Reflections on an exciting and enlightening debate

Dr Philip Cook, University of Leicester

Dr Philip Cook, University of LeicesterWell-informed and impassioned; exciting and enlightening: last night’s Leicester Exchanges debate was a wonderful event. A highly experienced and knowledgeable audience contributed enthusiastically to the exchanges between the panel members, and amidst the heat of argument some important issues emerged that demand further attention.

As I argued in my earlier piece, we need to distinguish carefully between education and schooling. Robert McCartney defended ardently the educational benefits of selection and grammar schools. He made the astute point that most comprehensives also practice academic selection within their schools through streaming and setting. There is no doubt that a successful education system will include elements of academic selection in order that children’s particular educational needs can be met.

But schools are about more than delivering education. Schools are important civic institutions. Defenders of the comprehensive ideal on the panel and in the audience emphasised that the comprehensive ideal was driven by political as well as education values. In a democratic society where all are entitled to equal respect and dignity, we must prevent segregation and promote inclusion and integration. Whilst there may be a role for academic selection in order to help children achieve their potential within comprehensive schools, the social consequences of creating selective schools is enormous and invidious.

Philip Cook

Dr Cook from the University of Leicester’s Department of Politics and International Relations

Whilst all selection that leads to social segregation may be invidious, most pernicious is hidden and unaccountable selection. And in this respect grammar schools are largely blameless as they are open, explicit and maintained grammars are accountable to the local community through ballots about their selection policies. The real threats to an inclusive civil society are the opaque and unaccountable selection policies emerging in our new school system.  Pleasing, and perhaps surprising, was the unanimity that emerged on this point across the panel and audience.

All academies and free schools are their own admissions authorities.  Whilst they have to comply with the Government’s admissions code, their ability to define their catchment areas can lead to direct segregation. More worrying is the lack of clarity and accountability of the details of their selection policies and practices. For the comprehensive ideal to survive, we must first demand transparency, and then hold all admissions authorities to account if their selection breaches rules of fair access embodied in the admissions code.

But this is only the beginning. The admissions code, even if applied properly, may prevent harmful social segregation, but does little to promote integration. Only policies such as compulsory fair banding, where schools are required to accept a representative mix of children from all abilities and backgrounds, will achieve integration. And here last night’s debate ended, and here is where some of the hardest thinking must begin.

How can we respect parental choice, promote plurality and diversity in our school system, whilst also preventing segregation and promoting integration? As one of the most inspiring comments from the floor suggested: if all schools are truly comprehensive in composition through fair banding, we could then embrace the opportunity offered by free schools. If schools cannot select and segregate, then they can be freed to compete in the quality of their teaching. We could see a great flourishing of plurality and diversity amongst schools.

This was an inspiring thought. Can we combine freedom from segregation for our communities, freedom of choice for parents, and freedom of opportunity for all our children? Compulsory fair banding which promotes inclusion may offer the best basis for a truly free school system. Only then could competition and plurality flourish without segregating our communities. We may not have solved all the problems in the Exchanges debate, but some seeds of ideas may have been planted that could germinate into a school system we can all celebrate.

Video Interview

Dr Philip Cook interviewed at the Leicester Exchanges live debate ‘Comprehensive school education: policy mistake, lost ideal or model for the future?’ held on Wednesday 21 September 2011 at Glaziers Hall, London.

Dr Philip Cook  appeared on the panel at the live debate ‘Comprehensive school education – policy mistake, lost ideal or model for the future?’ alongside Robert McCartney QC, Melissa Benn and Karen Robinson. You may also be interested in the official report of the evening.


  1. Simon Stiel
    Posted 23/09/2011 at 18:14 | Permalink

    Dear Dr Cook,

    Thank you for responding. It certainly does add further detail to the debate. I am familiar with the popular saying: “I never let my schooling get in the way of my education.”

    I am nervous and others are too (Harry Brighouse, Social Justice and School Choice, 2002) of linking schools with democracy. There may be circumstances when democracy can act as a steam-roller and threaten the autonomy that education can and should provide the individual. Schools themselves are (although other forms of organisation have been tried)paternalistic institutions which impose duties and responsibilities on children who have no reciprocal power in order to equip them to become adults. They can revoke membership by expelling those who don’t adhere to the rules. British schools have been rather individualistic institutions. We usually haven’t seen them (if I’m wrong please correct me) like the American high school system which had a mobilising purpose: to turn immigrants into Americans.

    It is interesting to note the different proxies of distributing education. Schools are of course proxies and a disproportionate number of the good proxies are independent schools which are academically as well as socially selective. There are comprehensives which have specialisms in particular subjects and I agree they can confuse parents. I favour schools of having the option of being selective as long as they’re transparent like grammar schools. The last Labour government accepted that gifted children were a special need and required extra resources by instigating the Gifted and Talented Programme.

    Once again, thanks for a stimulating discussion.

    Simon Stiel


  2. Simon Stiel
    Posted 22/09/2011 at 16:24 | Permalink

    Dear Dr Cook,

    It was an interesting debate last night.

    I’m intrigued by the idea of compulsory fair banding for schools. What would be regarded as a “representative mix of children from all abilities and backgrounds?”

    It is accepted that universities are allowed to select people on the grounds of academic ability. There’s selection by Sixth Form Colleges. You accept that there’s a role for academic selection within comprehensives. Why are the social consequences for schools selecting pupils “enormous and invidious?”

    Robert McCartney’s point of the 22,000 pupils being in limbo wasn’t addressed. The hard subjects like physics at A Level are dominated by the independent schools.

    This isn’t a call to resurrect the 11 plus. I’m wondering whether the current system is just to individuals and whether it enables them fulfill their talents so they can benefit themselves and the rest of society.

    Simon Stiel


    Simon Stiel Reply:

    Apologies for the foolish mistake: to enable them.


    Philip Cook Reply:

    Dear Simon,

    Thank you for your interesting and considered comments, and I’m grateful to have an opportunity to continue the debate.

    Fair banding is a policy that is used by a number of local authorities in their admissions procedures. There are several variations in use, the one I support (because it is the most inclusive) is where the admissions authority seeks to mirror the social composition of the broad catchment in the composition of the school. That will normally involve ensuring that if, for example, there are 25% of families in the area in receipt of free school meals, then the school body should include roughly 25% of children from this category. The construction of such social categories is of course complex and controversial, and there will be many reasons why even this policy will not create a perfectly representative sample of the local community (there will be children not included in the pool from which admissions authorities select due to private schooling, home schooling, boarding schooling etc.). But the evidence is that this can decrease segregation, and bring us closer to integrated school communities. So hopefully that provides a little more information on how it works in practice (incidentally, there is another version that is less inclusive, where the school as admissions authority selects from representative bands from those who apply only, which may itself be a very unrepresentative sample of the local community).

    Some object to this as ‘social engineering’, but this is a misnomer. The composition of all schools is affected by a wide range of factors, which vary over time, and so there is no sense in which there is an ‘un-engineered’ system of school composition, the question is what are the conditions and mechanisms of selection and composition, are they legitimate, reasonable, and just? If implemented by democratically elected or accountable admissions authorities, fair banding can be entirely legitimate, reasonable, and just. As I tried to argue in the debate, I respect and value the transparency of the grammar school selection policies and their accountability to local communities through ballots (although I know some argue the ballot system on grammar schools is very imperfect). Much more worrying are the unclear, and democratically unaccountable admissions/selection policies that are emerging in our new system where schools can act as their own admissions authorities, decide what their catchment areas are, which are their feeder primary schools etc.

    Your comments regarding selection in universities and sixth form colleges are very apposite. My response is to refer to the distinction between education and schooling that I have tried to set out in earlier blog posts and at the debate. This distinction rests on the view that education is concerned with knowledge, reasoning, capabilities such as literacy, numeracy etc. We all want all our children to be as best educated as possible. It is rather difficult to directly produce or distribute ‘education’ in the sense of knowledge and critical reasoning abilities, so we do it through proxies: the best tools that we currently believe promote these outcomes. These include resources such as books, equipment, well-qualified and highly-motivated teachers, good clean safe and stimulating facilities, a wide range of intellectual/personal experiences. These are what political philosophers call a ‘distribuendum’, ‘that which is distributed’. Educational resources, as a distribuendum, can be distributed by a wide range of means including through private markets (e.g. purchasing books, private tuition etc.) or through the state (e.g. state funded education), or through charities etc. They can also be distributed according to different principles, e.g. merit, desert, priority of the worst off, strict equality. Political philosophers spend a great deal of their time worrying about these issues of means and principle of distribution!

    On my view (and this view is interestingly echoed in the very different writings of Milton Friedman and Ivan Illich) schooling is different from education. Schooling is the experience of being a member of a social institution. The child’s main experience of being a member of a social institution beyond the family is usually as member of a school (this is where they spend a great deal of time, have significant influences, and are greatly affected by the rules and norms of the school of which they are a member). Consequently, as this is the main source of their social interaction beyond the family, and as this will have a significant developmental effect on their growth into adult citizens, the norms and composition of the schools are very important politically (this is what Friedman called ‘neighbourhood effects’ of schools on our democracy).

    So I argue that as schools are important social institution, they should be governed with the same principles that govern membership of other important social institutions, namely inclusion and equality. Consequently, I argue that segregation and selection for membership of a school is unjustified (in terms of the value of schooling, not the value of education) on the same grounds that selection and segregation for who gets the vote or who can stand for election is unjustified.

    So I try to argue that the value of education (which may involve selection to promote best educational outcomes for all) and the value of schooling, are different.

    Universities are an interesting case, and I need to think further on this, but my initial thought is that Universities are typically for adults and are voluntary associations, so a different variation on the democratic argument will apply. They will of course be prevented from discrimination on non-educational grounds (e.g. refusing admissions on grounds such as race or gender), but schools are special in part because membership is non-voluntary and their effects are more pervasive due to children’s earlier stage of development. So the same arguments for fair banding would not apply as they do to schools.

    I hope this provides some further detail and argument to augment the points made at the discussion, and thank you again for your most interesting comments.


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