UK education reforms spark debate on class and the classroom

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May delivers a speech about possible changes to secondary education at the British Academy in London Friday Sept. 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Nick Ansell, Pool )

LONDON — In Britain, the class system and the classroom are intertwined, and education reforms inevitably cause political controversy.

Prime Minister Theresa May made a bold move Friday by announcing plans to let more schools select children based on academic results.

In her first major domestic policy speech since taking office in July, May said she would ease restrictions on new selective schools — and give existing ones 50 million pounds ($67 million) to expand — to help make Britain "a place where advantage is based on merit not privilege."

The issue of academic selection is highly controversial, and May's plan is sure to face strong opposition. For decades British children were tested at age 11, with those who did best going to academically focused grammar schools, and the rest to "secondary moderns" which gave them little chance of getting to university.

The two streams were largely merged by the 1970s, and nowadays most children attend state secondary institutions known as comprehensive schools. Many educators say creating new grammar schools will lower standards in comprehensives by siphoning off the brightest and most ambitious pupils.

They also say well-off parents can pay for private tutors before selection exams.

Chief schools inspector Michael Wilshaw said Britain "will fail as a nation if we only get the top 15 to 20 percent of our children achieving well."

Others argue that comprehensives fail the brightest children, and say grammar schools improve social mobility because they select pupils on academic ability rather than parental income, as private schools do.

May said that "the debate over selective schools has raged for years."

"But the only place it has got us to is a place where selection exists if you're wealthy — if you can afford to go private — but doesn't exist if you're not," she said.

She said new grammar schools would have to take a portion of children from lower-income households.

May's plans face a fight from opposition parties in Parliament, as well as some members of her own Conservative Party. May's Conservative predecessor, David Cameron, opposed expanding grammar schools, saying parents "don't want children divided into successes and failures at 11."

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