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So the government wants to bring back grammar schools. Will that make for greater social mobility for our children and grandchildren, as the prime minister argues? As an article by the BBC’s education correspondent put it recently: ‘Academics researching education are sceptical, to put it mildly.’ He also quotes a professor of education: ‘”Any policy maker who cares about educational effectiveness or social justice” should not “promote or condone” selection by ability.’ But then experts aren’t popular these days, are they?
I’m sure lots of parents and grandparents with children and grandchildren at primary school are, like me, very concerned about the government’s proposals. Like the prime minister, I went to grammar school – I’m a classic example of how the 11+works: I’m from a middle-class background, went to a private primary school and my parents paid for me to be coached by a teacher living next door. The transition to grammar school seemed a natural progression as the vast majority of children in my class were from similar backgrounds to mine. And there were subtle ways that made us feel in some way ‘better’ than those children who were destined for secondary moderns – not a way to create equality and foster fellow-feeling in children.
Middle class mores and, indeed, those of the upper middle class were tacitly reinforced – as the BBC education correspondent wrote: ‘… [much of] the imagery of the grammar school… ‘[was] borrowed from public schools…’ For example, we wore panama hats, played lacrosse and our school motto was in Ancient Greek. We were also taught Latin and Ancient Greek was available in the 6th form, these subjects being associated with public schools, Oxford, Cambridge and redbrick universities. Some might see all this as aspirational, but since the school was overwhelmingly middle class it simply reinforced middle class norms, status and class division.
The prime minister argues that there’s already a form of selection since well-off parents can afford to move to areas where a ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ school is. But, as one newspaper article put it: ‘Even if new grammars had a proportion of places reserved for children from low income families, it’s easy to imagine how affluent parents desperate to get their children in would deploy creative means to get around an income test.’ As the Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, an ex grammar school boy and a fierce opponent of grammar schools, said recently: ‘…what we see in selective areas is that the poor are not doing very well.’
And, as Sir Michael also pointed out ‘children progress at different rates’ so surely it’s simply wrong that those not deemed ‘clever’ enough or who fail the exam at the arbitrary age of 11 are seen as low-achievers. One person who failed the 11+ wrote: ‘They got into grammar school and I had not, I was a failure and they were a success…. and this was the attitude I had for years after my 11+.’
And let’s remember – a child’s chances are affected from birth by their social circumstances. As a 2010 House of Commons paper stated: ‘The early years are when the greatest difference can be made to a child’s life chances.’ Children are already growing up in a world of huge inequality. Earlier this month Oxfam reported that ‘the UK is one of the most unequal countries in the developed world’. Is pasting a selective exam on top of all of this really going to help?
And isn’t the prime minister, whose enthusiasm for grammar schools is not shared by many of her Conservative colleagues, harking back to ‘a golden age of education’ that didn’t exist? As the BBC education correspondent wrote last year: ‘In 1965-66, when grammars and secondary moderns were in full spate, only 18% of pupils achieved five O levels and 6% achieved three A levels.’ But an independent thinktank found in 2015 that the comprehensive system has been successful in raising ‘the proportion of young people achieving O levels or GCSEs from less than one in four in 1976 to more than three in four by 2008’. Rather conclusive, eh?
Sir Michael Wilshaw obviously had wind of what the prime minister was proposing a few days before she came out with it all. Speaking about the success of the all-ability comprehensive schools in Hackney, he continued: ‘The notion that the poor stand to benefit from the return of grammar schools is quite palpable tosh and nonsense.’
*Granny on the frontline is Jill Garner, grandmother of six.