On Grammar Schools

On Grammar Schools


In 1966, my class was told we were going to do a test. I think we had a good idea what it was for. It tested three types of intelligence, though I later found out there were a lot more. Later, we had letters from the local authority, telling us we had passed – a total of six, out of the 56 girls in our year. I was very relieved, because I’d heard the local secondary modern was ‘rough’, and as a kid with specs who always had her nose in her book and was terrible at sports, I knew I’d be on the receiving end of some nastiness. So thankfully, I set off for grammar school, in a city 12 miles away from my home town, with a briefcase and a tie, feeling like the world was at my feet.


Even at 11, I felt the system was unfair. Why not, I thought, simply ask children if they wanted to go to a school where they would study hard subjects and get a lot of homework, or whether they wanted to go to a school where they learned in a more practical way? I admit I was naive. The secondary modern was a brilliant idea, but it was underfunded and pupils who were sent there were made to feel like failures by a system which didn’t care and wanted more factory workers than office workers.


I was unaware that the pass mark was kept deliberately high so not too many working class kids got through, and I only found out recently it was even higher for girls. But for me, going to grammar school was a chance my parents hadn’t had and I intended to make the most of it. The teaching wasn’t great, but at least we were encouraged to aspire and most of the pupils wanted to learn, not to misbehave. There was an expectation we would go to university, and I wanted that more than anything.


Flash forward to 1988. I’d begun teaching creative writing in adult education, and later A level at FE college. Some of the people I taught had been badly let down by secondary modern schools. They were bright people who lacked self-confidence. I know there were some very good secondary moderns, but shaking off that sense of being on the scrap heap at 11 took a lot of undoing.


1992 saw me starting teaching at a comprehensive school, which had in the past been a secondary modern. I had a few issues with it. There was an immense faith in their setting system, but in reality, it wasn’t really working. It favoured compliant well-behaved children and so there were too many very bright kids coasting in lower sets, bored and unchallenged. Less bright kids were made to feel they could not achieve and many did not gain access to higher tier GCSE exams. Some were not even allowed to take any GCSEs but we shunted off sideways to keep league tables looking good. There was a habit of making classes work in silence, and excessive control over creativity and discussion work. There was too much ‘busy work’ designed to keep kids under the thumb rather than challenge them. Even worse, there was an anti-intellectual culture, in which ‘swot’ was a term of abuse. I hadn’t heard that insult since my own primary school days. Thankfully, there have been some changes since I left in 1998.


Six years down the line, I was fortunate to get a post in a girls’ grammar school. It was a very different culture, though I did miss teaching boys. The school didn’t use the 11+, but had its own entrance exam. I didn’t think the pupils any different in ability, for the most part, than the comprehensive. The things that made this school so special and the pupils so successful fascinated me, because they agreed with my own philosophy of education. These are some of the things which made that school distinctive:

  • Each pupil was valued
  • Teachers spent time on corridors chatting to pupils rather than telling them off
  • Teachers were expected to be knowledgeable about their subject and were respected because of it
  • There was a good deal of trust displayed
  • There were few behavioural problems
  • The deputy head advised no shouting, a reprimand where needed was enough
  • The headteacher was approachable and knew the pupils’ names
  • There was an emphasis on good manners and kindness
  • There was a culture of aspiration and praise
  • Teaching was in forms of mixed ability
  • The year tutors took their roles as pastoral heads to mean caring for and looking after their year groups, rather than being administers of punishments
  • Punishments were rarely needed because there was no battleground between staff and pupils
  • Lessons were active, fun and challenging
  • Although some of the classes were large at Keystage 3, it was a smallish school overall, with only 850 pupils on roll when I started


I could go on.


The current government has mucked about with our school system for no good reason. A two-tier system has already failed. They brought in academies, now want new grammar schools. As a child, I couldn’t understand why the Labour Party was against grammar schools, because mine was great for me. But education has moved on. Parents need clarity, not a jumbled mess. The league tables have put schools in competition with each other for all the wrong reasons.


At my grammar school, I wasn’t allowed to take Horticulture O level because I was in a top set. Practical subjects like that were barred to me. Every child should have a balanced curriculum and the same chances of success. There should be no snobbery about the type of school attended.


So, no, I do not want a return of grammar schools. There is already enough confusion about schools: parents and employers are bewildered by it, teachers are exhausted trying to get the results demanded by the league tables.


What I would like to see is educational changes left to education professionals; teachers and pupils given a time of stability to thrive; every school to have smaller class sizes; teachers to be under less pressure; and more creativity and kindness all round.






Filed under Education

10 responses to “On Grammar Schools

  1. I second everything you say, Angela. I too went to a grammar school but my parents were farm labouring class so not rich enough to contribute to the coffers. As a result my friends and I were designated ‘B’ stream in a two-streamed school; the worst place to be. We were blamed for everything and credited with nothing: written off in a system that was supposed to be aspirational. I have spent my life fighting the low self-esteem this system gave me. Comprehensive education would work if it was funded and, as you say, if they gave teachers and pupils chance to consolidate some of the changes they insist on continually implementing. I was headteacher of a primary school in Hyde prior to my retirement and, as you also say, there is no discipline issue in school that mutual respect and liking can’t confront. Give education back to professionals, not politicians who think they know best because they went to grammar or public school and the system they knew did them no harm.

    • We were very much working class but thankfully the school didn’t punish that, though I heard stories about earlier days there were pupils were told off for incorrect uniform when their jumpers had been handknitted to save money.

  2. jaynestanton

    I’m with you all the way, Angela!
    I was 1 of a only handful of 11 year olds from our council estate primary to pass my 11 plus. I was happy at my girls’ high school although I’d have liked to learn typing, which wasn’t on offer as part of an academic curriculum.
    Nearing the end of my teaching career in a city primary school I am increasing aware that teachers don’t have a voice, ageism is on the increase as average staff age gets younger (read cheaper) and pupils are being squeezed through the same mold via an increasingly academic curriculum where children are stressed out by continuous assessment and the emphasis is on attainment rather than progress and schools are judged by how they compare with national averages. Floor targets in city primaries are virtually unachievable and the hidden agenda seems to be to break the back of all that is good about state education.
    My children had very different experiences of secondary education in the same schools. My son struggled with reading, writing and maths and his behaviour in academic lessons was disruptive, in stark contrast to practical/creative lessons. Behaviour in the bottom sets was poor and teachers spent much of their time dealing with these issues. He left school at 16 with no A-C GCSEs, feeling a failure. Since then he has never been out of work, strived to keep a small business running in an adverse economic climate and is now doind two jobs while he clocks up experience as a newly-qualified HGV driver. He is a loving husband and hands-on father to 5 children who are a credit to them.
    My daughter, academically bright and self-motivated, was equally unhappy from Y9 onwards. Pupils in the top sets for core subjects were treated as fast-trackers. Being a perfectionist meant that her mental health began to suffer. She chose to study A levels at a large city sixth form college and was much happier there. She graduated with a masters degree in Economics and a large student debt 3 years ago and still works for the retail company she joined as a university student.
    When I did my teacher training, we were told that the education system should serve the needs of its society. We have an over-qualified retail workforce, too few skilled engineers etc while the system churns out the next generation of academics with few life skills.
    Indeed, it’s high time that education professionals had a real voice and become the prime movers of reform and curriculum policy.
    Apologies for over-long comments – it’s a subject close to my heart.

    • Thanks for such a thoughtful comment.

      • Also a grammar school pupil. And thankful that my granddaughter is also at one. The A+ A and Bs there comprise 99% compared to about 70% at this areas best Comp, at some its less than 40%. But I echo the comment above. I found that there was internal bias against the working class even when you got there, they were of course differentiated from the middle class kids right from the start by accent. The head measured himself by the small number he got to Oxbridge every year. Your future in the school was decided after the exams at the end of your first year, after that it was virtually impossible to change form. The middle class parents were well aware of this via the grapevine and their kids worked like stink to get good results at the end of the first year. Thus the top 2 forms, these were the forms where the best teachers were concentrated, were filled with middle class kids, many of whom did not do particularly well later in life, and the occasional very bright working class kid who got there by mistake. The area was massively Labour but most of the governors were Party deadwood and just too thick to realise what was going on.
        The worst similar case I ran into was of a work colleague who went to Mexborough Grammar. (Ted Hughes went there and an old friend of mine was there at the same time, I once asked her what he was like, her reply -‘ he was a miserable bugger’–) My colleague who by than had gone through years of part time educational grind and achieved membership of the Institute of mechanical engineers was a charted engineer and on a salary equivalent to that of a head at a middling comp. Hated teachers and I asked him why — this is what he told me. He got to the school in the mid 50s, The form teacher went round the class asking what the parents did. They were mainly professionals or in business. When Trev was asked he stood and proudly said ‘ My dads a crane driver at British Steel’ The teacher’s reply was –‘ what are you doing here!’ After that she never lost an opportunity to belittle him. He was so fed up that after six months following another insult he told her that if she said anything else about him or his parents he would belt her one’ This provoked a furious tirade in response. So Trev lost his temper and belted her. He was 12 years old and not very big. He was dragged off to see the head, caned and expelled on the spot. He was then sent to Mexborough secondary School, ( probably the toughest in the Doncaster area) and although he always came top in every subject every year he was always kept down in the B form. ( they were going to show him what happened to anyone who dared to commit the unforgivable sin of hitting a teacher). He left with the worlds biggest chip on his shoulder and could very easily have ended up in Borstal, What saved him was the NCB and its excellent training schemes. He started as a fitter topped the 2 year course at the tech, did a bridging year then did ONC and HNC and then the professional exams of the Institute, passing with flying colours.( about 10 years in total) Thus, to get back to the point. Do I think that Grammar schools are a good Idea. Well they obviously are for someone from T Mays type background, bright middle class but poorish and not able to afford a public school. For kids from working class backgrounds the old crass class based attitudes will rapidly kick in again via a staff who will probably in the majority be keen to maintain and perpetuate elitism.

      • I fear you could be right, especially in the current climate. What an appalling injustice befell your pal. I am sorry to say I did not work very hard until I got to A level, and then only at English, but I was lucky to have enough native wit to get by. I was moved up gradually from the bottom set to the top, and I agree that the poorer teachers were often used on the lower and less compliant streams.

  3. Well said, Angela. My parents wouldn’t let me take the 11+ because they were against it politically. While I can understand that, it meant that I was another one who missed out on Grammar ed.

  4. Love your insightful article Angela and agree with what you say. Too much emphasis is put on academic achievement and little on creative and practical skills which many children would excell in and go on to satisfying and renumitaerative careers. We need people with these skills to balance our economy and provide the practical and creative impetus for progress. Germany got it right with its three tired system that regards all these skills of equal value and engineers, academics, artists, teachers etc. are equally respected and children aren’t overburden by exams, or early choices or parents confused by stats and league tables or the snobbery of premature academic achievement. When will we have the same! Schools to educate in the true sense of the word and teachers free to do this without being micro managed?? Too often children fail because they’re in the wrong type of school and they’re talents are not recognized. I know that from experience.