Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Grammar Schools

Normally, I steer clear of personal anecdote because it isn’t a great guide to analysis. The great ‘grammar school debate’ is usually polarised into either, ‘my grammar school was the best thing since sliced bread, now it’s a ‘bog standard’ comp’ or ‘I failed my 11-plus and it ruined my life’.

To make an exception on this occasion, I went to school in a small town, there was the grammar school, my ‘alma mater’, and then the two secondary moderns. The children who didn’t pass the 11-plus viewed themselves as failures and the only prospect was leaving at 15 for a low-paid job.

Grammar schools picked the ‘brightest’ 20-25%, well, how could they fail? In truth many coasted along without having to try all that hard. The problem is that when you say ‘grammar school’ you also have to say ‘secondary modern’. There were some pretty awful secondary moderns, a large proportion of the teachers viewed their charges as ‘thick’ just waiting for the monthly pay cheque as compensation, yes, there were many dedicated teachers but the perception was that ‘the best’ teachers were in the grammar schools. Ah yes, the good old days when 50% of children left school without any qualifications whatsoever. There was a 1 in 8 chance of a pupil at a grammar school attending university for those at secondary moderns it was about 1 in 20,000.

Why comprehensive schools? In many rural areas it proved difficult to administer the selective system, children had to be bussed over long distances, easier to put all the children in one school. As the middle class grew larger there weren’t enough grammar school places to accommodate their children, councils came under pressure from irate parents who knew what an inferior education the secondary moderns offered. The Robbins Report in the early 1960s recommended ambitious targets for expanding higher education and as white collar jobs increased employers needed a more skilled workforce. An education system that divided children at 11 into academic or vocational routes wasn’t fit for purpose.

Some of the grammar schools were pale imitation, faux public schools (captured very well in ‘The History Boys’) with masters in tweed jackets, house systems and plenty of rugger. Working class boys in particular found it difficult to assimilate into this type of culture. Even swots like Alan Bennett were embarrassed at inviting children home for tea.

As Education Secretary in the 1970s Margaret Thatcher was the nemesis of countless grammar schools. In many rural areas there was a genuine comprehensive system where all children attended one school. However, in most large cities selection through the remaining grammar and faith schools lived on. Caroline Benn and Clyde Chitty in their book ‘Thirty Years On’, published in 1996, estimated that only a quarter of comprehensives had a balanced ‘comprehensive’ intake.

Fifteen local authorities are still fully selective with around a fifth of their pupils in grammar schools. A further twenty-one have one or more grammar schools. An estimated 60,000 children sit the 11-plus every year. A report in the TES in April 2006 quoted a head teacher in Kent, “We’ve had children in Year 3 whose parents are paying tutors to make sure they pass… around Year 5 the pressure for children is, for some, unbearable. They really do crack.” Another secondary head commented how siblings were divided, “A student comes here and they may be perfectly right for the first couple of years. But then little brother or sister comes along, sits the 11-plus and passes. We then start getting all sorts of behaviour problems, because every morning they get up and come downstairs for breakfast, and they are in their uniform, and little brother or sister is in their grammar school uniform.”

Selective schools also impact on schools across local authority borders, children from Kent who have failed the 11-plus or whose parents want to opt-out of the selective system transport their children to the comprehensives in West Sussex, coming the other way are the parents who want to get their children into Kent’s grammar schools.

This year’s league tables showed that seven out of the 10 worst performing schools on the new index were in authorities with selective schooling. Less than 10 per cent of their pupils achieved five top-grade A*-C passes including maths and English. The authorities with the largest number of schools in the bottom 100 in the country were Kent and Lincolnshire. Kent and the Medway Towns - which were part of the Kent authority until the 1990s - had 10 schools in the worst 100.

One of the main arguments for grammar schools was that they gave ‘bright working class children’ a step on the ladder of social mobility. Even the Conservatives have had to acknowledge that this is fantasy, only 2% of children at the 164 grammar schools qualify for Free School Meals against a national average of 14%.

Labour came into office in 1997 promising ‘no more selection’, although David Blunkett did qualify it later by claiming it was ‘a joke’. They introduced a system of local ballots to scrap grammar schools that was Byzantine in its complexity, the only ballot in Ripon produced a large majority in favour of retaining selection. Secondary schooling has become far more complicated as ‘choice’ has expanded, apart from ‘bog standard’ comprehensives there are foundation schools (the former grant maintained schools) which are free from local authority control, the ever expanding faith sector, academies and trust schools, which will also have more autonomy.

A recent study by the Institute for Public Policy Research compared the progress of pupils in 3,000 secondary schools in England with the social make-up of their local area. It found that faith schools were the least reflective of their local area. They were nearly 10 times more likely to have a higher proportion of able pupils than their local area might suggest. Meanwhile state foundation schools, many of which select a proportion of their pupils by ability and aptitude, were six times more likely to have a higher share of high-ability pupils than were in their local area.

In the small town where I was educated there are now three comprehensive schools all with fairly similar results, they do specialise in some subjects and sixth formers take ‘A’ levels at different schools. Children from all three schools go on to higher education. A triumph for the comprehensive system? Apart from the public schools there aren’t competing selective schools, also the town has become fairly prosperous. Some comprehensives have struggled, the most notorious failure The Ridings in Halifax competes against grammar and selective faith schools.

Every survey shows that the overwhelming majority of parents want to send their children to a good local school. The problem is that schools will reflect society. Who wants to send their children to the ‘sink school’ in the ‘sink estate’? You only have to visit America to see ‘how not to do it’, the white middle class have fled from the cities and send their children to private schools leaving under funded crumbling ghetto schools for the under class. One section of society has retreated to the security of their gated communities. That other ‘gated community’ is the two million people in the prison system.

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