Selective school students miss out on broad education

William McKeith April 19, 2018

The public debate about selective schools is distorted and strangely focused on their supposed positives – we are repeatedly told about the opportunities students get for greater competition; the advantages of being among others with similar intellectual or sporting or musical gifts.

But little consideration is given towards what selective school students miss out on when they are deprived of a comprehensive education.

We must decide what we want from a school education.

Photo: Phil Carrick

The wider the range of students in a cohort, the greater their daily exposure to the human condition, to talents which echo the breadth of the general population. Students are also then exposed to a curriculum both inside and outside the classroom which reflects this variety in the student population. The result is a richer lived experience for each child. We unquestionably value this at primary school but for some peculiar reason don’t appreciate its strengths at secondary level.

It appears to me, the main issue underpinning the selective schools debate is determining what we, as a community, want from a school education.

Often associated with Leonardo da Vinci is the term Renaissance Man (or Woman), meaning a clever person who is good at many things. Da Vinci himself, apparently sporting an impressive physique, was a painter, sculptor, humanist, scientist, architect, philosopher and engineer. Considered a universal genius, da Vinci represented the ultimate end-point of a comprehensive education - a person broadly educated to the highest possible standard, embracing all knowledge and developing all their capacities as fully as possible.

Some schools explicitly drive for the Renaissance person outcome. Most structure their mission and vision statements around language that expresses a synchronic and ambitious search for this broadly and deeply educated young person.

Renaissance man Leonardo da Vinci.

Photo: Alamy

Opening up opportunities is desirable. Deep experiences for each student that tap into service learning, physical, social and intellectual development are essential. And developing both the left and right spheres of a child’s brain is critical.

Any of us with children will know that a young person can be charging forward in one direction in life, only to take a U-turn and head off in a somewhat contrary pathway. I have a son who is a film maker and at an early time started medicine, became a lawyer, then once again changed direction.

The left side of the brain is thought to house logic, analytical and objectivity qualities, sometimes known as “the tidy room” skills. The right side is where we find creativity, social and visual skills and intuition. Right-brained people are considered to be more subjective, intuitive and thoughtful. Da Vinci was thought to have highly developed left and right brain spheres.

The qualities of the Renaissance person are at the heart of what comprehensive schools are about. Comprehensive schools – government and non-government - are structured to develop these sorts of graduates.

The best pathway to achieve the da Vinci goal is through the comprehensive school – the open pathway for all. To follow the selective approach is to limit opportunities and to deprive children of the great mix of wonderful potential learning opportunities that our comprehensive schools are designed to provide.

William McKeith is a former school principal and is managing director of Schools Active Worldwide.