See, from 1944 until 1976, British state education operated under the grammar school system. In this system, all children took an exam upon leaving primary education (the eleven plus exam) and those who did well went off to grammar schools, and those who did badly went off to secondary modern schools (and a small minority going to technical schools). The idea behind this was that the grammar schools could be all academic and intellectual, whereas the secondary moderns could teach vocational skills which would be more useful to the people therein. What actually happened was that all the funding and all the good teachers went to grammar schools, so the grammar school kids got a good education and went on to get a good job, whereas the secondary modern kids got a thoroughly crappy education and wound up in shitty jobs.
So this system got replaced by the comprehensive system. Schools would accept pupils of any ability, and everyone would go to their local school, and the inequality of the old system would be gone for ever, replaced by an egalitarian paradise. Only not. Schools in rich middle class areas tend to do better and attrac better teachers than those in poor working class areas. Good schools end up being over-subscribed, and have to turn people down. Parents who are rich enough will deliberately move house to be near to a good school. And it's all one big mess.
(Anyone with more familiarity with British politics or history than I, feel free to correct me if I'm worng on any details here. I'm nowhere near an expert, but wanted to provided some background for the foreigners and the apolitical who may be reading this.)
One of the issues in British politics recently is that of whether state schools should be allowed to have selection policies based on academic achievement, and this is where I find myself deeply conflicted. On the one hand, I find myself thinking that a "one size fits all" approach to education cannot possibly work to anyone's advantage and to think that it could is all sorts of folly.
Personally, I feel that I was failed by this country's education system. As it happens, I went to a provate school that did (and still does) use entrance exams and have academic-based selection criteria. Even so, two of the biggest lessons that I learned during my time at school were hardly positive ones. I learned that people would resent me and be unpleasant to me because I am smart, and I learned that I could get away with doing little or no work and still be better than most other people. I can only presume this effect would have been that much worse if I'd been at a comprehensive school.
Equally, I'm sure that there are people in the bottom few percentile of academic ability who are equally failed by the system and find much of what is taught to be too hard. People are not the same. People's education needs are not the same, and they should be taught differently. No group is better or worse, they're just different. A comprehensive system, if done properly, may do well for those near the centre of the gaussian, but will always fail the people on either tail.
So really, what I want is for education to be targetted at the needs of the individual, and for separate streams and institutions to run as necessary. However, the big problem with this is that I can't see any way that this could work without encountering the "separate but equal" type of problems endemic to the grammar school system, which is intollerable.
I'm curious as to what you people think about this, mainly because I'm hoping that one of you will be able to offer me some sort of insight that will help me to clarify my own position. I don't like feeling unsure on these issues, as it means I don't know which political party to mistrust the least.