In 1964 I was 10 and had moved to Colchester three years earlier with my parents. My brother, who was 4 years older than me, had passed his 11+ and had started at the ‘Royal Grammar School’. Now it was my turn to sit the dreaded exam.
I was in my last year at Old Heath Primary School which was situated in quite a mixed area of Colchester with about 80% council houses and 20% private. Each year the school produced a handful of children who passed the 11+ and went to one of the three local grammar schools, one mixed and the other two single sexed. The majority went to the local secondary modern, Wilson Marriage School, a school with a very poor reputation. Most children were lucky if they came away from there with a CSE or two and very few went on to any form of further education.
My parents were not the pushy type and, although they had just moved out of council accommodation in Bury St Edmunds to their own house in Colchester, they were not well off and it was a struggle for them for a number of years. In today’s terms they were JAMs (just about managing). They made no big deal of the 11+. They would be glad if I passed, but if I didn’t, ‘que sera, sera’.
It was me that wanted to pass. I desperately wanted to pass because the reputation of the tough lads that went to Wilson Marriage scared me witless. Their ‘gang’ was feared around the town, where rivalry amongst the secondary moderns as to who could be the toughest was rife.
I had done well at the primary school and was always in the top 4 of the class and, at the beginning of that final year, five of us were singled out two mornings each week to go to the Headmaster for special lessons. He was basically a non-teaching head but always did extra classes for the ‘chosen few’ so that the school would stand a chance of sending a few children to the grammar schools. This would be considered a success for the school. Very few, if any, pupils landed up going to university.
Meanwhile in the leafier suburbs of town there were children being privately tutored and schools waiting to brag about their 99% pass rate again this year.
I was one of the ‘lucky’ ones. Four of us passed and joined the 20% that had the chance of getting a good education. I chose not to join my brother at the ‘Royal Grammar’ but went to the new mixed, progressive grammar, The Gilbert School.
Much of the education there was traditional but the Head was forward looking and many exciting things were happening in the late 60s.
I wasn’t in the ‘Latin’ stream at the school and, although it was a progressive school, many of the lessons were dull, turgid note taking and regurgitation of dates, facts and someone else’s ideas. Much like the style of education praised by Michael Gove, et al. Others, however, were lively and imaginative and stimulated my young brain. So I never did learn Latin but, on the whole, did have a good education.
I went on to get a degree in music and trained as a teacher.
After an initial spell of teaching and a year abroad I returned to my home town looking for a job. I found one at my old school.
Much had changed – It had gone comprehensive three years earlier and years 7, 8 and 9 were being taught in purpose built buildings on a new estate north of the town. Year 10 and 11 were the remnants of the grammar school and still in the town centre.
The school was now vibrant, inclusive and alive. Baroness Warnock had produced her report on Special Educational Needs a few years earlier and the school were implementing the 1981 Education Act. Gone were the ‘Remedial’ groups and it was an inclusive, differentiated curriculum, although there was still some setting in English and Maths. It was here that I gained my love of teaching children with SEN and mapped out my future career.
Now, 52 years later, we are facing a return to a system of selection. Back to children being singled out by their ability at 11 years old and, by definition, other children being told they are just not good enough.
Naturally many parents want the best for their children so it’s unsurprising that, when asked, they would show a preference to what they have been told is the ‘best’ education. A recent poll stated that “75% of parents wanted their children to go to a grammar school”. However, therein lies the rub. The grammar schools are selective and will only be able to take a small percentage, traditionally 10%-20%, of the local intake therefore there will be a large number of very unhappy parents whose children do not get in.
I’ve also heard parents and politicians on the TV saying “I want my child to go to a grammar” and “Parents should have the choice of sending their children to a grammar school”. How ill-informed can they be? It is the school that selects the students, by ability. You cannot ‘send’ a child to a grammar.
Mrs Thatcher was well aware that a lot of unhappy middle class parents may not elect a Conservative Government and it has been reported that this is why she never tried to re-introduce selection – although she would have loved to. Even Michael Gove was against the introduction of more selection. Since being disgraced and removed from Government he has changed his mind. (Now there’s a surprise).
Of course one can argue that, if the need is there, then they should open even more grammar schools to take more students. This could then lead to a system when, say, 50% of children go to grammars, but there will still be a significant number of unhappy parents. So what then? 75%, 90%. Would the grammars then have to start a different form of selection? Would there be ‘super grammars’ taking the top 10% and ‘not so super’, the rest?
Recently the DfE have been tweeting some very dubious statistics about the effectiveness of grammars especially around the area of trying to prove that they help social inclusion. Well DfE I’m sorry, but my two apples taste better than your three pears. The ONS have told them to stop the tweets but I think this just shows how desperate someone in Government is to try and promote grammar schools.
I have seen nothing whatsoever to convince me that grammar schools will help with social inclusion. If fact the exact opposite. Instinct tells me that going back to a system that divides people into the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ by some form of test taken on one arbitrary day in the life of a 10 year old can tell you anything about the child is just wrong.
As usual, in education, the last person that anyone actually thinks of is the child itself. Children today are tested to within a hairs-breath of sanity and the pressure put upon them by the system, teachers and parents to achieve is enormous. This could well be the reason that children showing signs of poor mental health has increased massively in the last few years. So to add another, potentially life-changing, test on top of this I think amounts to near cruelty.
Today OfSTED expects that the child should ‘know where they are’ educationally. They should know their levels and know what to do to improve. So to say that you can give them a test like the 11+, in whatever form they come up with, and not expect them to have any feelings about whether they pass or not is just ludicrous.
Just like in my day I fear that the child that does not pass the 11+ and goes to the local ‘secondary modern’ will feel that they are not good enough and may well smother any ambition that they had to be a doctor or a vet and accept second best, because that’s what they have been told that they are.
I know that this is a generalisation but if it happens to just one child, that is one child too many.
So why even bother with grammar schools? Weren’t we told that academies were going to be the panacea for education in England? The DfE keeps telling us how much better academies are than state schools, (Often with dubious statistics) and yet doesn’t explain why so many of them are requiring improvement or being ‘sold on’ because of financial irregularities, so perhaps this could be the problem. They need grammars to improve on academies.
What the DfE can never quite accept is it doesn’t matter how you finance a school or how you label it, a school is only as good as its staff, whatever incarnation it comes in. There are good and not so good state schools academies and MATs and in the same way there would be good and not so good grammar schools. It doesn’t solve the problem of quality in education.
‘Every school a good school’ might be a bit hackneyed but that is what we need.
Finally, at a time of austerity, the massive challenges of BrExit and the ‘just about managing’ how on earth can Theresa May justify spending £240 million on opening new grammar schools that will only benefit a few and, I believe it will be the more affluent, members of society?
Did going to a grammar school have any effect on my career?
I think I can categorically say, none whatsoever. Although it was a selective grammar school it was only ever know as ‘The Gilberd School’ as indeed it still is. This is how it has always appeared on my CV and the word ‘grammar’ has never been mentioned but I do often wonder where I would have been today if I had failed that exam.