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Selective schools vs. nonselective schools debate in UK and lessons for Sri Lanka

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Children on their way to school. Selective and non-selective schools cannot coexist, unless we find some way of linking these schools and giving all families the hope that the Government is giving their children every chance to flourish in a knowledge economy – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara


It is significant that the key policy initiative of Theresa May, the post-Brexit Prime Minister (PM) of UK, is an education reform proposal. The proposed reforms are a response to the pro-Brexit vote in UK. In her own words “When the British people voted in the referendum, they did not just choose to leave the EU. They were also expressing a far more profound sense of frustration about aspects of life in Britain and the way in which politics and politicians have failed to respond to their concerns.” 

She notes that their frustration is about the lack of opportunities for their future generations in a globalised knowledge economy, and sensing that the Brexit constituency is particularly unhappy with the non-selective schools or comprehensive school concept, Theresa May proposes to expand access to selective schools. 

Removing selectivity in school admissions is a pillar of the education polices of the Labour Party of UK. It is an egalitarian concept which has reduced and capped the number of the selective ‘Grammar’ schools in UK from 100,000 or more to less than 200 today. The notion is that schools should be non-selective and every school has to offer a quality education. 

Arguing that non-selectivity has distributed a low quality education for all, Theresa May seeks to increase the number of selective ‘Grammar’ schools. In response to Labour Party’s arguments that children from well-to-do families do well in 11-Plus exam, the qualifying exam equivalent to Sri Lanka’s Grade V scholarship examination, Theresa May’s proposal include measures for inclusiveness that the Labour will be hard pressed to oppose. 

This newest attempt by UK to increase access to selective-schools deserves a close look by Sri Lanka policy makers too since the admission to ‘popular schools’, our own ‘bastardised’ version of Grammar schools, is an issue that is foremost on everyone’s mind here in Sri Lanka. 

The selectivity policy initiatives in UK can be grouped according to four distinct periods: namely, 1948-1964 (Conservative-led halcyon days of selective ‘Grammar’ schools); 1964-1979 (Labour-led capping of Selective schools); 1979-1997 (Thatcher-untitled-1conservatives-led period when capping continued but deregulation introduced); 1997-2015 (Largely Blair-Labour led period where capping was entrenched and non-selective schools promoted); and 2016 and beyond (Post-Brexit reforms to expand selective schools).


The initiation and rise of the Grammar school concept is attributed this period. The 11-Plus examination was used to select students to attend more academically intensive schools known as the Grammar schools. The ‘11’ refers to the school entry age, so most pupils are 10 years old when they sit the exams. Pupils who passed the 11-plus exam were destined for university and better jobs, while those who failed went to secondary modern schools and trod a path towards less celebrated professions. 

The system covered the whole of England until the mid-1960s, when the Labour government ordered local education authorities to start phasing out grammar schools and secondary moderns. They replaced them with a comprehensive system - where children of all abilities were to be taught together in the same schools. This phasing-out happened at different paces, and a handful of local authorities decided to keep a few selective schools. 

Interestingly, a parallel selective school system known as the Central School system was initiated by our own Dr. C.W.W. Kannangara in 1943. However, by mid-1960, England had nearly 1300 Grammar schools while Sri Lanka’s number was limited to 52 – at two per each of the 25 districts plus two additional ones, reflecting differences in economic capabilities.


The 1964 manifesto of the Labour Party promised to abolish selectivity in admissions to schools and the policy was gradually implemented, culminating in the power given to Secretary of Education to ask local education authorities (LEAs) to move to non-selective (i.e. comprehensive) secondary education. 

In Sri Lanka, during this period our own version of Grammar schools (i.e. Kannangara Central Schools) declined, not due to policy decision but, economic constraints. Free education was available to all through other schools, but economic constraints led to the decline of those other institutions as well. In his book ‘Education in Ceylon before and after independence: 1939-1968,’ educationist J.E. Jayasuriya noted that:

“It was the undoubted intention of our legislatures that a good education should be available as a matter of right to every child born in this country. It was not their intention that a good education should be given free to a minority of children, while a bad education should be given free to a large mass of children, but this is the reality of the situation even twenty-five years after the introduction of the free education scheme.”

The ideal was to go beyond selective Kannagara schools to non-selective but quality schools for all, but reality fell short of the ideal. 


With the election of Mrs. Margaret Thatcher as PM in 1979 and the continuation of Conservative Party domination during the 1979-1997 period, there was no attempt to remove the cap on Grammar Schools. Mrs. Thatcher’s policies were largely geared towards deregulation and making the delivery of education more efficient and effective. In Sri Lanka too, the J.R. Jayewardene and his Party led Government of 1977-1989, brought in a free-market economy, but in regard to education policy, the efforts were made to quality education for all continued. 


In 1997, Tony Blair led Labour Party came to power in a UK with a large majority and with the provocative three priorities of the new Government being education, education and education. In 1998, Labour Party ruled out the creation of any new grammar schools, and limited any expansion in selection within other types of schools. 

In contrast in Sri Lanka, President Chandrika Bandaranaike’s ascent to power did not mark distinct changes in economic policy, but more choices were made available to parents during this period by allowing the establishment of ‘International schools’ through the Board of Investments. The Central Schools could not be sustained and popular school emerged in their place, through indirect support from influential past-pupils or parents wishing for entry for their children. These developments carried both positive and negative implications. 

On the positive side, emergence of international schools and quality schools outside of a declining Central school system gave more choices to parents. However, level of inequity too arose due the fact that entry to these emerging popular schools was available only partially to deserving students who gained high marks in the Grade V scholarship examination. Past-pupils and influential professionals and Government officers received a larger portion of places in these schools for their children, for these parents’ direct or indirect support for these schools. 

2015 and beyond in UK and Sri Lanka

By 2015, England there were only 163 grammar schools and more than two-thirds of England’s 150 local authorities had none at all. As Theresa May noted in her introduction to her education initiative, restriction on selective schools is a restriction on the choice of low-income families:

“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. We are effectively saying to poorer and some of the most disadvantaged children in our country that they can’t have the kind of education their richer counterparts can enjoy. What is ‘just’ about that? Where is the meritocracy in a system that advantages the privileged few over the many? How can a meritocratic Britain let this situation stand?”

The Theresa May proposal puts inclusivity requirements on Grammar Schools that are to be established.

“Selective schools have a part to play in helping to expand the capacity of our school system and they have the ability to cater to the individual needs of every child. So the Government will make up to £50 million a year available to support the expansion of good or outstanding existing grammars, but these new grammar schools will be asked to “establish a good, new non-selective school; establish a primary feeder school in an area with a high density of lower income households to widen access; partner with an existing non-selective school within a multi-academy trust; or sponsor a currently underperforming non-selective academy.” 

Lessons for Sri Lanka

The system of ‘popular schools’ in Sri Lanka emerged through the efforts of the middle class to serve their needs. The Government conducts a scholarship examination annually to award scholarships to students for their secondary education. Since the Government implicitly recognises these popular schools as ‘selective’ schools by publishing cut-off marks for these schools, the real prize for acing the scholarship exam is the ability to qualify for 200+ plus ‘popular’ schools, with 20 or so of these coveted most. 

However, the truth of the matter is that these schools already have their own primary schools, the students of which get to move on to grade 6 in these popular schools without qualifying in the Grade V scholarship exam. This phenomenon is a gross violation of the aspirations of 300,000 plus children who sit for scholarship examination every year, but the solution is not to throw the baby out with the bath water.

It is time policymakers gradually increased the number of places available in these schools for scholarship holders and/or enforce conditions like Theresa May’s conditions to ensure that these schools partner with other non-selective schools to serve low-income students who achieve reasonable scores in the scholarship examination but do not get entry to these popular schools. Another proposal is to add entry points at age 14 and 16 also. 

In sum, selective and non-selective schools cannot coexist, unless we find some way of linking these schools and giving all families the hope that the Government is giving their children every chance to flourish in a knowledge economy.

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