Screwtape and Selective Education

Posted on April 4, 2012


The School room at King Edward VI Grammar School, Stratford-upon-Avon.

Last week Kent County Council approved plans for a grammar school to establish a satellite school in Sevenoaks. The satellite would share the name of the founding school and come under the same executive oversight. It will be, as it were, a new branch of the existing school with the same educational ethos. Note that this will be the first State-funded selective school in Sevenoaks. Much discussion has surrounded the decision, mostly reviving the debate over selective State education.

Today, both supporters and detractors alike rush to produce figures and statistics in support their cases. These often purport to demonstrate the social inclusiveness, or lack thereof, in grammar schools. The Sutton Trust produced a report in 2010 that showed top performing comprehensive schools to be more socially selective than grammar schools. However, the most venerable argument against selective education rests upon the notion that it is actually immoral to divide children by academic ability.

It is suggested that children who do not meet the entrance standards of grammar schools are thereby branded failures, and that in consequence they suffer academically and socially. Therefore, to manifest equality of regard, all must be educated together, with like access and exposure to academic discipline.

Twenty years after writing The Screwtape Letters C.S. Lewis wrote Screwtape Proposes a Toast. This was at a time when selective education was much more hotly debated than today. Most of the country still had grammar schools, although a few local authorities were moving towards a comprehensive system. In his toast Screwtape makes mention of a notion summarised as, ‘I am as good as you’. Difference and excellence should not be encouraged as they result in inequality. This supposes that all are equal in capability as well as worth. The desired aims are standardisation and eradication of all forms of intellectualism.

Screwtape declares: ‘Children who are fit to proceed to a higher class may be artificially kept back, because the others would get a trauma by being left behind. The bright pupil thus remains democratically fettered to his own age-group throughout his school career.’ Unlike Screwtape, those who argue for comprehensive education, have good intentions, but these do not inevitably lead to good results. The passage of time has shown a general decline in real academic standards following the wide-scale implementation of comprehensive education. Screwtape makes mention of limiting a boy capable of tackling Aeschylus or Dante to study of basic spelling and grammar. Today it is uncommon for a student to receive even a thorough education in grammar.

Methods and modes of selection may be far from perfect, but the notion of selective education is not. It has been recognised from the beginning of organised society that some are naturally more capable than others academically, while others are innately more gifted physically, artistically or in different respects. Such a recognition is by no means socially destructive, for the common good can be achieved only if excellence in all capabilities be encouraged. It is right and proper that individual capabilities, academic or other, be fostered as this leads to greater fulfilment all round. Such can be achieved only through a ‘selective’ educational system, whether or not that may be of the traditional grammar-school type.