Grammar schools are an entrenchment of privilege and should belong in the past.
Theresa May has unveiled proposals to lift the ban on Grammar Schools banned by Tony Blair in 1997 – although at the time 167 schools were allowed to keep selective education. She also has stated that there will be an annual £50 million to support the creation of new Grammar Schools, as well as allowing current academies and free schools to introduce academic selection for enrolment.
The original creation of Grammar Schools in 1944, known as the “Butler Act” under the Conservative politician R.A.Butler, was hailed as a social revolution. It hailed a change in history when parents didn’t have to pay fees for their child’s education. You have to imagine a time when you had to pay for your children to attend a secondary state school after the age of 13, and money basically paid for the kind of future they’d live; not that this doesn’t happen now, but the distinctive lines of class were drawn far more clearly in the sand back then . The system split education in 3 ways based around the 11+ examinations: Grammar schools for academics, Technical colleges for agriculture, engineering, and crafts, and secondary moderns for the rest. Again at the time this was part of a social revolution, suddenly fees were paid by the state, and there was a genuine chance for social mobility which was welcomed by all political parties. Ironically once upon a time, the Conservative party had values and idealism, whether you disagree with them or not, they had hard principles which distinguish them from the party of wealthy interests we see today.
However, the paternalistic idealism of Butler – and to some extent Labour at the time – failed to build many technical schools , and allowed for a new form of class division in the resulting bipartisan system. Funding was unequal between schools, with grammar schools enjoying the lion’s share. Secondary Moderns perversely languished in the poorest areas in the country; resources were stretched to such an extent that a lot of schools used primary school furniture to get by and staff turnover was a continuous revolving door.
This doesn’t alone explain why grammar schools are a bad idea, just that comprehensives should have no reduction in support. The real problem is the concept of segregating children based on a basic interpretation of intelligence. It’s all very well creating a supposed meritocratic system in education, but unless your testing is varied , innovative, and complex, you are basically allowing a significant hand-up to a child who is simply exceptional at Maths and English. Not only that , but you’re giving a golden handshake to children who pass these tests at 11 years old, not taking into account the variation in children’s development, emotionally, intellectually and socially at this age.
So let’s ignore history for a second, and pretend that suddenly the Tories have grown a conscience for publically funded education and social mobility, despite the damage they’ve done since David Cameron became Prime Minister. Let’s also imagine that the testing for Grammar Schools is fluid through all ages up to 18, and that it’s varied to take into account a range of abilities. Would grammar schools then be ok?
For me those problems still don’t underline the whole issue with segregation, and the ability for sharp-elbowed middle class families to rule the roost over school admissions. Even with my own family history, grammar schools divided people. There are thousands of stories where brothers and sisters become separated based on academic ability and sometimes those scars never heal. How do you tell an 11 year old that they’ve already failed at an opportunity to change their life? There is also the issue that working class children will be up against the driven middle class parents who will not only pay for private tuition but regularly move to areas where their children’s chances of a Grammar School place is greatly increased. Wealthy parents also see the economic advantage of getting their child a Grammar School place, to avoid paying the high prices of private schools.
The worst part is yet to come however, as there are proposals to allow academies to become grammar schools, or at least have the freedom of a selection policy. School places are in total disarray around the country, as the Conservatives have created a centralised system which doesn’t take into account local issues, and is woefully bad in placing children around the country into their school of choice. Any complaint about admissions, instead of the previous system which was controlled by the local council, now has to be made to the office of the schools adjudicator, in London. So much for the devolved power Tories harp on about.
Now imagine a situation where academies can become grammar schools, and why wouldn’t they? You can guarantee good grades by cherry picking the smartest children in the area, but you would also force local children who don’t make the grade to travel to a worse school further away because they didn’t pass a maths exam at 11 years old. And how would admissions work then? With free schools, academies, and grammar schools all having their own selection policy? I can imagine the remaining underfunded state comprehensives turning into super-sized schools to allow enough places for the remaining children, stacking classes with 40+ children per teacher; sadly we can see this situation happening already without the added grammar school issue.
Personally I think Theresa May’s speech is an insult to comprehensive schools and the teachers that work there. I have experience working in a school with no sets, where children of all abilities share a class together through the years, and the teachers are skilful enough to push the lowest ability children without it affecting the highest achievers. In fact the school received the highest grades in the surrounding area. This is also a testament to the main ethos: that children learn the most productively when you take into account their social, personal and academic needs. These are all as important as each other and loosely resemble the famous Finnish model of education, where children achieve the highest levels of results in the world.
Our children benefit from sharing their education with a variety of abilities, as well as culture and religion. Social mobility is about building bridges not walls.