Weighing in on the grammar school debate
It seems that everyone has a story about their experience of grammar schools, be it going to one, or not going to one. It is a charged subject and we oldies love to draw on our own childhoods on this, as we often do so many topics around education and childhood. But this is one area that has changed so much since we were young, that we need to be really careful not to make up our minds, or heaven help us, make policy, based on our own frame of reference from the past.
That said, I will talk about my own grammar school experience later as a way to illustrate just how life has changed. First though, let’s look at some of what is being debated.
There have always been grammar schools, so what’s changed?
Prime Minister Theresa May has apparently decided to challenge the notion that she is a safe pair of hands bringing us stability and status quo in uncertain times. She has, almost out of the blue, decided to lift the ban on new grammar schools being opened. May has said that it is a good idea, for the sake of choice and to ensure that the brightest children are not held back, that we expand grammar schools so that in every area in the country families have better access to a wide range of schools, including grammar schools.
May points out that at present, there is a certain level of social selection around secondary schools as those that can afford to live in the posh postcode areas will have access to the better schools. This might be true, but will grammar schools change anything around that? And doesn’t going back to an 11 plus means that schools will be either selective grammar schools or secondary moderns? Or if the idea is that every school can be selective, how will that work exactly?
What does this choice mean in practice?
In some areas of the country, especially those that are more rural or sparsely populated, there is little or no choice of secondary schools because there are just very few schools in the area at all. However, in areas like London, the choice debate is highly relevant. And we need to make sure we aren’t making national policy based on a narrow, London-and-the-south-east-centric frame of reference.
In my catchment area for example, there are schools in three boroughs we can access within walking distance or that are a short bus ride away. We have a pick of academies, and maintained schools, faith schools for all the major religions, schools with different specialisms in arts, media, languages, tech and more, single-sex and mixed schools, grammar schools, schools with and without sixth forms. There are also plenty of different special schools catering for a wide spectrum of needs, and even three pupil referral units. There are schools with over 2,000 students and others with only 600. So chucking in a new grammar school wouldn’t make much difference would it? Most schools do really well by their students, are rated good or outstanding by Ofsted and cater for all kinds of vocational and academic interests and abilities. But there isn’t this choice everywhere in the country.
But when does choice become social segregation? I want my children to rub shoulders with the real population of the area in which they live. But I also know that with streaming, they are already experiencing a form of segregation for much of the school day in many subjects. I wouldn’t want to segregate them completely, no matter how bright I thought they were, from other children from all walks of life. Many parents however, really don’t want that. They want their children to be sheltered from the potentially distracting influences that might be experienced by fraternising with families that are not “like us”. Is that what some of us really mean when we talk about choice?
Do structures make a difference?
We already know that there is no evidence at all that structures make any difference to how well children achieve or to closing the gap between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and those that are not. We have seen the government insist that the academisation programme is what will ultimately improve education for all, despite all the evidence showing clearly that the structure and governance of a school makes little or no difference to the outcomes for children that go there. What does make a difference is the teaching and the leadership in those schools –and resources. We know this and yet, it is a massive elephant that we don’t seem to be able to acknowledge in terms of the way policy setting goes. We are told we are pressing ahead, regardless.
Does selection make a difference?
The OECD has stated categorically that in countries in Europe, such as Germany and Switzerland, where selection has been widely used, these schools were not more likely to produce high-achieving students. The OECD education expert, Andreas Schleicher, said that access to selective schools was often unfairly biased towards wealthier families – and that contradicts the aim of stretching the most talented that Theresa May highlights as central to her call for new grammar schools.
What is needed, Schleicher says, is greater meritocracy in the school system. In fact, he goes on to say that what we call academic selection in this country, is actually selection by social background.
Back in the day, the 11 plus may well have identified the more academically inclined or brighter students because it tested a particular way of thinking and learning that could be built upon and stretched. Nowadays, with a huge army of private tutors and an entire shadow education sector that is thriving, the 11 plus does become something that more parents with money can push their children through regardless of their actual academic ability – or ‘talent’ as May likes to refer to it as.
Is education necessarily better in grammar schools?
This to me is just like the conjecture that private schools provide a better standard of education. We need to be really careful with this assumption as it is known that many private schools survive well on reputation, a host of private tutors after school, and in-built high expectations rather than having better teaching or a superior curriculum (as do some state schools, indeed).
Grammars, like private schools, will find it easier to attract and retain teachers and are likely to therefore have more experienced teachers. It’s hard enough to attract and retain teachers in the state sector but imagine what it would be like if there were more secondary moderns struggling to recruit well-qualified staff who will be motivated to stay in the profession.
Do disadvantaged students benefit from grammar schools?
This is where the romanticism of days gone by comes into play for many. The original tenet for grammar schools was indeed to provide equal opportunity for highly academic education for children from deprived backgrounds. And they did for a while but only for those that were accepted to grammar schools.
The DfE asserts that grammar schools provide a good education for their disadvantaged pupils, and that they want more pupils from lower-income backgrounds to benefit from this.
But what about the students from deprived backgrounds who don’t go to grammar school? In the old system, the sorting sheep from goats at age 11 is understood by many to have achieved its aim by releasing potential and it created in some cases a mobile population of young people from deprived backgrounds. But it also had dire consequences for many children, not least those who did not pass the 11 plus exam and were relegated to the secondary modern and to social segregation from their peers they had known from primary school. The psychological and motivational fall out of such an experience has been talked about at length recently.
There seems to be consensus that the picture would be different nowadays. But there really isn’t a level playing field on entry for grammars and successive studies have shown that poorer pupils are generally much less likely to get places in grammar schools.
According to the Sutton Trust for example, only 3% of entrants to grammar schools are entitled to free school meals, when in selective areas the average proportion of free school meal pupils is 18%.
However, Theresa May is emphatic that anyone criticising the lack of social mobility of grammar schools also has to face up to the inequalities in other ways of admitting pupils. And this is where she brings in the notion of a sort of postcode social apartheid caused by the system of catchment areas deciding school places. You only have to look at some of the successful comprehensive schools’ catchment areas and house prices to see how this social segregation plays out already in some parts of the country. But on the flip side, there are schools with extremely high intake of FSM children in deprived areas that do incredibly well by all their students.
And now for the personal story
I went to a top girls’ grammar school. How I got there is a bizarre thing indeed. We had a pretty gruelling home life and as a result we each reacted differently at school. My older brother was an angry and disruptive student at one local comprehensive, and my bright, quiet and well-behaved older sister opted for the other local comprehensive when her turn came. When I reached the final year of primary school I was adamant that I didn’t want to be under the shadow of either of my siblings. A friend from my class was taking the 11 plus so I went along too. We got the afternoon off school and watched Bollywood movies at her house and drank Ribena in milk to celebrate. I didn’t really think much about it after that as the whole exam was completely baffling to me.
It was a real surprise to learn a few weeks later that I had gained a place although little did I know that I had in fact failed the 11 plus because my ability in maths was so poor. My mum only told me this humiliating fact a couple of years later, in a rage, when it was clear that things weren’t great for me at the school. The headteacher had decided to take me and another girl who had just moved from Yorkshire as her experimental students. I was the only one on free school meals, having to trot up to the till at lunchtime and present my while the others stared in curiosity. I hated every single moment at the school, feeling like an imposter with the well-off girls who were there. I had no resources or support at home for the academic level expected of me and the already significant gap between myself and my peers widened over time. There was no pupil premium to encourage extra support and the school did not feel any particular responsibility for whether I succeeded or not. They repeatedly told me that they had taught the material and it was up to me to try harder to make up the widening gap.
I left just before my 16th birthday with 5 O Levels and a CSE. After burning my books in the back garden, I enrolled to an FE college where I took my A Levels. I also re-took my maths O level each year until I passed it with the help of a maths tutor funded entirely by my own Saturday job money. I left home at 17, took a year out so I could work and fund the rent of my sub-let room in a shared council flat where I lived with two blokes in their 20s. I finally went off to university to read Social Anthropology against all the odds at the end of that “gap” year. I am where I am today because of a combination of stubbornness and luck, and not because of the wonderful opportunity that grammar school provided me with.
My brother had already followed a similar path to me but skipped university in favour of an apprenticeship at a recording studio and today is a successful professional composer for films. My sister did really well at her comprehensive, got 10 great O Levels and 4 A Levels and gained a place at Cambridge, where a combination of imposter syndrome and a series of awful life experiences meant that she never could complete her course. She is happy and successful now but like for all of us, it has taken time and effort to get where we are.
The grammar school issue now is often described as divisive. There seems to me to be a real divide between people when it comes to their child’s education. We all want the best for our children but for some more than others, there seems to be a real passion for equality of opportunity that stops us from wanting to buy our children a place at the front of the line at the expense of those that cannot afford it. I still come back to the same place whenever these issues are up for debate. What we really need to do is invest our time, money and passion into ensuring that every local school is a brilliant place to work and to learn in. That within each school there is the expertise and resources to cater for all kinds of children from every walk of life. What an exciting place it could be to have at the heart of every local community, a well-resourced, vibrant place of education with many pathways to happy, successful and fruitful adult lives.