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.