Grammar Schools: Life at the coal face

Grammar School education

It’s a tense week in the pencil case this week, and turning on the radio has me breathing into a paper bag.  No, not The Archers trial, the leaked report that Theresa May is considering bringing back Grammar Schools – that darling education panacea of the right.

For some of us, they never went away, and this Saturday my precious first born sits his 11+. If you thought I was anxious about Son2’s Year 2 SATS, brace yourself.

We live in Warwickshire, which was so laid back it never quite got round to abolishing them in the 70s so we were allowed to keep them.

I passed my 12+ back in the 80s, I skipped into the Girls’ Grammar.  Jolly hockey sticks was never my bag but I did whip up a storm on the debating team.  I passed all of my exams with flying colours, went to a great university and walked into an exciting career.  I should be Grammar School’s greatest fan. And indeed, this path is very much what the politicians have in mind when they wave the Selective Flag.

And yet, 25 years and two children later I’m not sure they stack up.

The argument in their favour is one of social mobility. The glory days of the 50s and 60s are trotted out as clever working class kids made it into the grammar and got to press the up and out button. But that was never really true.  Arguably the massive growth in white collar management positions that needed to be filled had more to do with it.  The smart kids did well for themselves, but the rich kids did even better.

There was still a whiff of meritocracy in my youth.

But oh how far we have come.

The world looks a lot less like Matilda, hundreds of miles from Theresa May’s cabinet meetings, and about as far away from social mobility as you are likely to get.  Harry Potter is not huddling in the understairs cupboard just waiting to be rescued.

What seems to matter is the levels of commitment and anxiety of your parents.

For one, you now have to apply and children sit the exam on a Saturday morning.  I’m sure some children beg their parents to let them take it, but there are plenty more who decide it’s probably not for them.

Second, it’s this Saturday!  This Saturday! Some children have been diligently doing past papers all holiday whilst others (mine) have been playing Pokemon Go and watching Youtube videos of teenagers do basketball trick shots. Because they’re 10.

And then there’s the tutoring. I hold my hands up and say that my son has had a tutor. The test he has to take is supposed to be ‘tutor proof’ but you can’t help it. We momentarily thought about sticking to our principles but knuckled under.

There’s no avoiding that fact that the 11+ is a competitive exam. There aren’t enough school places in the borough, let alone a grammar place for every child who knows a bit of algebra.

An arms race ensues. No matter what anyone says, if you take two children of the same ability, and give one plenty of practice and send the other one in cold, the practiced child will do better. The biggest wallets and the sharpest elbows will win the day. I wouldn’t call it hot housing, but we found someone who was kind and encouraging, and who could persuade him to sit down and concentrate for 45 minutes at a time, be familiar what the questions might look like and make him believe it was something he was capable of. There is also now a tuition centre in our local Sainsburys, so your child can be tutored twice a week while you get the weekly shop done in peace.  Others have had tuition since year 3 and paid for mock exams and ordered past papers (even thought they’re not supposed to exist).

Obviously there are parents who prepare their own children at home – but this is largely dependent on the patience of the parent in question, and the access to gin and beta blockers.

Small children are horrible, really horrible. They all discuss who has tutors and who doesn’t. My son comes home and tells me of boys in his class who tell others that they are going to fail because they don’t have one, or just that they are not up to it.

And I would walk away from it all tomorrow, except for the overwhelming feeling that whatever I do, I’m failing him.

He’s an intelligent boy who, at 10, I would argue has yet to decide whether to use his powers for good or evil. He is my baby boy who I still sing to sleep, and read bedtime stories.  He can’t be persuaded to wash more than once a week, let alone think about his future career prospects.  He would like to be a stunt man or a rally driver. How on earth are we to decide now what levels of academia he will aspire to, or what kind of education he is worthy of.

The exam will test him on his vocabulary, his maths and his ability to pick out a pattern.  It will not test him on his passion or enthusiasm for learning. It will not test him on his leadership skills, or a knack for conflict resolution.  They will not test him on his Mr Ripley like ability to lie charmingly and convincingly to get himself out of trouble. It will examine if he can find a better way of doing things that nobody else has thought of (even if it does involve zip wires).

The adult world has changed. No longer do we children divided into manual labour and professional classes. What we need is for the next generation to be innovative, creative, push boundaries, lead people, motivate those around them, be resilient enough to get up again when things don’t go their way, to collaborate even when they don’t like the other person.

These are not necessarily going to be found in a school where everyone is of the same ability and the majority have the same background, work ethic and temperament, whatever the prospectus says.

So why are we bothering? Well the school he wants to go to is what is known in the trade as a Bilateral school.  It has a grammar intake and a non-selective intake.  They are streamed separately, but the movement is fluid so there is the chance to move up later in the school (or down).  It’s co-ed, so my son will leave school knowing how to work alongside members of the opposite sex without seeing them as a distraction to the serious business in hand.

Which, I hear you cry, sounds suspiciously like a Comprehensive.  Spooky. But, although it’s our catchment school, we live too far away to get into the non-selective stream so Grammar stream is the best option.

And the alternatives are a church school, a free school which doesn’t yet have a building and one that has just gone into special measures. I’m sure all do a great job, with great teachers but they are constantly fighting against the reality that the brightest, wealthiest and most aspirational kids have been skimmed off the top. For all the grade progress a grammar school child gets, the opposite occurs to the other 80%.  Yes there are children who thrive and do well, but they are doing it despite the grammar system, not because of it.

It’s no secret that in all the media debates, the 80% alumni are rarely in favour.  The divisions and inequalities become cemented for their entire teenage years.

For the glorious 20% who pass, I’m not sure it raises the children that we want. For all the pride I have in my qualifications, I’m not overly proud of the sense of superiority we were given over the other schools. I remember how we spoke about them.  My apostrophe pedantry may come in handy but it has not always made me kind, and that is something that has taken my adult life to realise.

Because for all the wonders of my illustrious education I now, at 41, can see its flaws. I achieved academically but it was at the expense of other things.  A sense that failure, any failure was something to be feared, a sense that being one of the clever ones meant that I wasn’t meant to find things hard, and never to admit it. It did not prepare me for heartbreak, or grief. It did not prepare me for disappointment. Maybe I shouldn’t have expected it to but I did not expect it to make things worse.

So it would just be a refreshing change if the Government were honest.  They want a return to Grammar Schools because old people like them, and rich people who would like to avoid private school fees if they can – and these are the people who vote for them. Grammar Schools are great if they believe that every parent should be given the opportunity to catapult their child as far as they like, and never mind the rest.

If they were serious about social mobility, they wouldn’t give a stuff about the segregation of 10 year olds.  They would make sure that all schools were great, with valued and rewarded teachers.  They would let the bright children shine, fulfil their potential, and not slap them with a £40,000 debt for the privilege. They would make sure that there was a job for them to go to that had a future, or at least a proper contract and a decent wage.  And they would make a half arsed attempt to make children have the faintest hope that they would one day afford to buy their own home based on their own hard work, not the financial worth of their parents or grandparents.

And then they could shove their non-verbal reasoning.

I had a dream about the 11+this week.  I dreamt that after the first test all the children had a break and were then led back into the exam hall, which had been transformed into a Total Wipeout course; the first ones who made it to the end were in.  Fingers crossed.




11 thoughts on “Grammar Schools: Life at the coal face

  1. Spot on Lou.

    I have none of the pressures of having to comment real-time on the state of the current education system but . . . all of the hangovers of having been grammar school educated. Like you, it seemed to serve me well at the time, but similarly it has taken me a while to properly reflect on what it taught me. Realistically, it was only via the medium of Educating Essex/Yorkshire that I saw decent pastoral care in education in action and realised that, in my experience, that had been sorely lacking in my secondary education – the aim being achieving high exam grades rather than making sure that we were happy. I’m sure that there are different attitudes and expectations at play now but the seemingly constant aim of trying to mimic public schools as the best possible model is entirely false – I speak as the partner of someone who was severely let down by being educated at one of those establishments.

    Anyway . . . hope that you and your eldest get the Total Wipeout course of your dreams. x

  2. Yes, but what interests me here is this- you & all the others so worried about the disadvantaged 80% are still going ahead with the 11 plus & selective education. Do you plan to load your precious child with guilt because he got there? If a parent is a good parent they want what is best for THEIR child. You state that if he doesn’t sit you feel you won’t have done your best by him. That is a healthy parental response.What I really don’t appreciate is the inconsistency here – you & many others who want an idealized egalitarian system are not willing to sacrifice YOUR child on the funeral pyre of non-selective education to achieve it. I’m personally glad you are not & hope your son passes with flying colors on Saturday.I also hope you are genuinely thrilled for him because he has exercised his right to attain as well as he can.Your son’s potential success should be lauded, not picked over with endless ideological angst.

    1. And angst it is. I will do what I think is the right choice for my child, you are absolutely right. It is not inconsistent to do the best for your child under the circumstances whilst wishing things were different. No, we would not make him miss an opportunity offered to him because of our principles, because that wouldn’t be fair on him and obviously we will celebrate his success whatever the result of this particular test. Even if he comes top in the county, we won’t send him to the very competitive boys’ school, despite it being one of the best in the country. Whilst academically brilliant, it is not the education either he or we want for him. My point is that this is not an exercise in social mobility, and rolling it out across the country will make most children’s education worse not better. The Government has a responsibility to all children, I have a responsibility to mine.

  3. The grammar school system is no more and no less than a method for the perpetuation of middle class privilege.
    The rich can use public schools to do the turd polishing required to assure their kids’ futures and place them in a network which, even if they aren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer, will lead them to a well paid and respected career.
    For the rest of the population the tory ideal of the forelock tugging middle classes being given the chance to at least aspire to join the elite via a system of competition that divides the compliant from the combative ensures that the country never moves on to anything approaching egalitarianism.
    In my county, admittedly back in the dark ages of the fifties, the system was transparently weighted against working class kids; there was an 11+ exam which almost anyone could pass, followed by an interview which presumably sorted the wheat from the chaff in terms of social skills and attitudes (it will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I failed this part miserably).
    Now the blatant social engineering of that time has been replaced by a more subtle but no less socially damaging ruse of harnessing parental angst to make sure that the “right” kids get a proper education; parents who believe in the system are the ones that will make their children conform to the system.
    OK so this may be an over simplistic rant by someone who had a massive chip on the shoulder after having been written off at eleven, but nothing will ever convince me that selective education is a good thing.

  4. I whole heartedly agree with your assessment of the dangers of segregation. I am very against grammar schools and am thankful to live in an areas where there are none so I don’t have to face your dilemma. I would hope to stand by my principles, but it’s hard to do that without feeling you are putting them above the best interests of your child. Excellent, well-funded comprehensive education should be the government’s goal, not the return to a system where 80% of the population are sapped of their aspiration.

    1. See what school he gets allocated. I don’t feel church vs free vs special measures is a choice I’m particularly comfortable with – which is lucky because as we can’t get into our catchment school we will probably get given whichever school has places.

      Hurrah for parental choice.

  5. Fascinating to follow the debate. It’s an issue where we all argue emotively from our varied personal experiences and prejudices. Me, too, in my own recent blog. However, there are some things that we know from the evidence, both historical and current. They are facts, and they are these: overall, grammar schools lower achievement levels; overall, those from lower socio-economic backgrounds are most adversely affected; grammar schools take a disproportionately low number of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds; as a consequence, grammar schools segregate children both academically and socially; every grammar school means that there are four secondary modern schools; in any area where there is a grammar school 100% of parents are denied the opportunity for their child to go to a comprehensive school.

  6. Some grammar schools only take about 2% of the local population. Others take 33%. There is no hard and fast rule about how many they take. It is clear they are no longer an aid to social mobility. There is a good reason for this: the majority of people have now been well educated and their children are no longer “working class”. The parents have aspired to greater things so have become middle class. Their children go to good schools, whether they be comprehensive or grammar. If you look at where there is most social deprivation in the country, you will often find the worst performing schools. The middle class have moved away. Would a grammar get enough bright children by creaming off the top 25-35% in such an area? Doubtful. So where are the grammar schools going to be to ensure they have a large proportion of FSM children and can truly be described as a grammar school? They will go where they can pull in enough bright children from a very wide area. The ones near me no longer serve the local town and surrounding villages. They serve the adjacent city! The one with comprehensive schools. They are not truly comprehensive of course because bus loads of children commute to the grammars in the next county.

    Here, the exam is taken by all children but there is no coaching allowed in state schools. The prep schools Hoover up plenty of places as do the tutored children. The non tutored but not super-bright take pot luck. As they have poor exam technique, they often miss out. Tutoring, to some extent, must be offered to all to make it a level playing field and getting every child to do the 11 plus is just farcically expensive. The government must concentrate on making all schools good. Michael Wilshaw has told them how to do it – better teachers and better leaders. Not grammar schools.

  7. I think we have to stop getting hung up on the politics of it all. Different schools work for different children. I am in Warks as well and had the choice with a bright child to send to Grammar. Bus is required for all schools but we had choices Warwick, Stratford or even Alcester I chose not to let her sit it and backed off as she objected. She is well rounded and achieving but doesn’t do well in a pressured environment yet (She will have to going forward but that is a battle for when she is older and more mature) She is also a younger child in the yr so she has her own battles outside of that. So we decided on a local school. So far so good. It a school that was the dregs around 6 yrs ago and has come on leaps and bounds, they are still trying hard to improve everything – to me that is positive. But you have to choose what is right for your child first and foremost, not necessarily what is right politically

    1. Absolutely, which is why he is sitting the test. I think you know your child and what school will suit them – then do you best to help them achieve their potential. It sounds like you have done a great job of that. You can still do that whilst recognising that the system could be fairer, or that other children are not being served so well.

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