This September as thousands of parents proudly waved their child off to a grammar school, celebrating that their lengthy slog to gain a highly-sought-after place had finally come to fruition, I was celebrating the complete opposite. My son had finally moved out of a grammar and into a secondary modern.
The impact of the decision has been immense. And not just on my son. The reaction from friends has been of bewilderment, shock even and of genuine concern. These are other parents, many of whom fought long and hard to get their own children into a grammar school, paying for years of tuition, forgoing summer holidays so they could cram their children with 11-plus techniques, forcing them in front of a clock and practice paper every morning while their siblings whooped around in the sun. Some then went through lengthy appeal processes, staying up all night preparing presentations for intimidating education panels and gathering evidence from every adult their child has ever come into contact with. Others ended up putting their child in an expensive private school largely because they had spent the last few years telling themselves – and their child – that if they ended up in the nearby non-grammar then they would be a failure in life. So, why, if my son had one of these supposed prized places, would he actively give it up?
I have never been a fan of grammar schools. My mum had taught in secondary moderns in the late 1960s and was a champion of comprehensives. Both my parents had themselves been at grammar schools and felt strongly about how selective education had driven a dangerous wedge through their community, creating supposed elites and denouncing those friends and relatives who failed the 11-plus to an educational scrapheap. My mum, now retired, was a passionate teacher who firmly believed in the education of all children. She went on to teach in tough comprehensives and I saw her devote significant time and energy into getting struggling children to reach their potential and beyond. No child should ever have been branded a failure, especially at age 10 or 11. And it was a good thing that education was no longer used as a tool to further divide us. And this is how I was brought up. I went to a comprehensive and it never really occurred to me that in some parts of the country, the grammar school system was still alive and kicking – until I moved to Kent.
And this is where it got difficult. It would be easy to say that I should have stuck to my principles and refused to let my son take the 11-plus and just boycotted grammar schools. But this is much harder than you think. In Kent we do not have a fully comprehensive system. The non-selective schools will tell you that they are comprehensives but they are not. They cannot be all-encompassing and comprehensive if the grammars have skimmed off 30% of the cohort – who are of a certain ability and, controversially, largely of a certain demographic. So in Kent you cannot simply veto this antiquated system and send your child to your local comprehensive. Because they don’t exist. Additionally, the whole education system is geared around the Kent Test. The primary schools, despite what they say and despite what they’re supposedly not allowed to do, revolve around it – they set practice papers as homework; they go over questions in class; they hold parents’ meetings advising you on how to prepare your child for it; they fill the children’s heads with the build-up to this test. And thus, we have to exist in the system we find ourselves in.
It was not surprising therefore that propaganda – both indirectly from the school and directly from classmates – soon trickled down to my son, convincing him that his future happiness and life prospects depended entirely on his performance in these test papers. So reluctantly I registered him for the Kent Test which he would sit in his own school the following year. I refused to pay for tuition for him and I refused to force him into hours of practising. If he had to be tutored to pass, a grammar school would be the wrong place for him, I reasoned. He went on to pass it, as did most of his close friends. Not letting him go to the boys grammar school with his friends for the sake of my own principles felt at the time like I might be denying him something. Predominantly happiness but also, perhaps a better education. Because for the last few years, other parents around me had done nothing but go on about how “grammar schools are better schools”. So perhaps they were.
It took me a while to realise I had a made a terrible mistake.
Parents who tell you that “Grammar schools are better schools” rarely make any effort to explain exactly what ‘better’ really means. They may well, of course, mention results. But really? Is a school that has creamed off the top performing pupils more likely or less likely to get the best results? The answer is obvious but it still baffles me that most parents can’t get beyond that basic fact.
But those who do often then talk about how children there get a different education, “a grammar school education”, a so-called ‘better’ education. What does that mean? Is it still the 1960s? When kids went to grammar schools to learn Latin and sit O-Levels whereas those in secondary moderns were taught sewing and woodwork and left at 15 with a handful of CSEs? How have they not noticed that it’s not like that now? Hasn’t been for years and years, in fact. Whatever school you’re at, you’ll still be doing the same GCSE curriculum. You’ll still be learning pythagorus and photosynthesis and iambic pentameters. “But they have better teachers in a grammar school,” I’ve heard it said. Again, really? Teachers are teachers. They’re all trained in more or less the same way, to more or less the same level. And there will be both good and bad teachers in any school.
And of course, there is a problem with teacher recruitment and retention nationally. That said however, I’ve met a lot of teachers over the years, especially when I was involved in recruitment as a school governor in London, and I have to say that I have never met so many weak and uninspiring teachers as I met during my son’s time at that grammar school. Quite frankly most of them wouldn’t last a minute in a comprehensive. I got the impression that many had either failed in the normal state sector or were seeking a cushy number. Surely teaching is a vocation, one that is filled with a desire to really make a difference to the lives of children? But these teachers seem to have instead opted for an environment of spoon-feeding – teaching by rote, handing out downloaded worksheets and getting the class to copy stuff down off the board. And in an era where children are used to fast-moving innovative content at the click of a button, teaching like this can no longer cut it. Even in a grammar school.
My son would frequently come home with tales of boys running rings round the weaker teachers, some of them by the time they got to Y11 even jumping out of windows or jumping around the desks, while the teacher sat there totally helpless. Yes, in a grammar school! Staff turnover was thus fairly high and therefore highly disruptive to his education. Many of his teachers didn’t really seem to know him very well at all. One teacher called him completely the wrong name throughout the entire parents meeting, even though he’d taught him for several years. Another one, asked if he was new, despite her teaching him for the whole of the previous year. A friend who is a private tutor says almost all his pupils come from grammars and that it is very evident from his pupils’ existing knowledge that much of the teaching is at best woefully inadequate and in some cases non-existent.
Moreover, the general quality of my son’s education was far from being at a high level. The whole school always felt humdrum, where children seemed to have almost lost their sense of identity, going in and out of the school like factory workers just carrying out their allotted tasks to get by. I never felt a spark of excitement in the school. I never felt anyone was doing anything remotely innovative that I had seen in other schools that weren’t grammars. Education should be inspiring and teachers should be nurturing pupils’ interests and encouraging a lifelong love of learning. But my son never came home excited about a subject – ever. And when I went to parents’ evenings, it was obvious why. Most of his teachers had become result-obsessed who seemed to have lost both their own fascination with their subject and that pedagogic desire to pass on their interest to their pupils. Their only motivation was to get their pupils to a target line that someone somewhere had generated on a graph. It would be pointless trying to getting the pupils enthused anyhow. Let’s not forget that grammar schools are packed to the rafters with kids who have been trained within an inch of their lives to perform to a very specialised test, and specifically taught not to think outside of the box. Indeed many of these children have had the creativity and initiative sucked out of them. In fact, far from being educated “among the brightest and best” as the grammar school propaganda will have it, my son seemed to being educated among exam robots who were treated like assets in the school’s flotation on the annual league tables.
These are accusations that you could level at some non-grammars, of course, but the problem is significantly worse in grammars because there is a complacency there. They don’t feel the need to try very hard with their pupils because the school results are fine and that seems to be the only thing that drives them. But there are struggling children. Many in fact. Many are struggling because the 11-plus is not a perfect indicator of a child’s educational potential. But many are just struggling because children do struggle with things. They are children, after all. And the grammars are just not set up for dealing with it. Teachers don’t come up with anything innovative to motivate their pupils. They don’t use technology inventively for example. They don’t embrace the kids’ interests and incorporate that into their teaching methods. Their main mantra was always “Come on boys, you’re in a grammar school, you worked your socks off to get here and you should be doing better than this.” Which is not remotely helpful. With this attitude towards pupils’ learning, children will, and did in fact, fall by the wayside. Several of my son’s friends ended up with the absolute bare minimum GCSE grades and a few even left with grade 2s (equivalent of an F, a fail) in English and Maths and are now being forced to retake them. Yes, in a grammar school! The problem is that a few failures in a grammar will have a smaller impact on a grammar whose overall results are already coasting near the top of the league tables, than in a non-selective school where teachers will be doing everything they can to get each child to reach their potential in order to push their school’s position.
And then there’s the pastoral care. Ask any grammar school parent who has had a issue with bullying, fights, friendships or their child’s wellbeing and mental health, and they will all tell you the same: The school were totally ineffective in resolving it. Indeed poor pastoral care seems to be just accepted as part of the grammar school system. A pay-off if you like for the supposed ‘better’ education. In fact it seems that they have no effective system in place for dealing with anything outside their remit of getting students through exams. And there’s a reason for this. They don’t need to. Schools who don’t deal with behaviour issues soon find themselves in very hot water. Parents go to the press, they talk on social media, a school gets a bad reputation, numbers fall, staff leave, results drop, the school gets a bad Ofsted report, its reputation plunges further, its roll totally dwindles and it’s not long before it faces Special Measures and potential closure. I know this only too well as it happened to my old school a number of years after I left. It started with only a handful of parents complaining to the local paper but took only a couple of years for the all the above to happen. The school has now gone. The site is currently being sold off for housing. But grammar schools don’t have to worry about any of this. None of it will ever happen to them. Parents can complain all they like, they can remove their children, there can be huge stories about bad behaviour in the local paper, but there will always be hundreds of parents clamouring for every available place. Fifty children could leave in one day and they’d fill those places by the next. So why waste energy on coming up with effective strategies and programmes to deal with those extra challenges?
I sought help from the school when my son finally revealed to me that he had been the victim of a long bullying campaign culminating in a video posted by a fellow pupil on YouTube mocking him. The school simply said there was nothing they could do as it wasn’t a school matter. The video was being shared around the school and he was coming home in a state of significant distress. Still not a school matter, apparently. And also, did I not think my son was being a bit overly dramatic about it? Other parents will tell you similar stories. Later in his time there, my son was suffering with mental health issues and took a number of days off. I felt reassured when the school offered him counselling. But I was stunned when after a few weeks, I was told the counselling was being discontinued as his attendance had now improved and the issue was now resolved, revealing of course that their strategy had never been about my son but rather their attendance figures.
There’s a general perception that bad behaviour does not exist in grammar schools whereas secondary moderns are hotbeds of anarchy and pandemonium with out-of-control kids lads chucking chairs at teachers. Perhaps a concept generated by various 1960s film and TV shows. But if parents really believe that sending their child to a grammar school will shield them from any unruly behaviour then they are in for a rude awakening. At my son’s school there were regular fights, punchings, kickings and regular incidents of kids smashing windows, setting off smoke bombs, chanting racist insults, getting high at lunch – much of which was was never properly dealt with. Schools with challenging pupils will dedicate time and energy to ensure behaviour does not impact on pupils’ learning and affect results, but grammar schools sitting comfortably at the top of the league tables won’t bother and so behaviour issues are often left to just bubble along.
There was an additional element of behavioural issues too at the grammar school – one of elitism. Several teachers would frequently say “If you don’t do homework, you will end up at [name of neighbouring non-selective school] which is full of all the thick kids”. This still shocks me when I think about this. It goes against everything that schools should be teaching about inclusion. Rather than teaching about equality and tolerance, they are sowing division and entitlement. It is reinforced in many grammar schools each morning in assemblies where they are told they are in one of the best schools in the country. This is utterly wrong and is doing nothing but breeding a generation of kids who think they are above the rest. Add this to the all-boys environment and you’ve got a potential problem with misogyny too. I know there was a pack mentality at my son’s school and was one of the reasons my son was so miserable there. The boys’ general attitude to girls was horrendous and highly sexualised, if not threatening. Now in a mixed school, my son says the attitude of the boys is significantly different towards girls and is certain that the predatory culture was entirely down to segregation. My elder daughter attended a different boys grammar school for Sixth Form and there was an incident when the year group were told they were having a talk about consent. A large bunch of boys started loudly objecting saying they didn’t need the talk as their social class weren’t the rapists! They were shouted down by a small group of horrified girls.
My son spent five years at his grammar school. Most of it in utter misery. Many times he begged me to let him leave but I was worried about the impact of moving him to a non-grammar in the middle of his education. In the run-up to his GCSEs he and I looked round a nearby non-selective school for Sixth Form and the difference to me was astonishing. There was none of that complacency at the open evening. They weren’t bombarding parents with an arrogant show of results but rather explaining what they would do to support pupils and inspire them to reach their potential. My son attended the induction day and I am not exaggerating in saying that I saw him return from school with a smile on his face for the first time in a very long time. He did well in his GCSEs and his grammar school told him he was making a big mistake not staying on. I was told the same thing. Friends told me that he wouldn’t be challenged, that he wouldn’t be around like-minded people, that it would look bad on his university application. But it was all nonsense. Like much of the myths around grammar schools.
Since September, my son has been a totally different child. For a long time his low mood had overshadowed everything – he rarely spoke without anger and resentment and I was genuinely very concerned about his wellbeing. He was motivated to do nothing but sit in front of his Playstation but now it’s like his mood has cruised up 20 new levels. Suddenly a spark has been ignited in him. He actually whistles around the house, he hardly powers up his console and even asks me about my day. Every day he comes home and tells me excitedly about everything he’s learned, about his new friends, about the discussions he’s had in class, about his teachers. And then he phones his grandparents and tells them. He seeks out extra information on the history topics he’s learning and is constantly talking about the English books he’s reading. I’m aware it’s early days and this could still be a novelty factor, but it’s given me a chance to really reflect on how destructive the grammar system was on him. There is much talk about the effects on those who fail the 11-plus but this divisive test is creating a huge rift in educational practices across the board and is deeply damaging both those who pass as well as those who fail.
Round here, children are continually judged by what school they attend. People will ask you what school your child is at and they make an immediate assessment. “Oh jolly good,” they will say if your child is at a grammar, “that’s a very good school.”. But answer with a rather sheepish “Oh well, I’ve heard there’s a good bus service there,” if you say your child is at a non-selective school. My son says he now feels the eyes of other children as he walks to the bus stop, feeling that they are judging him, making assumptions that he got kicked out of the grammar for bad GCSE grades. He says he feels the urge to justify his move, to tell them he’s really happy now. But he shouldn’t have to justify it. And he shouldn’t be being judged like this.
Recently I asked my neighbour what school her grand-daughter was at. We were chatting about our family and it seemed like a natural question but she seemed to suddenly tense and immediately started to tell me how her grandchild had done the 11-plus, had only missed out by two marks but had been put into the “grammar stream” at the local non-selective school. This wasn’t what I’d asked and I felt angry that our system is forcing not just children but their parents and grandparents into these ridiculous defensive positions where they feel they are being judged. Britain is one the most class-divided countries in the world and perhaps as a consequence of this, people are obsessed with fitting people into boxes, often on the basis of a very short conversation. In Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw wrote, “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.” He was talking about accents but it could easily be extended to be about someone’s education.
It’s very rare that people ask if your child is happy, is enjoying their learning, is being inspired to learn, is being challenged, is being nurtured, is being protected, is being taught about respect for all others despite their differences. But they should. Because these are the things that are significantly more important than the name of their school.