Changing my mind on grammar schools
When I was 16, after having completed my GCSE examinations, myself and a few friends travelled to London for a few days of sightseeing. We visited the Palace of Westminster on our last day and out of the corner of my eye, I spotted our local MP. As any group of precocious and politically aware grammar school boys would, some of us decided to go over and greet our Member of Parliament.
At the time, our MP was Graham Brady, who had just resigned from his position as Shadow Spokesperson for Europe in light of David Cameron’s pronounced objection to any further expansion of grammar schools in England. Myself, and one other friend of mine congratulated him on his principled stand. My constituency at the time was in the heart of Trafford – one of fifteen selective local education authorities still left in England. Our school was one of the remaining 164 grammar schools in England after the Crosland scythe in the 1970s (As he so eloquently put it:“If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to destroy every f****** grammar school in England. And Wales and Northern Ireland”). At the time, we thought Brady was absolutely right to defend grammar schools, particularly as our school and many others in Trafford were so oversubscribed and successful in the national league tables. Our school was also a Catholic grammar, which meant that it selected on religious grounds, as well as academic. This made it somewhat more interesting, as catchment selection was much further down the pecking order than most grammar schools where they are often stuffed full of middle class kids whose parents didn’t want to stump up the private school subs but were willing to move into the school’s catchment area – selection by stealth, and wealth if you will. As a result, our kids had a real mix of middle class and less affluent pupils, many of whom went on to Russell Group and ancient universities.
I certainly didn’t change my mind at university. In my final year of university, I was asked to speak at the Union Debating Society on the subject of grammar schools. I had just received an offer for teacher training and I was more than happy to run the gauntlet and forgo my progressive credentials in favour of the archaic residue of the discredited tri-partite system. Needless to say, the NUT representative I was up against was not particularly inclined to speak to me afterwards. For me, it was a social justice issue. At the time, I thought it was patently obvious that comprehensive schools had led to an hourglass ‘bulge’ in British society. Either your parents could afford expensive private education, which allowed you to discern the linguistic and practical pathways to real success in the professions, or you had to sink or swim in a comprehensive system which had imbibed the progressive educational mantras of the 1960s and 70s. There was very little chance of bridging the gap, unless of course your comprehensive was ambitious enough to create a truly intellectual environment, or your family and background was conducive to aspiration and self-discipline. If we take the political class as the harbinger of educational outcomes in this country, then we can see a clear divide pre and post mass grammar school closure. The top end of Britain’s political class, in the post-war period became increasingly diverse, socio-economically speaking. The era of Churchill and Douglas-Home (who incidentally had to give up his seat as a hereditary lord to become Prime Minister) had given way to the era of Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher and John Major – all fairly ordinary pupils who were able to attend a grammar school. Prior to 1964, every single Prime Minister had been educated privately, with the notable exceptions of the three Williams (Cavendish, Petty and Pitt), David Lloyd George and Ramsay Macdonald. The majority of those Prime Ministers were not only educated privately, but at a handful of the elite public schools of England. The rapid succession of grammar school alumni replacing traditional elites in the corridors of power was impressive given the narrow time-frame that grammars were operating. This of course can be attributed to other factors too, however, it is clear that the rubber-faced professional political class of the 21st century (Blair, Cameron, Clegg et al) is testament to the failure of the comprehensive sector post 1976 to flatten out the hourglass bulge of British society.
I didn’t even change my mind when I started my teacher training. I went through the Teach First route and was placed in a special measures school for my first two years. The relative lack of subject specific training made it increasingly clear that if you are passionate and knowledgeable about your subject, and saw that knowledge as one of the keystones of cultural transmission and enabling the very poorest to be equipped with the cultural literacy to go head to head with the top private school pupils, then you aren’t necessarily valued as highly as those trainees who are able to espouse generic ‘skills’ based platitudes to please senior leaders who are trying to keep the Ofsted hydra at bay. Even for Teach First, it is a social justice issue to ensure that pupils are equipped with appropriate ‘skills’, without appreciating that critical foundational knowledge is always required as an enabler of creativity. For Teach First and many who wish to improve social mobility, there is a distinct contradiction between ends and means. During my summer institute training, I spent more time with sticky notes and posters than I did fully exploring the subject specific requirements of history teaching. It’s no wonder that many of these teachers who are so focused on their subject either run for the hills after five years in the comprehensive sector or end up in a grammar or independent school where they could be part of an environment which is far more intellectually stimulating.
I didn’t actually think it was possible to create that sort of an environment. Ultimately, as soon as you start thinking of education in terms of engagement rather than rigour, then it is rarely possible to achieve that sort of intellectual ‘buzz’ that is needed to foster genuine scholarship. I certainly didn’t think it was possible to create that environment with the toxic and reductive culture of bureaucracy and anti-intellectualism so evident when schools are too busy chasing targets to properly focus on curriculum.
I changed my mind when, after a few months in working at Michaela, I could discern an atmosphere of scholarship and self-discipline which was actually far better than my own grammar school experience. In many grammar schools, there can often be a culture of complacency where the actual instruction is lacklustre and the pupils spend longer laconically chatting to their mates than they do getting their head down with some serious work. These kids still out-perform the rest because they are generally middle-class, have teachers who have bags of subject knowledge to push the high achievers and do oodles of work at home and in the run up to examinations. When I was in Year 9, I was sticking in pictures of First World War propaganda posters and drawing diagrams of trenches. Some of our highest ability Year 9s are writing essays which could pass quite happily as A Level standard. After seeing the discipline, ambition, persistence and genuine intellectual curiosity of the pupils here, I realised that it was absolutely possible to replicate and improve the grammar school experience for the very poorest children. When I realised that the pupils who attended Michaela were from the same demographic and socio-economic background as the pupils I taught in my previous school, the penny dropped. It is liberating to work in a department where we discuss what to teach and how to ensure it sticks, rather than the dull and monotonous regimes of data meetings, target setting and school-wide ‘marking priorities’.
Evidently, this isn’t intending to outline the advantages and disadvantages of the grammar system. If, like me you view education as intrinsically valuable, rather than just utilitarian then it is patently unjust to allow one segment of the population a different, more academic curriculum than the other, based on a procedurally flawed 11+ assessment – even if many pupils elect to choose a vocational course at a later stage. It took me until recently to see that this was actually possible. This post is merely to show that many people think it impossible, or certainly unlikely to truly replicate the intellectual buzz and ambition of a grammar school in the comprehensive sector, for a variety of reasons. It is clear that this is not the case, which is now why I think grammar schools are a costly distraction from the fundamental problems of the English education system. However, we have a long way to go until the majority of state comprehensives transform into the repositories of knowledge which will improve social mobility and which every child deserves as their inheritance – truly ‘grammar schools for all’. Every time an article pops up about the problems of pupil behaviour in state schools, the lack of knowledge of first year undergraduates, dumbing down, or the latest Ken Robinson-esque gimmick to capture of imagination of earnest trainees, then MPs like Graham Brady and the grammar school lobby rub their hands with glee.