural problems, so we need to worry about how to help the most gifted children reach their potential.


James Frayne is director of policy and strategy at Policy Exchange and author of Meet the People, a guide to public communications.

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