Decades ago, in the world I grew up in, we were, at 11, sectioned off, segregated either into a secondary modern school, if you failed your 11 plus, or into the grammar school. Even the use of the definite or definite article defined a certain difference!
It is of course true that there was much merit in the early grammar school system, in that many many children of high ability but from often disadvantaged backgrounds were able to benefit from a wonderful education. And it is still the case that there are great grammar schools still reaching some of those children.
It is also the case that great comprehensive schools also do the same thing. And they have one huge advantage. Their philosophy is that a fine education, a first class education should be provided for all the children, because all children regardless of academic ability are equally important. Behind the comprehensive movement lies the core belief that all children should be given a fair chance in our society, that to grow up together creates greater cohesion and mutual understanding.
The grammar school played its part years ago in the drive to provide greater opportunity, and still does – for some, for the few. But it seems to me we have accept after all these decades that in the end the grammar school only served sustained the divisions, the sense of unfairness, inferiority or superiority, so prevalent amongst us today.
And here is the reason. The 11 plus exam, it has to be accepted, creates many more failures than successes. I was one of them. To feel at 11 that you are stupid, that you have disappointed your school, your family, is a heavy load. It has set back the self esteem and prospects of hundreds of thousands, millions of us, and many have not recovered from it. And just as important, it has created the us and them, the have and have-not society that still persists today.
The Prime Minister stated when she came to office that she wanted this society of ours to be fair for all. So do I, so do we all. So let us create a system of universal excellence in our schools – and by the way there are already thousands of such schools, with amazing and dedicated teachers – that do not segregate children, that provide for the needs and aspirations of all children of all abilities.
There does come a time much later, at 15 or 16, when it is more apparent how young people are developing, that there should of course be different streams for different talents, and then the sixth form college comes into its own, providing for the more academic, and the more technical, but under the same roof. That way our children can grow up together, that way lies fairness, and a greater sense of belonging.
Michael Morpurgo, author, poet and playwright
Michael wrote this article in support of our crowdfunding campaign to fight the expansion of grammar schools. Please donate at our Just Giving page here.