Lottery out, selection in

Training the talented counters the arbitrary hand of luck, says Alan Ryan

February 14, 2008

As people get older, they find themselves glancing at the obituary pages of newspapers even before they turn to the latest scares about the value of their pensions and houses.

The sheer arbitrariness - perhaps mindless vindictiveness - of the Grim Reaper's attentions is hard to ignore; the virtuous and healthy keel over in the street, while bottle-hardened topers expire painlessly at 90. But the puritan injunction to live each day as if it were your last doesn't make much sense when you're more worried about outliving your pension pot.

The arbitrariness at one end of life is more than matched by the arbitrariness of the other end. In the hungry 1940s, children were constantly urged to eat up their school meals with the reminder that Chinese children were starving to death. Smart-assed responses to the effect that they were welcome to your helping of watery stew and suet stodge cut no ice.

And quite right. It is sheer luck, good and bad, to be born where and when you are, and to whom you are. Given the extent to which we are all a mixture of our genetic endowment and the work that parents, teachers and innumerable others put in on that endowment, it is overwhelmingly a matter of luck how we turn out.

One shouldn't be guilt-stricken about it. Ronaldo's footballing skills aren't to blame for my lack of them, even if I find the contrast between his skills and my ineptitude deeply gloom-inducing. By the same token, the energetic and intelligent aren't to blame for the failings of their less energetic or less naturally sharp peers; nor are parents who, for whatever reason, enjoy the company of their children and bring them up to be useful citizens to blame for the failings of those who don't.

But a strong sense of how far it is merely the luck of the draw that goes towards explaining why those of us who are not in jail, nor homeless, nor unemployed, nor objects of fear and anxiety to our fellows are doing all right, ought to induce a certain humility about our advantages.

The nasty question is: what follows? You might think that a strong sense that we have done well out of what was in some sense a lottery - an odd one, since we neither had the chance to buy or refuse to buy an antenatal ticket nor much idea of the risks we were running by buying one - would lead to the conclusion that lotteries might be a good way of distributing all sorts of other things. If nobody deserves their advantages or disadvantages, why not just hand them out at random?

This seems to be the thought behind the latest attack on selective secondary education.

The usual horrors are well to the fore. There is a lot of covert selection - grammar schools reinforce social apartheid, the middle classes steal all the places at the best schools and so on. To which the answer is: so what shall we do? Quotas, lotteries for places at over-subscribed schools and the rest of the usual nostrums.

Now, imagine for a moment that we are selecting recruits for the Manchester United youth squad. Who's up for recruiting them by quotas or lotteries? Well, all right, Manchester City and Arsenal supporters who'd like to see United hamstrung by having to play the unfit, the overweight and the untalented in their first squad.

Those unhappy persons aside, it's quite clear that everyone else thinks that, even if it is arbitrary who happens to have what talents, you select according to talent.

Do the readers of this journal wish that the jobs for which they applied when entering academic life had been handed out at random? So why the argument for handing out access to a decent education at random? Isn't the more rational route to be vastly more selective than we are?

If we want a highly educated, energetic and intelligent workforce, it seems plausible that we try to select them early and teach them hard; just as if we want wonderful violinists, dancers and singers there's no substitute for catching them young and training them properly.

Does this produce social apartheid? Not half. Most ballerinas talk to other ballerinas more enthusiastically than they do to professors of astronomy. The phenomenon of assortative mating, where like mates with like, is pretty well universal.

The idea that forcing the idle and the diligent into the same room is going to create a whole roomful of co-operative and ambitious young people is highly implausible; they will, as they always do, resent each other for equal and opposite reasons and cling tight to their own sort.

Of course, if you have a big enough school you can take in a random sample; but the social apartheid is then internalised within the school.

Does this mean that it's fine if the better-off steal all the advantages? Absolutely not.

A strong sense of the sheer arbitrariness of existence ought at least to induce the better-off to pay for what's needed to help the less advantaged have a decent existence. We don't flinch from asking the healthy to chip in for a health service that spends more on the seriously ill. We ought not to flinch at spending more money on those who are harder to teach than on those who are already capable of teaching themselves with rather little in the way of adult supervision.

But if we propose to produce Nobel prizewinners, highly skilled surgeons, fluent linguists or whatever, we shouldn't flinch from selecting students on their ability to do what's wanted.

Needs-blind admission to tough and selective schools is what we need - which is perhaps the one thing about which Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, and I agree.

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