Grammar Schools: Life at the coal face

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.




Dear Nicky Morgan, about those listening ears …

Dear Nicky

I sent my children to school today, as did most parents.  Some did not.  Over 45,000 parents signed the petition supporting the Let Our Kids Be Kids strike and boycotting of this year’s SATs, parents who feel so strongly that the new curriculum is damaging their children that they felt they needed to make a stand.

The fact that many more thousands of parents sent their children to school today does not mean that they are on your side – for this feels like lines are being drawn.

I sent my children to school for several reasons (apart from the very practical reason of being at work).

My eldest child is in Year 5.  The boy more or less invented Civil Disobedience.  At the moment this is reserved for broccoli, washing and his brother choosing what’s on the TV.  I am not about to give him the idea that boycotting school is an option if he can come up with a good enough argument.  This is because I care about him, about his education, and about moulding him into a responsible, intelligent citizen,.  At the moment, he couldn’t care less about much – telling him that school is anything other than non-negotiable is insane.

My youngest child is in Year 2.  He cares deeply about everything.  He’s a bright boy, conscientious and hates to be in trouble.  Keeping him off school today would have make him incredibly anxious that his headmaster or teacher would be cross or disappointed in him. I don’t think, at 7, he can understand the nuance of disagreeing with Government policy rather than the teachers.

So off to school they went.

In one corner, Government supporters will say that standards must be improved and our children deserve better.  Parents, teachers and mental health experts will point to increases in anxiety and the damaging effects this is having on our children.

I don’t think you understand anxiety (it’s a noun although I’m not sure what sort); I don’t think politicians, by their very nature, can. Politicians, must develop a thick skin, be decisive, be unswayed by opposition. These are not the traits of an anxious person. I don’t think you understand what it does to people, and children in particular. It is not fussy about intelligence or ability, it is not about strength or weakness. It’s about fear and with that fear comes a reluctance to try. Doing nothing is better than doing the wrong thing.

Increasingly I see joy being replaced by worry.  A recent piece of homework asked him to memorise a poem to recite in class.  We eventually chose one, after rejecting some of the more unsuitable junior school ditties his brother had taught him. Although he has the memory of a supercomputer and had given a nativity performance to rival Mark Rylance, there were tears of genuine fear that he would make a mistake, or forget a line.  We had to very gently explain that the point of it was to encourage a love of poetry, to discover new things, not a memory test.

I see him reluctant to write stories like he once did.  I see him hesitate before using a difficult word in case he has spelt it incorrectly. I see the look of crumpled dejection when, although he’s on the top table, he’s still hasn’t got a tick in the top box.

He makes up the most amazing pun laden jokes, he has arbitrarily taken it upon himself to memorise capital cities at bedtime, he has mastered the armpit fart.

I spent a long time drilling my 10 year old that having messy handwriting did not mean that he couldn’t be great at writing (Goddammit).  Spotting the modal verbs in Jane Eyre (no, me neither) doesn’t mean you are any more capable of understanding what those words mean.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m something of a grammar pedant.  Whilst I’ll accept (and even commit) the odd slip, on the whole apostrophes are non negotiable and I know what to do with a semi-colon.  We have an amazing language which deserves to be treated with respect and its rules adhered to.  I also accept that a sound knowledge of grammar might make us a little better at languages.  In which case, ditch the SPAG and make French compulsory.

The Government spokespeople (whose own grammar isn’t that hot), obviously haven’t faired too badly.  Julia Hartley-Brewer defended them on PM today saying she had been ‘failed by the comprehensive system as she was never taught this stuff’  So much so that she is now a successful columnist, commentator, and regular on Radio4 and Question Time – the utter drop out.  She talked of woolly liberals who never want their children to fail, or get less than an A, and never want them to challenged.

It’s actually the complete opposite.

I want my children to be armed and dangerous with all of the myriad of skills they will need in adult life – skills that will make them successful and happy.  These are not fronted adverbials or subordinate clauses.

The Government doesn’t have a monopoly on wanting to make Britain great.  The skills that will make it great are not scoring 100% in spelling tests, the world has changed.  They are inventiveness, innovation, analytical skills, looking for answers, creativity, leadership, resilience and confidence in their own abilities and talents.

I and my children’s teachers seem to spend our lives trying to instil feelings of enthusiasm, joy and self-esteem only to have it knocked out of them when we’re not looking.

What we seem to be teaching children is that they are wrong.  The seed is planted that the ideas in their head aren’t nearly as important as getting the answer right.  That memorising facts and definitions is more important than understanding them.

Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.

Worse than that, it’s teaching them not to make mistakes.

In the adult world, great leaders and managers don’t constantly criticise the people they lead (OK, some do, but they’re rubbish).  They look for strengths to develop, they encourage, they instil a vision that will inspire and motivate.

I can’t tell you how much I want my children to fail; to fail over and over and then have another go, to try things that they’ve never done before, to try things that they know won’t work but do it anyway. To get things wrong or to get things right but in an unexpected way.

To do something great, or remarkable, or just different … or not.

Instead we are in danger of raising a whole generation of very small animals entirely surrounded by water.  Children who know exactly what is expected of them and by what percentage they are lacking.  Children who always seem to get everything wrong, even when they are mostly right.

Now I know you and your colleagues are working towards expected levels on your listening skills.  Junior Doctors and patients don’t seem to be getting very far and now teachers, parents and experts are telling you about their actual experience of real life children, but you’re still not that bothered.  Apparently you do trust us to make decisions complex economic, agricultural and legal arguments on EU membership which I’m pretty guaranteed I, along with 90% of the rest of population, am not qualified to make.

So fingers on lips, hands on knees, and pay attention.

All too often we skip spellings but rarely story time, so I shall leave you with some hints and tips from Antoine de Saint Exupéry.  It’s a metaphor but I’m sure that will be OK. He’s French and everything.

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.

Yours sincerely