It Was Deeply Divisive

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Are grammar schools a good idea?

Earlier this week, teachers up and down the country had ‘that sinking feeling’ the moment a leaked memo – entering No. 10 Downing Street – showed government plans to open new grammar schools.

Grammar Schools

Image: Political Pictures

Academics, teachers and school leaders do not want grammar schools, yet it appears that some politicians and parents do. There is widespread agreement that a selective system sidelines the poor and benefits those who pass an entry exam. For those who are of higher ability (and may live in a more affluent postcode), evidence shows that grammar schools make little difference to a pupil’s progress.

Selection Bias:

I had this view confirmed by a Facebook friend of a friend, who confirmed this bias:

“… you talk about the most vulnerable and mixing the more academic children with the less academic helps the less academic improve. What the article and you fail to mention, is that with the current system, those kids at the top are held back and their opportunities sacrificed. Why is that fair? Private schools do far better, because they are selective and the kids that leave them achieve far more than the state sector. There are more kids in state than private, so statistically there are far smarter kids in the state sector, yet they are held back from achieving their potential due to political correctness and the belief we must prioritise the weaker at the detriment of the stronger …” (Anonymous)

I highlighted in my reply, that Department for Education figures show that England’s best 500 state schools are outperforming the top 500 private schools. The response reminded me of this comedy sketch:

In this post I share my childhood experience of a grammar school, but also provide you with my professional experience of working within the system. As a teacher, this is not a system I wish to work in.

Parents and politicians will cement their views about grammar schools and selection on personal anecdotes; a bygone era fixated on a pupil’s academic ability to complete a test before entering secondary school. The Eleven-Plus was created by the 1944 Butler Education Act, a system that was banned because it created a tiered system which ignored social mobility, equality or community cohesion.

I suspect the push for grammars could be ‘smoke and mirrors’ as the Conservatives continue to strive towards a more traditional and academic education, culling further creativity from our curriculum and segregating our society.

In 1998, The Independent wrote:

“Parents in most parts of the country must be bemused by the sudden upsurge of campaigning to get rid of grammar schools … The reason for the change from a selective to a comprehensive system was controversial, but not deeply divisive, at the time: middle-class parents in the Sixties and Seventies began to resent a test that could consign their children.

In 2014, UKIP even adopted the same slogan with which John Major hoped to rally voters in the 1997 general election;

‘A grammar school in every town!’

Major’s offer of a grammar school in every town went down like a lead balloon. What will this revolution do for Theresa May?

Daily Mail Grammar Schools

Haven’t we had enough ‘revolutions’ in education?

Image: The Daily Mail

I Went to a Grammar School in 1985:

Bringing back grammar schools is deeply divisive and will only destroy the opportunities of the most vulnerable. What our politicians should start to do, is reach out to parents and ask why many who experienced it now reject it for their children and grandchildren? It is my belief, that grammar schools are for the rich and for those who wish to segregate their own children from the poor. I also wonder what correlation there is to those who favour grammar schools and those who voted for Brexit? This would prove fascinating data.

Thirty years ago, I went to the remnants of a grammar school in 1985. I was in year 7 (the ‘first year’ in old money) and eleven years old. I sat no entry test and this was my first experience of secondary school. At the time, my family were living in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and we had re-located there after living in London for 2 years. Yesterday, I decided to ask my mother why was I sent to this school?’

Here is the reply:

Grammar Schools

Image: ‘my mother’.

“Everyone said it was a good school.”

Regardless of school status, isn’t that what every parents wants for their child? To attend a good, local school.

School status should have nothing to do with it, and I am not ignoring the desire for some parents to send their children to attend single-sex or faith schools. This is not what I am questioning. This is about selection in our comprehensive system.

This school I attended was opened by King George V in 1928 with two buildings separated by a walkway. The school buildings were symmetrical; everything found on one side of the school was mirrored on the opposite side, laying the foundations for single-sex segregation.

I arrived to the school after smaller schools with low numbers were closed and the boys’ and the girls’ school merged in 1983. This marked the end of the grammar school, but decades of selection still oozed out of every orifice.

The corridor walls were full of honours and trophies, pupils were streamed and the teachers wore gowns and mortar boards for school assemblies. Rugby, hockey and athletics were the sports of choice and we sat in rows, reciting our times tables forwards and backwards.

Thankfully, my parents were ‘Salvation Army officers’, bound by their duties to ‘serve the most vulnerable’ wherever and whenever they were asked. One year later our family moved again, this time to live and work in a probation hostel/farm for youth offenders in South Wales. I attended the local comprehensive and although moving from school to school throughout my childhood was (far more) damaging to my education, nothing would have been more detrimental to my schooling than being segregated from my peers.

It is Deeply Divisive:

Politicians are fixated with school structures, with rose-tinted glasses, personal anecdotes and blatant disregard for the data and evidence which speaks volumes. It will not do and it is abhorrent leadership!

If our politicians continue to ignore the real issues that effect schools and our children, we only have ourselves to blame if we do not challenge their perceptions of schooling and any ideology to segregate the rich from the poor. Just take a moment to read the most significant issues that are currently impacting on teachers and schools:

Theresa May said that she will ‘set a quota of £50M‘ to ensure the number of selective schools she wanted to introduce to help grammar schools grow.

“But can every school can be a grammar? And where do the pupils go who don’t pass the test? Oh, they’ll all have to go to a grammar school. Isn’t that a bit like being a comprehensive school?” (Facebook: Debra Kidd)

It is a sad day for education when we place structures above purpose.
Daily Mail Grammar Schools

There are poor schools in the present system, but the answer is to strive to improve them – as has happened in parts of London – and not to turn back the clock to a system that clearly doesn’t work for the benefit of all children.” (John Howson)


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2 thoughts on “It Was Deeply Divisive

  1. Yes I went to a grammar school, and in their eyes was a failure. The teaching in modern schools is far better and have a better curriculum and higher aspirations than the old secondary modern. The major influence the school had was extra curriculat drama which shaped my career. I would have gained that from a comp, tho l suspect not from the Sec Mod my brothet went to. Having taught for 44 yrs l now believe that if you have ability and the will to succeed, you will. However genetics, upbringing, environment, peer influences and the school attended all have determining influences, and today whether it is a grammar school is only a small part of this. As you say solving the current problems we face will have a far greater beneficial effect for more pupils than opening a grammar school.
    Ben Ball Cert. Ed., B.A., Adv. Dip. Ed., M.A. (Ed).

  2. I have a feeling I might have taught at the school you attended. Was there a pink gymnasium in one half and blue gymnasium in the other? You’re absolutely right about the obsession with structure over purpose. This grammar schools idea is another bone thrown to the right wing of the Tory party, and we all remember what happened last time a Tory PM did that. We’ll be reaping the consequences for years. They bang on at length about how good the system is in Finland, and then try to emulate it by dong the exact opposite of everything the Finns do. The ;logic escapes me..I feel it’s a smokescreen to divert attention from the Brexit mess. “Brexit means Brexit” could equally be “grammar schools means grammar schools”, because at the moment, no-one in government has a single clue about what either statement actually means in practical terms.No real improvement will take place across the system while it becomes more fragmented and more academies and free schools fall into financial scandal, nepotism, cronyism, and conflict of interest. Adding grammar schools into this toxic mix will only exacerbate an already parlous situation, while the hopelessly overwhelmed DfE looks haplessly on, not having the capacity to regulate in any meaningful way now that the government has destroyed the middle tier. I would also add admissions to your comprehensive list of issues that are being ignored, as they’re in a right mess because this government hasn’t planned for the increase in numbers, and ITT is another dog’s breakfast. Also, I thought all schools were supposed to be academies? I give up.

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