Grammar schools & academic selection

I absolutely support the need for schools to stretch our brightest young people, but not just those that show academic potential. Schools should become aware of the talents of all their students, and whether these skills be academic or technical, whether they be in the arts or in sport, they should all be stretched – they should all be encouraged and supported to develop those skills to the greatest degree possible. But I absolutely oppose our young people being selected at one or more key points in their education then having their education separated from others who do not pass the selection test. We all want to be successful. We all want to be seen to be successful. But do we we want to be told that we don’t make the grade at such an early age? Do we have any idea of the damage this does to self esteem? Do we have any idea of how much talent could be wasted?

Let me be honest. I’m prejudiced about this. I took the 11+ exam and failed. I went to a local secondary modern school. The only thing I received that came close to careers guidance was the suggestion to join the Army. When I said that I didn’t want to do this I was told “that I had better work for a bank then”. In sport, if you didn’t show promise at football in the winter or at cricket in the summer you were largely ignored – left to do ‘cross-country’ round the fields whilst the teachers concentrated on the teams. But in hindsight, what makes me most angry was that the complete absence of any mention of the option of going to university. Children from secondary modern schools just did not go to university. Why? Was it because they were academically incapable? Was I academically incapable?

Well, the short answer is no. Thankfully, for a brief period at the start of the ‘New Labour’ government there was an education policy of Life-Long Learning. This pearl buried in their muck made it easy for mature students to go to university. So when I left the Fire Service I did what I had always wanted to do – study. And after gaining my first degree I trained and became a qualified careers adviser, and at the same time studied philosophy as a part-time post-graduate student – eventually gaining a PhD. So, I think I had the ability. My only regret, and this is a massive regret, is that I didn’t do it sooner. I would have loved to have taught philosophy, but gaining a full-time academic post as a ‘mature’ person is not easy. And I can assure you that I’ve tried.

Who’s to blame for my frustrated academic career? Was it my fault for not passing the 11+? Was it my parents’ fault for not encouraging me? It wasn’t, they genuinely did their best. Was it my primary school for not preparing for this exam? My only memory of this was one day being led into the hall and being told, without any explanation, that we had to take a test. Well, perhaps. But even if they had prepared students for this exam, two questions linger in my thoughts.

First, what if my own personal intellectual development did not coincide with this fixed testing point?  What if I only developed both the ability and the desire to study seriously at a later age? I’m fairly sure that young people do not develop at a uniform rate. So what happens if your personal development is out of synch with the system? Second, what if my talents (talents that have long since had their green shoots overgrown by weeds) had been in areas not high-lighted by this test? I assume that there must be a benefit to being selected to attend a grammar school. Your academic green shoot are placed in a greenhouse where they are watered, fed the best nutrients, and kept free of weeds and frosts – all those irritating things that prevent growth. But does this automatically mean we value the plants grown by this method more highly than those left out in the cold? And, at the risk of pushing this metaphor beyond limits that are decent, how do those excluded plants feel? What are their life chances? They are surely not the same, otherwise what’s the point of spending all that time in the greenhouse?

But this is not just the view of someone who regrets lost opportunity. A report just published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies concludes that whilst grammar schools “stretch the brightest pupils” those not selected are likely to do “worse than they would have done in a comprehensive system”, and that selection “seems likely to come at the cost of increasing inequality.”

So, rather than allowing the expansion of grammar schools, existing grammar schools (along with academies and free schools) should be integrated into the comprehensive system –  a comprehensive system of local schools that teach all the local young people regardless of ability. All our young people should be taught by qualified teachers – teachers who are trained and given the resources to become aware of and nurture talent as and when it appears. And all the parents of our young people should be encouraged to become involved in their education and their schools – schools that should be at the heart of our local communities.

And finally, when we have done all this, how about leaving the education system alone for a good while and allow the teachers to get on with their job and resolve problems, together with parents, from the ground up? How about forgetting about constant top-down re-organisation?

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