Why I Changed my Mind on Grammar Schools

9 Sep

After a summer of relative calm in the education world, the new term has brought with it  yet another raft of announced changes from education minister Justine Greening and the new PM Theresa May. This time it’s a doozy: grammar schools are back. New free schools will have the option of selection, and existing schools may introduce selective processes into their existing admissions policies. The aim is to improve social mobility.

Many people have already written about why grammars don’t do anything of the sort but instead mainly cater to the middle classes. Loic Menzies of the ‘think-and-action tank’ LKMCo has a series of excellent posts on the topic, in particular his take-down of the ‘Uncle Steve defence‘ – the anecdotal evidence that Baby Boomers whip out to prove that grammars help bright but poor kids. If you want to see the hard data, he’s got it. For a more irreverent but nonetheless thorough exploration of the political background to the decision, I also recommend Disappointed Idealist. I’m not going to rehash all this, but I do want to offer a personal perspective on the issue.

You see, until a few years ago I might have been an Uncle Steve apologist. I was a grammar school girl. I happened to live in an area with one grammar for girls, and one for boys – not the full on 11+ system at work in other parts of Kent, but a significant watershed nonetheless. My parents were absolutely desperate for me to get in there. They wanted that social mobility for me – the status of being at grammar school, yes, but also what they thought would be a first class academic education of the type they themselves (for various reasons) hadn’t had access to/taken advantage of. In their view this was a ticket to the dream life. I remember my mum having a total meltdown on the day of the test because she forgot my invitation letter and felt she’d ‘ruined my life chances’. The Headmistress herself (a rather stern, birdlike creature who would waft into assembly in a full-on black gown and bang on about eagles and budgies) had to calm her down. “Madam, as long as you know your daughter’s name, we have no problems here.”

I got in. But lots of my friends didn’t. It wasn’t that they weren’t clever, or creative, or interesting eleven-year-olds full of all kinds of potential. It just so happened that they didn’t reach an arbitrary pass mark on this one test. It created a lot of bitterness. I remember entering a heated debate with some friends when one of them declared she was going to become a missionary. Being an ultra-annoying, arrogant so-and-so, I said I wouldn’t want to do that because it would be wasting my potential . Another girl rounded on me, eyes flashing angrily. “I can’t believe you. Just because you’re going to ________, you think you’re so special. You’re saying you’re so clever because you got in.”

That wasn’t what I was saying (consciously) but you get my drift. This girl was really fuming and bitter and that’s not a good thing for any child to feel. Despite witnessing the pain that selection caused first hand, however, I was selfishly still in favour. Even after feeling pretty bored and miserable for most of my secondary school years, I was still in favour. Even seeing my year group fracture into those driving themselves into mental breakdowns through overwork and those who considered themselves failures because they got a B and just gave up…I was still in favour. I probably would have got the same exam grades at my second choice school, a comp, and whilst I might not have gone to Oxford without the almost overwhelming emphasis on it (borne out by the fact that almost all my state school Oxford friends are grammar kids), I probably would have gone to another uni, loved it and be doing exactly the same thing I’m doing now. And yet, I was still in favour. To condemn grammars would be to condemn myself, right? Nowadays I’m pretty dumb, but as a kid, I was ‘high ability’ – I could read and write before starting school, for example. My natural instinct was indeed to consider myself special, and to protect my privilege.

Then I became a teacher and my eyes were opened to the enormous advantages I’d had growing up. Perhaps my success wasn’t just down to my own ability. I’d grown up in a house full of books, with parents who talked to me all the time. I hadn’t really realised how lucky that made me.

Part of me had wanted to teach in grammar school. I wanted those bright buttons who’d walk their A* grades. I wanted to teach myself. But I ended up in a ‘challenging’ comprehensive in a hugely deprived area – right next door to a borough chock full of grammars, creaming off the most able, and a whole host of faith schools, creaming off the most middle class. Our intake were largely those who had no other option than to attend their local school. Their parents were recent immigrants who didn’t know anything about the ‘choices’ open to them, or were working so hard they didn’t have time to research and prep for applications. Sometimes they didn’t actually care where their children were. Sometimes they’d been killed in Afghanistan or Iraq or Sri Lanka. Parental choice had little meaning here.

All of these children deserved the best educational experience we were capable of giving them. All of them had unique needs, in one form or another – including the academically able. It was an enormous job to cater for everyone, but I have to say we gave it our best shot. Our Head was principled; eschewing the vocational equivalents that were in vogue at other schools, he insisted on languages and English Lit for all, for example. At the same time, he employed some excellent specialists in SEN, EAL and emotional support. We also had a broad-ranging, accredited G+T programme including uni visits, workshop days and Latin club. Most teachers were dedicated to providing for every level of ability.

Sounds great, right? But there were some fundamental things working against us, not limited to low parental engagement, entrenched economic disadvantage, exhausted staff and, above all, a severe lack of money. Yes, money is important. For example, private schools are always feted for their amazing drama programmes and the way these lead to confident, rounded pupils (and many professional actors amongst their alumni). But a lot of these schools have theatres kitted out like professional outfits – a proper stage, lighting kits, sound equipment and even full-time technicians on hand.  That’s an extreme example and, to be honest, we had days when we were just desperate for lined paper. Yet the government constantly disparage state schools for not providing as much as the private sector.

What I’m trying to say is, we were attempting a Herculean task. I’m proud to say I tried my very hardest to get every child to reach their potential, academically and otherwise. I’m sad to say I did not always succeed.

I moved schools and spent the last two years in another (fantastic) comp. It’s a school that works hard to value everyone and celebrates success in all its forms. Its performing arts opportunities, for example, are second to none. It also gets really good academic results. Personally, I think it does a lot for all kinds of students – but it could do even more if given the chance. Again, this school is currently underfunded and its teachers are worked into the ground by the government’s total mismanagement of the education system.

I know this all too well. I’ve just quit the profession. It’s not just me – over the short time since I completed my PGCE, I’ve watched my cohort gradually move out of teaching in state schools and into independents or other careers entirely. There is a lot of good in the English state education system, but then again, there are a lot of problems (hey, a lot of problems in England in general), and there is only so much ramming your head into a brick wall you can take. We’re haemorrhaging valuable teachers.

And this is the rub. Both my schools were in selective areas and therefore essentially competing with grammars to attract staff. I am by no means denigrating my former colleagues, most of whom were superb, and I can’t say all of my grammar school teachers were great. But looking at the wider, national picture, research suggests that staffing is one way in which selective schools increase inequality. Research from Bath University points to the fact that grammars ‘attract and retain high quality teaching staff’, a phenomenon which is sure to get worse as Performance Related Pay continues. Faced with the prospect of Friday p6 doing complex sentences with a group of C/D (sorry, 4/5) borderlines with behavioural issues or a pleasant, intellectually stimulating debate about the impact of the French revolution on Frankenstein with some enthusiastic A* kids, some will choose the latter. In a system that is short of teachers full stop, the non-selectives could be left critically understaffed.

Futhermore, as I found out when my year group took the grammar test, imposing a sense of failure on children as young as ten can lead to dented confidence and a feeling of inadequacy that are hardly conducive to ambition and success. These ‘failures’ may, in some cases, then spend their school life in a group of largely low ability peers (as the Bath study puts it) which can have a negative impact on aspiration and focus. It’s not even as if we’re promising a decent vocational education, or employment prospects (as in Germany’s tiered education system), for those whose abilities lie outside academia. I haven’t even touched on the importance of parental engagement, and what happens when the most involved parents turn their attentions away from the local school.

In this context, we have to ask a couple of important questions. We want Child A, academically able but economically disadvantaged, to have every opportunity open to her. Lots of reasons why, and we could be here all night unpicking those. But let’s follow May and Greening’s lead and ask: how can we best ensure that this comes about? Should we anoint Child A as a ‘chosen one’ and airlift her out of her local school? She might (*might*) get something out of being at a grammar.

But then we have an issue. What about Children B, C and D remaining at their local school? Hopefully their school will try to cater for their needs in the best way possible, but with grammars in the area, they will face hurdles over and above the enormous obstacles that already exist. Now we have to face the dilemma. Is Child A more important than Child B? It’s really easy to say Child A when you’re academic yourself, or you have an able child. Just forget everyone else…right…?

My journey from grammar supporter to comprehensive champion has involved a long, hard look at my own privileges, and a tough few years on the coalface working with hundreds of children, ALL of whom should be able to live a happy, healthy and fulfilled life whatever their need. Look at the evidence. Then think about how many will end up worse off because of this policy.

Moreover, this policy will divert energy and attention from the real problems our nation is facing. Improving our society is not just an educational battle. It’s a really tough job, and I don’t have all the answers, but it sure as hell isn’t a quick-fix-band-aid-solution like opening more grammars or sending King James Bibles to every school. But as a start, how about:

  • reducing economic inequality
  • making sure working conditions are conducive to a healthy family life
  • funding all schools properly so they can provide all students with adequate facilities, good quality resources, experienced teachers and extra-curricular programmes that don’t require parental funding
  • reducing teacher workload so they can actually teach well-planned and executed lessons and maybe offer more extra-curricular opportunities
  • not hanging teacher pay on pupil performance so that teachers still want to work in challenging schools with a range of pupils
  • giving the endless ‘overhauls’ of the examination system a rest so everyone can get their heads round it and do the best job possible for the kids
  • giving the endless bashing of teachers (‘the Blob’, ‘Trots’, ‘enemies of promise’ etc. etc.) a rest so you actually have a profession left
  • developing a solid, useful vocational alternative to academic education and make sure there are jobs to go to when it’s finished
  • restoring control of school places to local authorities so the location and distribution of new schools can be planned in coordination with home creation (oh, and provide more decent homes…)
  • supporting educational research rather than destroying university education departments
  • ending the culture of unpaid internships that restrict many careers to the wealthy
  • improving the diversity of MPs to reduce the disenfranchisement of swathes of our society

I’d also suggest closing all the private schools so we have a truly equal and comprehensive system in which all members of society have a stake. But that’s a debate for another time 😉

Obviously most of these ideas are anathema to the current Tory direction, so I doubt we’ll see any of them come to pass any time soon. Instead, grammars will probably be imposed, and a great deal of public money will be spent on opening them. This former grammar school girl will not be jumping for joy.






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