I was in Italy this summer when Twitter seemed to go bonkers about the reintroduction of grammar schools. I did consider adding my thoughts then, but the sun was shining and the wine was good and I didn’t want to spoil the mood.
I went to grammar school for 3 years from 1973-6 in a local authority which was discussing comprehensivisation. My dad was head of one of the local primary schools and I found myself on the opposite side of the debate to my teachers and classmates, and aligned with my dad and his colleague heads. On one memorable occasion I was ‘picketing’ the council meeting quite literally on the opposite side of the pavement to my teachers. I was the eldest of five children and the family moved house to a town with a catholic comprehensive so that we could all go to the same school. I think this came as a relief to my teachers!
All five of us attended the same school. I was very political by then and managed to get on the wrong side of the headteacher by trying to form a branch of the NUSS in the sixth form; one of my brothers left before taking any exams; my sister ended up as Head Girl and returned there as a teacher and 3 of the 5 of us left for university.
With hindsight I can say that back then in the 1970s neither of the secondary schools I attended were very good. I did OK in both of them but I under-achieved in both of them. The comprehensive seemed to be organised so that it had a grammar school and a secondary modern under the same roof. Education looked very different by the time I became a deputy headteacher in a boys’ secondary modern.
I am opposed to selective education for a number of reasons. Firstly it is daft to believe that it is possible to select accurately and we have plenty of evidence that some of the most academically successful fail to shine at 11 years-old. Secondly, we have substantial evidence that labelling children as ‘failures’ has an enormous effect on their self belief and hence future attainment, but perhaps the main reason I oppose selection is that it is based on a daft premise – that performance at 11 determines a certain style of education is suitable. It would be so economically efficient if we could provide 2 or 3 educational diets, and every child fitted perfectly into one of them. That really would make planning and delivery so much cheaper and easier. The truth is though that all children are unique and all schools need to recognise this; we cannot put limits on potential and we should not limit opportunity for anyone. (At the comprehensive I attended I would have liked to do typing, but I was ‘upper band’ so couldn’t.)
When I was deputy at a boys secondary modern I worked for a visionary head. I had to do a considerable amount of curriculum remodelling to run the school as a comprehensive as we didn’t believe selection at 11 meant we had non-academic boys. One of my mentees (who went on to get all As at GCSE) cried at a mentoring meeting when I told him what he was about to achieve (and so did his mum) because they both believed he was ‘thick’ due to the 11+. I wondered how many, unlike this resilient young man, had been unable to overcome that belief about his own ability. I knew then and I know it now that the 11+ is just plain wrong.
The evidence against the social mobility argument for grammar schools is overwhelming. Grammar schools are not about social mobility; they are about social selection. Parents know this and many are more than happy to admit it. It doesn’t sit comfortably with politicians though so they pretend, in the face of the evidence, that it is about social mobility. When I lived in Manchester and had a very young family my friends were very open and honest about sending their children to private schools or ‘over the border’ into the selective LA: it was about ‘who they would sit next to at school and be influenced by’ and ‘who the school was run for’. Some of these parents were governors at inner-city schools and staunch labour people. During one row a close friend said to me “So, Ros, stay ideologically pure and move house – that’s your version of economic power!” Which is, of course, precisely what I did.
The middle classes – we are very good at getting a good deal for our children! Whether it is through paying for a private school, paying for private tutoring so our kids ‘pass’ the 11+, or moving house for a great comprehensive – we’ll use our knowledge and economic power to protect and nurture our young.
The thing about having a state education system is to ensure that every child is protected and nurtured like this. This is why I have devoted my professional career to working in schools which by and large don’t serve the middle classes. It is also why I was so passionate about the early academy movement of Tony Blair and Andrew Adonis.
So …. what are my thoughts about ‘Teresa May’s reintroduction of grammar schools’? I think we should make it irrelevant. Parents don’t want to pay for 11+ tutoring and most don’t want to run the risk of their children ‘failing’ an exam, but they do want them to go to great schools. Grammar schools are not necessarily great schools. When the local, inclusive school demonstrates excellence in student behaviour, high academic standards and appropriate destinations for all students the potential market for a selective school shrinks. Of course there will always be those who want to buy privilege for their children and socially select their peers, and I guess in our liberal democracy they will find a way of doing so, but let’s make it clear that that is what it is.
It is clear from the reaction on social media that most of us are very angry about the whole grammar school thing. I think it is a distraction from the most important issues. I don’t like selection and would always vote against it because it is daft and wasteful and damaging, but the issues we should be getting angry about are control and governance of our schools, funding of our schools, how we measure school and system performance and teacher supply. These are the issues that will prevent us creating great local, inclusive schools and making selection irrelevant.