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What is the right age to begin academic selection? 11? 14? 16? 18? Never?

  • 30 November 2020

In my seven years at HEPI, the most controversial paper we have issued – by some distance – is a piece on academic publishing. It argued for a National Licence scheme, which would have given everyone in the UK free and legal access to current and past academic output that might otherwise have been behind paywalls, while protecting the value added by publishers via a licensing arrangement.

It was strongly welcomed by people who could benefit from improved access to academic output but who have not always had it, such as FE college staff. But as the idea related to UK ‘Internet Protocol’ addresses, it was amusingly caricatured by some more radical open access advocates as a ‘UKIP’ policy. There was three weeks’ worth of correspondence in the pages of the Times Higher about it.

Although that particular paper was published in our Occasional Paper series, which is specifically designed to promote informed debate rather than to endorse any particular viewpoint, we were – less amusingly – told we should no platform the authors by withdrawing the publication (which of course we would not do just because someone disagreed with it). The paper itself remains available to read for free here and a response to the critics by one of the original authors, David Price of UCL, can be read here.

The second most controversial paper, another Occasional Paper, was on grammar schools, academic selection at the age of 11 and the relationship between entry to selective secondary schools and access to highly-selective universities, written by Iain Mansfield. The paper was controversial because it stood up to the strong opposition to the remaining grammar schools that exists in the academic community.

This time, Schools Week ran a light-hearted cartoon comparing Mansfield’s argument to the infamous message on the side of the Brexit bus. That was – I think – a better way of attacking Mansfield’s report than the tactic of one annoyed academic who told us HEPI should ‘disband’ rather than publish such work.

Mansfield’s piece particularly noted the remaining grammar schools’ relative success in helping win places for people from under-represented groups at uber-selective universities. Personally, I found some (though not all) of the opposition to his arguments a little odd: it seems obvious that schools which select academically are well placed to succeed in the race for places at universities that also select academically – indeed, the demands of very selective universities is probably a core reason why the remaining grammars have survived.

But, in general, the negative response was much more grown up than it had been for the National Licence idea: a group of well-respected academics asked for a right to respond, and we were pleased to oblige in a collection of essays.

Most think tanks would be unlikely to publish two full-length reports that come to such contrasting conclusions but the HEPI canon now includes strong pieces on both sides of the enduring academic selection debate. People can read them and make up their own minds, which is entirely appropriate for an educational think tank whose charitable purpose is ‘to promote research into and understanding of all aspects of higher education and to disseminate the useful results of such research for the education and benefit of policy makers and the general public in the United Kingdom.’

(To anyone who says we should publish more anti-selection material than pro-selection material, to reflect the balance of views among academics working in the field of education, I would say, first, we have done that because we have also published Tim Blackman’s fascinating work on comprehensive universities. Secondly, I would point out that HEPI resides in the UK higher education sector, which is considerably more selective than the systems in many other countries and, outside of Professor Blackman’s work and the writings of some journalists who have pushed his views, it is not clear that there is a concerted push to change this that comes anything like to matching opposition to selection at 11.)

This is all topical not only because COVID-related delays mean many children have just taken their 11+ tests and because many others who took the tests some weeks ago will receive their 11+ results today. It is also topical because the disruption that has occurred to people’s education in 2020 is likely to make the rough edges inherent in any exam-based selection process even rougher this year. So selection issues are likely to stay on, or even rise up, the policy radar in coming months. (For HEPI’s recent output on the rough edges of exams at age 18, see Dennis Sherwood’s writings here.)

If you are wondering where this is going, wonder no more. HEPI’s final webinar before the 2020 Christmas break is going to be a little different to the others we have run this year. This is because, on Wednesday, 16 December 2020, we will host our first ever balloon debate to consider the right age for starting academic selection, with different speakers advocating for 11, 14, 16 and 18, plus one speaker arguing against all academic selection. Confirmed speakers include a former Secretary of State for Education, the Chief Executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, the previous CEO of UCAS and a leading academic.

The webinar is being run in the early evening, in the hope that people feel able to log in, perhaps with a drink in hand, to take part in what we hope will be a fierce but good-natured and unstuffy discussion. To find out more and to register for your (free) place, see

PS And don’t forget our other upcoming webinar, which is taking place next week with the European Universities Consortium, which will consider whether more prospective students from the UK should look to study elsewhere in Europe. More details at

1 comment

  1. Aasia Shafiq Chaudhry says:

    selection at 11+ can act an enabler for students who are naturally academically smart or in simple words who are educationally privileged for accelerating in their studies, yet it can majorly discourage other students; these students at this point are probably not less capable and could have the same potential yet their growth is stunted by the system of academic selection. Children who are not selected through 11+ process may be treated differently from their teachers compared to those who go to grammar schools as their teachers have lower expectations from them and it is not fair that children should be limited to a certain level of achievement.
    Furthermore, why students pay the price of their parents’ decisions? The decision based on the disadvantaged received from the wider system/sectors in this society. Each family has their own circumstances. If a child has not exposed to quality education due to the issues out of their reach, how morally decent is it to put them on the same pedestal as a child who had tutors or parental support from a young age. Children should not be segregated at young ages; they are going through developmental stages and they are not mentally or socially matured enough to take reasonable decision regarding their future. So school improvement (in terms of education and culture) is imported if we seriously want good education to make a batter society.

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