On grammar schools

A very long time ago when I was at school there was a process of selection – the 11+ exam – which sorted children into either the grammar school (pass) or secondary modern (fail). No doubt there were poor grammar schools and excellent secondary modern schools but broadly a pass in the exam meant access to a better, certainly more academic, education and generally better opportunities for the rest of your life. Since the majority of children failed (and were thus disadvantaged for the rest of their lives) this system was wasteful and unfair and it came increasingly under attack until within a decade of my leaving school the system had changed. The exam was abolished, grammar schools were abolished and “comprehensive education” became the established model.

Of course the comprehensive system had its own disadvantages, not least that it required exceptional management and leadership to organise the nurturing of the complete range of abilities and temperaments now housed within a single, often very large, school. Such exceptional leadership was always, well, exceptional. There were always political and parental mutterings against the “wilful destruction” of some very good grammar schools, many of which joined the private sector if they could. The gap between the private, fee charging sector and the state sector widened and it became more difficult for the clever children of uneducated parents to reach the levels required for further education, until the latter was massively expanded to the point where state financial support for further education had to be slashed, turning education into a luxury commodity.

Now the new UK government is proposing that grammar schools should be revived to increase educational opportunities for the brightest (or at least best coached) pupils. This may indeed produce better opportunities for some children, although the suspicion must be that they will not be from the most disadvantaged backgrounds because successful grammar schools will have a significant impact on local house prices. Also, the almost unavoidable effect is that in areas in which such schools exist the existing comprehensive schools will become, in effect, secondary moderns. The current fashion for league tables based on exam results will reinforce the idea that the comprehensives are sinks of underperformance, because whatever they do their percentage pass rates will be lower than selective schools.

But is this policy anyway not a sad failure of political and educational imagination? Sure, there were good things about grammar schools, very good things for those (like me) who were lucky enough to get in. But there were also incredibly negative things about a system which sorted children into winners and losers for life on the basis of a single exam at the age of 11. It may be, even on this policy’s own terms, that the perfect exam will find the brightest and most academically gifted children. But it could also be that in most cases the exam simply selects for people who are good at passing that exam, maybe because they have been intensively coached to do just that regardless of other abilities. Again, there were good ideas behind comprehensive education, alongside many dogmas and mistaken notions about both process and the needs of children with different aptitudes. But if the academic needs of the brightest children were not met, the system was (is) flawed and let down those children while robbing society of their contribution.

The real challenge now is the same as it ever was, to get the best for every child, the best being not some arbitrary or abstract standard but making the best of that child’s abilities, be they academic, technical, creative, athletic or not very distinguished at all. It is an incredibly difficult challenge, of course, as difficult now as it ever was. Surely, though, the right approach is to look very hard and without political prejudice at what structures and institutions can address that challenge today, not to hark back to a myth of a golden age when education was more “proper”.

I wish I could even outline an answer! I can’t, I don’t have anywhere near the knowledge and the experience. I understand too that politicians have always to pretend that they have the answer to whatever problem they face. But the better approach is surely just to search diligently, to learn from what worked and what didn’t work in the past, what works and doesn’t work elsewhere, what conditions we now face and so on. Then try to take a step forward in what seems to be the right direction. Leadership is not just about driving or cajoling people towards a simple goal, it is also about being responsible and judicious in setting the goals themselves. If the problem is complicated, the solution probably is as well. It is unlikely to be something whose flaws have already been fully exposed.

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