To Grammar or Not to Grammar

12 Sep 2016


Firstly, because I was in the first year of the comprehensive schooling system in my own town and, coming from a working class background this was intended to benefit me. Secondly, I am as much interested in what is not being expressed as what is.

Let’s get the simple point out of the way first.

I may be cynical but I think the reason that the government is thinking of bringing in Grammar schools right now is that private schooling is no longer affordable unless you are a banker, oligarch, Sheikh or Asian entrepreneur.

The new market for private schools is affecting the ethos of British private schooling and is essentially breeding a new  global elite who, it is intended, will go on to the universities aimed at their class, intermarry and ultimately, together with their offspring, will rule the rest of us for evermore. What is an MP, senior civil servant, senior lawyer or even business leader to do? Set up a new private….ooops, Grammar school system, of course.

But I am not against selection based on academic ability.

I keep hearing well-meaning politicians and educationalists complaining that Grammars will syphon off the more academically able and hence denude the remaining schools of their bright, league-table-enhancing students who act as role models to the rest of the struggling poor. Really? Is this how we see our academic, bright and talented students – as grist for the mill, functioning to boost school reputations and inspire those who have quite different academic needs? Are they just ingredients in the mix, fodder for head teachers’ careers or two-dimensional symbols communicating a specious and ill-informed ‘this-is-what-you-could-be-like-if-you-work-hard’ message?

My own comprehensive schooling experience (and that of my own nieces and nephews) tells me that no-one wins in a non-selective, mixed ability school housing a hotch potch of needs.

These kinds of schools fail to fulfil students emotionally, intellectually, practically or spiritually. My own school which turned comprehensive in 1971 has consistently languished at the bottom of Hampshire League tables since it produced exceptionally poor GSE results when I graduated – clearly my role modelling to academically struggling pupils did not work.

In 2016, this same school had 43% of its students attaining 5 A-Cs; the school attended by my nieces and nephews achieved 39%, tying with another consistently struggling Basingstoke school. Since turning comprehensive in 1971, Basingstoke has consistently come towards the bottom of the Hampshire League tables (excluding the exceptional Catholic school in the town).

My own experience of comprehensive education, that of my relatives, and that of many younger people and even teachers I talk to in Basingstoke is that students’ needs are so broad as to be impossible to fulfil and most children get ignored.

I was a little surprised when my hairdresser asked me the cost of private education. She wanted to send her newly born child to a private school because her experience at the local comp was so appalling. One of my friends told me that she only accepted a proposal of marriage to her now husband of over 30 years, if he promised that their children would never have to attend a comprehensive school as she had done. My nephew recently achieved a first in his first year of physics and maths at the University of Southampton despite being failed by his under-performing secondary school and the appalling behaviour of his local Sixth Form College. We had to fight for over three years to get him back into the educational system.

Comprehensive schools don’t work.

There are just too many different needs to fulfil. I have two children one of whom would have got into a Grammar and one of whom would not. I would not have wanted the latter to go to a Grammar school as this would not have met his needs – I would have liked a school that could have addressed his needs for a more rounded sporty, practical education. My daughter, who attained a First at Oxford, would have flourished at a Grammar.

Why are we so wedded to outdated ideas? Comprehensive schools do not work because they are not comprehensive enough to meet all children’s needs. Can we not develop radical ideas for smaller, differentiated, diverse, identity-filled schools, all of which are excellent and which, because they are suited to their particular communities’ needs, generate confident, assured, skilled and successful students whatever their talents?

About the author

Dr Karen Blakeley, Senior Lecturer in Leadership, is the Programme Leader for the DBA. Dr Blakeley specialises in responsible leadership, leadership development and business ethicsm and runs the Centre for Responsible Management.

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