Naturally, the first thing I ought to disclose is that I went to a grammar school. This is something I am proud of, yet even more so, something for which I am unspeakably grateful. Securing a place at Grammar school was the second most influential momentEvery year Oxbridge admissions are the subject of debate, would bringing back grammar schools in earnest make a positive difference to the state sector?

How are grammar schools a problem? Let me count the ways, says Laura McInerney

First, there’s the straightforward fact that, in parts of the country where grammars still exist, children in low-income families get worse exam results than those in areas with comprehensives. Children in wealthier and middle-income families do no better. So, essentially, if you bring back grammars, the evidence suggests you are mainly just making life harder for the most vulnerable kids. 

Second, the 11-plus is a fairly rubbish exam. Standard error is always a problem for intelligence testing and no matter how many times the education secretary claims there are “tutor-proof tests”, there aren’t. The university professors who designed them admit this. They will say the tests can “limit the impact of coaching” but that's it. So families with extra cash are advantaged over those who don’t. 

Third, there’s no logical reason why children should do better when streamed into different buildings. If the argument is that teachers can achieve more with a narrow ability range in their class, why not insist on more “setting” – the practice of grouping children with similar test results into one class?

LauraComprehensives are particularly good at setting as it can be done by subject. A gifted mathematician may be placed in a top maths set, but work in a lower set to develop their less brilliant English. Denied a place at a grammar on the basis of their poor English, and placed in a school with few top-attaining mathematicians, the child would not get such provision.

Fourth, don’t be taken in by those who argue clever children need separate buildings because of bullying. Not only are there a million and a half high-attaining children in comprehensives, most of whom enjoy school and are not bullied, it is an abrogation of duty to “save” the bright while leaving behind the quiet-but-less intelligent to fend for themselves. If pupils are subjected to racist or homophobic bullying we don’t stick the non-white and gay kids in another school. We stamp out the bullying! That should go for everyone.

Fifth, the Prime Minister is intent on reviving grammars because there is currently selection “by postcode” - ie, if you live in an expensive house you are more likely to have an outstanding school nearby. Putting aside the fact the causation probably runs the other way round, if the PM is actually serious, there are better policies for breaking this problem including place lotteries and rezoning catchment areas. 

But if data, logic and plausible alternatives haven’t convinced you so far, let me leave you with this thought experiment.

You are a parent. And I have a 5-sided dice. You can either take your local schools as they are - in which we expected 70 per cent are good and outstanding. Or you can roll the dice. Land a 1 and your child will get a better school. Get a 2, 3, 4 or 5, and they will get a worse school. Do you roll the dice?

This isn’t a joke. The chance of getting into a grammar for an average family is 1 in 5. While most grammars are outstanding, the majority of secondary moderns are rated as requiring improvement or inadequate.

It would be a brave politician who rolls the dice for their child. If they wouldn’t do it for their own, they shouldn’t do it for other people’s children.  

Laura McInerney is the editor of the newspaper SchoolsWeek and a columnist for The Guardian. She matriculated at St. Peter's Colllege, in 2001, and studied PPE. She attended and later taught in comprehensive schools.

History BoysAlan Bennett's The History Boys takes place at Cutlers' Grammar School in Sheffield, a fictional boys' grammar school in the north of England 

Grammar schools are misunderstood, says former grammar school pupil Alexander Fullerton 

Naturally, the first thing I ought to disclose is that I went to a grammar school. This is something I am proud of, yet even more so, something for which I am unspeakably grateful. Securing a place at Grammar school was the second most influential moment of my life thus far, only surpassed by getting into Oxford, a feat that was indisputably linked to the former. 

FullertonThis debate has a tendency to be mired by the righteous lamentations of ex-public school commentators bemoaning the plight of the common masses, supposedly being trampled into social subjugation by grammar schools. The problem is - they don't have the foggiest what they're talking about.  

I'm not public school bashing, but they simply don't understand what it's like to be in state education. Try learning in an environment where 'reading is for nerds', where you're called a swot if you so dare as raise your hand to answer a question, where classes are relentlessly interrupted. The reality is that whilst some comprehensives are excellent, in far too many it is very difficult for gifted children to achieve their full potential; a most grievous tragedy. Grammar schools provide an escape from this. A ladder of academic excellence that provides a literally life-changing opportunity for many students.

But what about those left behind I hear you screaming? Here is where the true source of the grammar school debate rears its ugly head- elitism, the bogeyman of education politics. Well I hate to break it to you, but it was elitism that provided the foundation of modern civilisation; it is the fuel that has powered the entirety of human progress. Elitism is something we should, within limits, embrace wholeheartedly. Yet, improving comprehensives, which of course must be a priority for May's government, and re-introducing grammars aren't mutually exclusive. 

Whilst I'm quick to come to the defence of grammars, I'm also the first to concede their flaws. In my mind, the problem lies not in the concept but in the execution. The biggest issue with selective education is the testing. As it stands, the current format fails as an accurate test of attainment, results in excessive coaching of children and consequently works against the original core purpose of grammars: social mobility.

However, this isn't to say the system can't be improved. Firstly, Theresa May announced several new measures including a quota of free school meal students to improve social mobility, multiple entry levels to tackle the oft-brandished criticism of children being 'written off at 11', and the obligatory creation of primary feeder schools.

For lack of a 'tutor-proof' test, the nonsense that is verbal and non-verbal reasoning should be scraped and replaced with more traditional exams. Papers in maths, English, history and science would reduce the benefits of excessive coaching, hopefully provide a better indicator of academic performance and give children from less pushy and well-off backgrounds a better chance.

We must also recognise that what we have now is not the originally intended model. Whilst many of the remaining grammars now effectively function as pseudo public schools, the prosaic charm of schools such as the one in Alan Bennett's The History Boys is alas rarely found. This, despite being fictitious, is a perfect example of the intended function of grammars: providing local, working class girls and boys the opportunity to go from a crowded terraced house in industrial Sheffield to achieve their full potential amongst the dreaming spires.

Alec Fullerton, (Trinity, 2014)

Images © Shutterstock, Oxford University Images

Comments

By Paul Lusk
on

I took my 11+ at a large, streamed primary school in a big city, then moved to a small one-form village school in Kent, where the head taught the senior class. When the 11+ results arrived, each child was summoned to the front to be given an envelope. To those selected for grammar school the head said 'you're through' as he or she got the envelope. For those destined for one of three sec mods there was silence. The horror of this brutal public segregation has never left me. The school system in that town remains unchanged. If the Conservatives really think that selection can be 'non-binary' and not detrimental to standards overall, let them prove it now in Kent.
Paul Lusk (Hertford 1966)

By Elaine Spence
on

I am also ex (girls') grammar school. The secondary mods need improvement - well, we could always improve them..The reason we ( i.e. They) don't is because for them it's all unimportant. So long as they can send their own children to public schools, they will not be interested in improving state schools, and they certainly don't want to improve state education to the point where they turn out too many competitors to their own children.

The fact is that grammar schools provided me and countless others with an opportunity to get ahead on ability and effort. So long as public schools can get children ahead on Mummy and Daddy's money, what is so terrible about letting other children get ahead on ability?

This particularly applies to girls. I can't be the only person who has many times come across parents who have solemnly told me "We could only afford to send one of them to public school, and of course it had to be our son".

Abolish the public schools system first. It won't happen of course. Their alumni's grip on the establishment is such that we can't even take away their ridiculous charitable status. To want to abolish the grammar schools before you abolish the public schools, that's just silly.

By John Young
on

I grew up in poverty, attended a grammar school and studied at Oxford. I spent my professional life working in and with secondary schools, mostly in socially deprived areas in the former Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire Coalfields. I am sorry to break it to Alec Fullerton, but less than 3% of the current grammar school intake is on free school meals and four times as many are admitted from the private sector. Grammar schools are middle-class bastions with a sprinkling of children from crowded terraced houses in Sheffield and other cities and they reinforce social division and elitism. The late actor, Colin Tarrant, who was born in a pit village, told me that the worst day of his life was the day he passed the 11+. He knew that a barrier had been erected that would separate him from his roots and his class forever.

John Young, Lincoln, 1967

By Alan James
on

One question that isn't addressed by either side is why select at age 11+? There seems to me to be a reasonable case for selection for varied, appropriate educational pathways (not necessarily in separate schools) at 13+ (which happens to be the traditional entry age for fee-charging 'public' schools), but 11 is far too young. Conversely, middle schools (typically 9-13) have much to recommend them, offering a good comprehensive education for all pupils during a stage in which their strengths can be recognised and an appropriate educational programme identified for the later years of their schooling.

By Timothy keates
on

I took the Eleven-Plus exam twice, and on both occasions scored a result deemed pretty near subnormal. After attending a wonderful (private) "big school" — one of the best at the time, 50 years ago — I was welcomed to Oxford. And, no, that "big school" was not Eton or the like, its education was very attentive to helping you to find out what you were good at. In my case, Classics and other literary subjects. But I also excelled in theatricals, and might have proceeded to the Drama course at Bristol.

By John Pilling
on

Yesterday I met someone from Sheffield and we compared notes about the grammar schools we had attended 50+ years ago. Maybe mine, King Edward VII, was the model for Cutler's Grammar School, certainly I could identify very closely with the characters portrayed by Alan Bennett when, quite recently, I saw a production of the play. I was from a middle class background and the man I was speaking with was from a council estate in Woodseats. Both of us were enthusiasts of Grammar Schools for the same reason. He had seen and I had experienced the undeniable opportunity it had given him to achieve social mobility and for me to witness it occurring in my friends. Alan Fullerton has encapsulated the truth, Laura McInerney has missed the point. She should have been at St Peter's 50 years ago when I was there to experience the impact of Grammar School education on Oxbridge entry in a bygone era.

By Bob Mahy
on

Teaching in a grammar school for the first four years of my career I became increasingly concerned for the pupils who had passed the 11 plus but were struggling at the grammar school. In addition everything was focussed on going on to university even if that was not suitable for many of the pupils. When I then went to teach at a comprehensive I found that the equivalent pupils were thriving. In addition, one of the first pupils I taught maths had failed the 11 plus in a different area but at the comprehensive went on to gain entry to Oxford. I find Laura McInerney's arguments totally convincing.

By Mike Staples
on

I went to a grammar school and I am sure that it was the reason that I got into Oxford and subsequently went to on to have a well-paid job in engineering. I am also convinced that the standard of teaching was highly variable and my route to Oxford and subsequent job was very much to do with the school knowing the system and my future employer being very selective in where they recruited. I sent both my children to the local comprehensive and am very pleased with the result; they obtained a good education and friends from a wide variety of backgrounds.

Generally, too many of the proponents of Grammar schools rely on their personal experience as those who have managed, by luck or coaching, to avoid the trap of the secondary moderns, which, as far as I can remember. have been greatly under-resourced and therefore under-performing. When designing a school system, we should be using the evidence that overwhelming shows that comprehensives deliver the best results for the population as a whole and not just for a lucky few.
I welcome Alec's admission that grammars aren't perfect but cannot for the life of me see why we should try to tweak an inherently bad system just to please a few who clamour for a golden past that never existed - especially for those that were excluded at the absurdly early age of 11.

By Robert Ward
on

To follow the pattern of the anti-grammar writer:-

Firstly, children who go to grammar schools do better than they otherwise would have done had they gone to a non-selective. If we are pursuing excellence this is a no-brainer decision to have more grammar schools. Even if these children's performance was no better then that is no reason to prevent more grammar schools unless there is detriment elsewhere.

It is true that less free school meal children get into grammars than are in the wider population, but those that do get in do very well. Their under-representation is, amongst other things due to poor parenting and shortcomings in primary education.

Second, all exams are less than perfect. If you expect perfection you're on the wrong planet. That does not mean that you should let perfection be the enemy of better. No-one is suggesting the return of Secondary Moderns. We need good schools for those who do not get in to the grammar.

Also to use the dice analogy - some reports have stated that the performance of grammars is matched by top quintile comps so why not just have comps? This is equivalent to saying you would rather role a die and hope for a 5 and build a comp rather than build a grammar when you are guaranteed top performance.

There are limitations to extending grammar schools. They do tend to diminish performance of neighbouring non-selectives if the grammar takes too large of slice of top performers but there are substantial areas where this is not the case and grammars would improve pupil performance of some without detriment to others. Why would you not do that?

By Gisele Earle
on

An excellent article from Alec Fullerton. As a retired teacher I concur with him wholeheartedly. I left the state system because I could no longer stand the constant interruptions from those who thought it was clever to distract the class, the branding of those who wanted to learn as swots, and the jeering at any child seen carrying a violin or other instrument to school. I am not proud of having spent so many years in the independent sector, but I was able to do what I was paid for: to teach French and Spanish rather than merely keeping the kids occupied. Gisele Earle (St Anne's 1964).

By Roy Waters
on

I suggest that both Ms McInerney and Mr Fullerton fail to grasp the most important point in the debate about grammar schools. I suggest that the fundemental objective of education is, or should be, to provide each and every child, or adult, with the best possible opportunity to be happy and successful (in that order) in life. The debate should be about how to do just that. I´m not an educationalist but I think that probably a process of selection at a realistic age is appropriate, the selection including, importantly, a conversation with the student about what he / she enjoys doing most and is good at. While some of these students would be better off in grammar schools - I always assume, possibly wrongly so, that these are the most academically inclined students - others would have a better opportunity to be happy and succesful in other organisations such as football clubs, ballet schools, music academies, industrial organisations etc. or even comprehensive schools.These types of organisations provide or when they do not should be obliged to do so, a basic academic education as well as an outstanding opportunity to be happy and succesful in the field the person has chosen to pursue.

By Peter Bolwell
on

In my home town of Hastings, the selective schools were replaced with comprehensives, so we have had the opportunity of directly comparing the two systems and the way they work. The boys' grammar school had just under 700 pupils and the headmaster used to say that he knew every boy in the school. The comprehensive that replaced it has something over 2,000 pupils. Not only is it impossible for the head to recognise every pupil but some of the pupils don't even know what the head looks like, as a friend of mine discovered when he went to look round it and some of the boys assumed he must be the head because he was wearing a suit! The grammar school was one of the jewels of the town, with an astonishing academic record for its size (in my own year, 11 of us went up to Oxford or Cambridge). The present comprehensive schools in the town are so unappealing that parents are actually moving out of the town to try and avoid having to send their children there. Whatever view you take about the two "systems" considered theoretically, the fact is that in my own particular town the destruction of the grammar school was an act of vandalism and the consequences have been lamentable. The town is poorer for its loss.

By Dave Postles
on

Whatever was 'the original core purpose' of grammar schools, the actual impact was to privilege the middle class. The number of young people from working-class backgrounds which was advantaged by them was minimal. Those of us who did manage an educational career in grammar schools often felt marginalized and inferior: on arrival because the middle-class kids were already far more advanced through their background and secondly economically (inferior type of uniform). There existed, moreover, a hierarchy of grammar schools, not a flat educational world. To be subjective, my life was transformed at age 15 by a single teacher, which could have happened in any type of educational establishment. My experience was of a city-based grammar school in the 1960s.

By Dave Postles
on

BTW, I really suggest that reform should begin at Oxford in terms of social mobility before venturing to interfere in the secondary educational system. Oxford retains a public-school ethos. It was extremely uncomfortable in the 1960s and persists with the same traditions of elitism.

By Brian Salter-Duke
on

I do not know whether Alan Bennett's The History Boys Cutlers' Grammar School in Sheffield is based on King Edward VII School, but it must have been in his mind. I was there from 1950 to 1957, a period when the full vigour of the 11 plus examination was in place. That examination was very competitive in Sheffield. All grammar schools were available to everyone and most parents put down King Teds first, putting a more local one second, followed by several more. At King Ted's we were given a days holiday for every 10 scholarships obtained, almost entirely at Oxford and Cambridge. We though badly done by if we did not get 2 days off. I am grateful l for my time there and that I was able to win a scholarship, but it also taught me to strongly oppose the 11 plus examination. Two things stand out. First, my primary school was on the top of the hill. There were two classes in each year. One side of the hill was much more working class with older houses. The other was recent semi-detached or more expensive houses. Entry into the top class was supposedly on merit, but the two classes were each almost entirely composed of children form the same side of the hill, You can guess which side went to the top class. Almost all the top class "passed" the 11 plus. Almost all of the lower class "failed" it. Second, King Teds was very selective. Those who finished in the bottom form of four came to think of themselves as failures. They mostly became failures. I am however convinced that if the 11 plus had placed them in a different grammar school they would have been successful. Let us not go back to a system remotely like the system that I went through. There has to be a better way.

Brian Salter-Duke, The Queen's College (1957) - then Brian Duke

By Helen Anderson
on

I attended a grammar school in the 1960s in an Essex town which offered four such schools (two for each sex) and a much larger number of secondary modern schools. There were no excellent private day schools offering a high standard of academic education. During my final year in the sixth form the town opened its first comprehensive school. Those selected for this school included a significant number from Council run housing estates, as well as those from more middle class backgrounds.
My primary school had been large but very ordinary with four classes, in each year. The catchment area was very mixed. About a quarter of the pupils went on to a grammar school. However it was the proud boast of my primary school headteacher that none of his pupils moved into secondary schooling unable to read and/or write. There was no coaching by the school for the 11 plus.
My recollection is that a number of pupils successfully joined the grammar school at the 13 plus stage and more arrived in the sixth form, often from local private schools.
I, along with others, benefitted from both the good primary grounding followed by grammar schools, by gaining places at Oxbridge and other respected Redbrick universities. Quite a number went into teacher training colleges or into accountancy and the law straight from school. I know this avenue into these professions became degree based, but I believe this changing again with opportunities to train without a degree at the outset. However not all children selected for a grammar school education wanted to pursue an academic life and, particularly in the girls' school, having taken secretarial courses progressed from there.
My grammar school was set for most subjects across the year group of four classes of about 30 pupils each. In this respect it was no different from a comprehensive, once the initial selection had taken place. What I most regret, from that time, was that I chose modern languages at age 14, which meant I had to drop all science subjects because of time-table clashes. A comprehensive or maybe a much larger grammar school would have avoided this but neither options was on offer.
Moving on to the period 1989 through to 2009 my own children went for the most part into the middle school system in Suffolk, after a short period in small state village school. If they had stayed under the Essex system they would have moved from a school of 50/60 pupils at age 11 to join a comprehensive of over 1,000, with a significant number of pupils bussed in from rural areas.
Instead my children moved from a primary school, aged 9 to the middle school until rising 14 and into the upper school in time to prepare for GCSEs. All three schools were autonomous and their buildings were on the same campus with a catchment area which was both rural and small town. The primary school was large and the middle school took in these pupils plus the bulk of the pupils from other schools locally. They all moved into the upper school and at sixth form level stayed on campus and after GCSEs a few moved to a dedicated Sixth Form college about 15 miles away.
My children's education was very different from my own, but I believe this was dictated not so much by the standard of teaching as by the National curriculum. The only thing that struck a strong chord, at the time, was when I queried why my child. who was studying Shakespeare at the time for GCSE English, was only reading part of the play and concentrating more or less exclusively on the character of Iago. I was told that was all expected at GCSE. At the same examination level I had studied, inter alia, two Shakespeare plays and was expected to quote verbatim from them in answering "O"- level questions. However my children combined science, languages and arts subjects without any restriction.
The ethos achieved on the small campus encouraged parental engagement and there was participation in the classroom and an active PTA. All this together with the staff ensured my children all received a good,( albeit more limited in academic content) education, permitting each of them to go onto good universities.
My experience is now out of date. What I would like to see for all pupils from pre-school onwards is an education up to grammar school level of attainment and wide breadth, with flexible streaming and setting, so every child takes something worthwhile away from their schooling. Existing buildings and staff can be combined, even if not adjacent to each other. My local Technology School, in Essex, splits between two bases according to age and buses children between them. If results are a good indicator this has worked well.
Grammar schools do not have to be elitist and, if it helps call them by another name, but keep their aspirations and expectations for all children.
Finally there needs to be a period of continuity so headteachers can plan ahead and teachers get on with teaching.
I have a vested interest in all this as I have a granddaughter and want her to enjoy school and have the possibility of applying to Oxford where I spend some of the best times of my life.

By RH Findlay (SEH)
on

What is important in both primary schools and secondary schools is the quality of teaching. What is also valuable is to have the flexibility to place students in a class appropriate to their skills and with teachers who can develop those skills to the full. The comprehensive system clearly has this potential flexibility. My own experience of the 11+ exam of 50-odd years ago was that it is a nonsense, and it is quite clear from having worked a multiplicity of cultures that an IQ score in one culture can totally irrelevant in another.

The tragedy of modern education is that Oxford has failed dismally to teach the last few Prime Ministers and several Rhodes Scholars what society, community and social responsibility really mean.

By Iain Farrell
on

I am wholeheartedly with Laura on this issue. My educational background and experience includes attending a Grammar School in the 1960's, teaching at a major public boarding school for over 30 years and being chair of Governors at one of London's largest, and most successful community, non-selective comprehensive schools. At the public school I oversaw both verbal/non-verbal reasoning admissions tests as well as Common Entrance: analysis of many years' entrance marks indicated the best correlation with A level outcomes was a written paper in mathematics at age 13.
At our local comprehensive we aim to provide the best possible education for every child of whatever prior ability and background. Objective measures of success indicate that the staff achieve this aim to a greater extent than almost every other maintained school in England. Education in its broadest sense includes social and cultural awareness just as much as grades in examinable subjects and in our school I can see the "British' values of respect of and tolerance of a multi-ethnic community being fostered and celebrated day in and day out led by an outstanding Head. My Grammar school and the public school that I worked in were both bubbles, set apart socially from their locale, as was the Faith school I attended at primary level. My reading of the available evidence is that the extension of selection using criteria of academic potential or Faith is not in the national interest of creating a cohesive society in which citizens from different backgrounds can develop understanding and respect for one another by being educated together during their formative years.

By Anonymous
on

I read English at Oxford in the mid-1950s after two years' National Service. My dad was an electrician at a grain-mill on Birkenhead docks, so - just like my rather more well-known Oxford contemporaries, Alan Bennett and Dennis Potter, whose fathers were, respectively, butcher and coal-miner - I came from the working class via an ordinary local grammar school. Three of my former schoolmates started at Oxford at the same time. This was not unusual: I have no statistics, but in the 1950s there were certainly plenty of other state-educated pupils arriving at Oxford whose backgrounds were equally humble, so that I never felt inferior or disadvantaged. Whenever I hear the regular lamentations over the small numbers of state-school pupils gaining places at Oxbridge I think of those days more than half a century ago. Of course, there were also plenty of ex-Public School undergraduates, but I cannot recall experiencing social snobbery. Perhaps most of them were too well-bred to display any kind of class-consciousness. At Exeter, Alan Bennett was enthusiastically elected JCR President.

Back in the 1940s, there was no talk of 'elitism', and even in progressive educational circles 'selection' had not yet become a Dirty Word. My parents, both lifelong Labour voters, were delighted by the 1944 Education Act which introduced the Eleven Plus. I was to have wonderful opportunities denied to them. At last, the criterion for grammar school entry was to be intellectual rather than financial: based on a child's academic potential instead of parents' ability to pay. It all seemed very fair.

And for a time it WAS fair - relatively, because of course the test itself was by no means infallible. But then Unanticipated Consequences kicked in. For a few years just after the War, some middle-class parents didn't fully cotton on to what was happening. My boys' grammar school was in a posh area: the Wirral was safe Tory seat (Selwyn Lloyd was its MP) - yet, even so, quite a high proportion of the school in those days was noticeably working-class, with Merseyside accents, blue-collar dads and mothers working as cleaners or dinner-ladies.

Then, somewhere around the beginning of the 1950s, I think the middle classes in general woke up to the fact that their children could no longer take grammar school places for granted, that they now had to be competed for, and that bright working-class kids might supplant them. The way to cope with this was to pay for coaching, and this is when the playing-field started to become uneven: most working-class parents, with limited educational experience themselves, simply didn't think of having their child coached, or perhaps couldn't afford it, or even know how to go about arranging it.

Middle-class anxiety to ensure a grammar school place was further intensified by another Unanticipated Consequence of the 1944 Act: social stigma. The high-minded intention of the Eleven Plus was simply that it should be a kind of aptitude test to discover whether a child was best suited to a Grammar School, a Secondary Technical School or a Secondary Modern School. It was not intended to be a Pass/Fail exam. Unsurprisingly, this cut no ice with the public at large, who right from the start talking of 'passing' or 'failing' the Eleven Plus - or even of 'winning a scholarship to the grammar school.' Most children, of course, 'failed'. Broadly, I suppose that to many people Grammar School meant a salaried future in white collar Management or a Profession; Techical School meant an apprenticeship leading to a waged but skilled Trade; and Secondary Modern meant the huge remaining majority destined to become unskilled labourers or lowly shop workers. Small wonder that professional parents were desperate to avoid the stigma of being known to attend the local Sec. Mod! (In practice, very few Technical Schools were ever created, so in nearly all areas it was either Grammar or Sec. Mod.)

As one of the fortunate ones who went to grammar school, I was privileged to have a stimulating and enjoyable education - leading to Oxford. I have no means of knowing whether I would have had the same experience or achieved the same outcome at an average modern Comprehensive, but one thing I did learn in nearly 40 years of (school) teaching is that there is a great deal to be said for putting very bright pupils together.

Admittedly, my teaching career was initially in Direct Grant and the Independent schools, but when I first became Head of Department I was determined to be egalitarian, and so for A-level English I spread the most able pupils as evenly as possible across the four Sixth Form sets in the belief that this would raise the literary-critical standards across the board. I disapproved of the policy of the more experienced Senior Historian, who always arranged an elite set.

Then came a year when the A-level option columns made it impossible to distribute the pupils evenly, and I was obliged to have most of the really able ones in the same set. The result was remarkable. The cross-stimulation was exciting to watch: being sharp and perceptive, they argued fiercely with each other, so that I was often little more than a kind of referee! They would come up with imaginative and original ideas which would be convincingly challenged by their peers. They (and I!) really enjoyed these ding-dongs, and I knew from previous experience that they would not have had this kind of challenge in a mixed group. All, by the way, became Oxbridge graduates.

The bottom line, I suppose, is that I believe in this kind of elitism: I don't want to see exceptionally talented pupils scattered across several schools to give them an academic 'head'. Put together, they spark - and are good for each other. In relative isolation, the danger is that they either don't fulfil their potential or (perhaps worse) acquire an inflated notion of their own ability because it hasn't been properly challenged.

In the sporting world 'selection' is shameless because it produces results and no one feels the need to apologise about it. In education, given the fallibility of the procedures tried so far, fair selection is much more difficult, but I don't think we should therefore abandon attempts to achieve it.

By David Brook
on

Laura is clearly correct.

One could add that if one stands back and surveys our education system objectively most observers agree that a notable feature, by comparison with other countries, is the long tail of underachievement by mostly white boys. This is where change is most needed.

Secondly, there was a time when the grammar school was the highest level of education achieved by most pupils.

Thirdly, all education systems are 'selective'. Once selection occurred rather early (the monastic schools). The 11 plus was a rather abrupt later selection introduced when we were trying to catch up after decades of neglect (the French had teacher training institutions a century before us.
As states become richer, they can afford to postpone selection and be more gentle in easing pupils out. Today in the UK nearly 50% of the cohort go on to higher education. In the USA nearly everyone 'goes to college', but large numbers drop out after the first year.

Thirdly research does not support the idea that more grammar schools will help.
The usual concerns of politicians, parents and the media with academies, grammar schools, “free” schools, faith schools, local authorities, parental involvement, streaming, setting, grading, testing, class size, homework, reading schemes, school uniform, television, variety of provision, etc. are all beside the point. John Hattie (2009) conducted more than 800 meta-analyses (50,000 studies over fifteen years) and identified 138 factors rated for their effect on pupil achievement. Almost all innovations were initially effective, but not for long. The positive effect was usually small, even zero or negative for some of those listed above. Furthermore “in the developed world the highest proportion of variation in student achievement lies within schools, rather than between schools. So any pressure and support for change needs to be directed at particular teachers within schools, not simply at entire schools”. That is, the best schools contain some poor teachers, and the worst schools some good ones. Top down reorganisation and innovations like grammar schools (and free schools and academies) do not address this problem and will not solve it.

By Julie Bullen DP...
on

Going to a girls grammar school from a 'free schools meal' family was wonderful for me. I went on to achieve a BSc, an MPhil and then finally a DPhil at Oxford. My brother sadly didn't pass the 11+ and went to the local secondary modern. He once proudly showed me a piece of writing he had done that had received a simple tick at the end - there were several spelling mistakes and letters reversed - classic signs of dyslexia, and a classic case of a teacher beyond caring. It was said that many of the teachers drank. So - what is the solution! A TV program illustrated a very interesting option. A head teacher of a large Comprehensive school had split his school into 3 'streams' - one for academically gifted children, one for more technically minded children and a third for children with special needs. The most convincing interview was with a child from the technical stream - when asked 'wouldn't he prefer to be in the academic stream' - he looked positively annoyed and gave an emphatic 'No' as an answer, 'what is the point of all that stuff' he said - 'No,he was 'doing something practical, something useful and he was looking forward to getting a good job as soon as he left school. "No, this stream is the one for me'. I think this may be a model worth repeating. It values both academic ability and technical ability. It doesn't place one above the other as ability is not measured on only one scale. We need conceptually gifted people to be nurtured to serve society, but society is also served by more practical, technically gifted people who also need to be valued and nurtured.

By Bianca Pellet
on

Why not tutor-proof the tests by simply making past 11+ papers unavailable to tutors or the general public? You cannot cram for a test if you don't know what will be on it. If the test is a genuine test of critical thinking you should not be able to study for it.

By Peter Weygang
on

Anonymous has covered the subject very well. I was in that group when education was fitted to the students, and not the other way around. My oldest brother went to a secondary modern, then to apprenticeship, and finally to maintenance manager of a hospital. My other brother went to a tech school, and started a career as a master plumber. My father worked on an assembly line.
That mixture of young people going to schools that suited them very well was a characteristic of the times. All three of us marched down our chosen path with confidence, and success. There was no social difference — particularly as skilled tradesmen, office staff, and others were well paid, and respected.
I, and many of my low-income friends, went to grammar school. We became teachers, engineers, doctors, and other so called 'professionals'. We served that niche in the social fabric very well. In some sense we repaid, with interest, the government's investment in our education.
Those years following the war were the golden years of equality. They were the British version of the American dream. It was all done by a pragmatic view of education that is matched to the student. It was not an ideology. Sadly, we now have an the ideology that says it is okay to space out food on the same plate, but totally wrong to put the separate items on different plates. Common wisdom knows that birds of the feather flock together. A robin is not the same as a thrush. Let us appreciate both, and feed them accordingly.

By Peter Marx
on

In the 60's, my grammar school would admit secondary modern boys to the sixth form and get a dozen Oxbridge admissions a year. Four years ago on a visit to England, I was given a tour of the school by a current sixth former. My how it has developed, particularly in music and the visual arts. I was quite jealous.
I sympathise with the comments above about pupils who cannot wait to leave school being mixed in with those who want to study, which is the whole point of grammar schools.

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