The Guardian view on selective sixth forms: elitism for teenagers

A contradiction sits at the heart of the British education system, and most particularly the English one. This has been the case since most secondary schools in England switched from a selective system to a comprehensive one in the 1960s. The contradiction is that the mixed-ability principle was never extended to higher education, which continues to be highly stratified. Entry to a handful of elite institutions remains the ultimate prize. As schools policy sought to create a less divided society, in which people from different backgrounds were expected to mix, 大学 (and the policymakers overseeing them) have clung to hierarchies. Admissions data over decades has shown these to be social as well as intellectual, with the more affluent claiming a disproportionate share of places.

The development of a new cadre of super-selective state sixth forms, which the government has promised to accelerate as part of its levelling up strategy, is designed to address this. Comprehensives struggle to compete with the hothouse conditions of independent and grammar schools, some of which have links to Oxbridge dating back centuries. A few academically elite sixth forms have had striking successes.

If the aim is to boost the chances of a handful of underprivileged teenagers getting their hands on one of these golden tickets, teaching them in a highly competitive environment might seem to make sense. The problem is that the purpose of post-16 education is much broader than this. We need a system that benefits society overall, including by putting more resources behind improved vocational options, as advocated by the three-year-old Augar review. The worrying signs are that the trend towards increased selection at 16 will magnify the damaging tendency to concentrate too much on a few, while ignoring the rest. While around 85% of 17-year-olds in England are in full-time education, fewer than half of 16- to 18-year-olds do A-levels. The further education sector is currently battling to save BTecs, その replacement with T-levels has been delayed.

もちろん, competition is part of life, which young people must learn to cope with. The brightest sixth-formers in poor areas have every right to aim high. But increased selection brings defeats as well as successes. And there are good reasons to defer painful experiences of rejection (the impact of failing the 11-plus was one reason why comprehensives replaced grammars in the first place). This is all the more pressing given extremely worrying evidence about young people’s declining mental health.

Education, and particularly skills and training, is crucial to any inequality-reducing strategy. 年齢 16 (when most pupils sit GCSEs) is a crucial staging post. But there is no evidence that dividing students up at this point results in higher attainment. Strong results posted by selective sixth forms may simply show that they have successfully creamed off the most capable and determined members of a cohort.

ザ・ levelling up agenda promised by the Tories should have led them straight to colleges, which were particularly hard-hit by austerity, and also to the underresourced careers service. But instead of investing in local institutions, developing their links with employers and improving their offer to older learners, ministers have held out the promise of a few more ladders to top universities, at the same time as reducing access to higher education 全体. Elite sixth forms are a gimmick, not an answer to the question of how to level up.