I grew up and was educated in the 1960’s when selection in education was the norm. I was from a middle class family and failed my eleven plus. I remember, to this day, the feeling that I had when the head teacher told me it would be better to be at the top end of the secondary modern school than the bottom of a grammar school. I had failed to get in by a very few marks. This feeling of failure has stayed with me all my life. I can tell you that at this time families and communities were divided as children were separated from siblings and friends at the age of 11 by this exam.
On arriving at the secondary modern school (which turned comprehensive when I was in the third year) I always felt that the expectations for myself and my peers were low. University was not mentioned and ‘high flyers’ were expected to go to teacher’s training college or to polytechnics. Many who attended grammar schools in this era felt as though they were ‘out of their depth’ and ‘alien’ to the culture of the school and did not have a happy experience of education.
Few people talk about those that fail to get into grammar schools when they hail grammar schools as the way to ensure social mobility. When 20% are creamed off and the other 80% are written off – that is what we are talking about. Thousands of those who are rejected at 11 take the hard route to Higher Education qualifications as adults. This is what I did, finally achieving my Master’s degree at the age of 48!
I live in Gloucestershire which is a partially selective area and am a governor at a very successful comprehensive school. In Gloucestershire our comprehensive schools are by and large excellent but many parents still insist on putting their children in for the selective exams. If a child is entered for the selective examination and fails, the same sense of failure that I felt will live with them for a long time and possibly for ever. Some pass but do they necessarily get a better education than they would at their local school? Although the Gloucestershire comprehensive schools are very good there is inevitably an impact of the grammar schools ‘creaming off’ students that have been given the opportunity to pass the selective examination. Many of these latter students have been taught to pass the test by extra classes and special tuition – it is not innate intelligence that has ensured their success.
Children are often bussed from a wide distance to the grammar schools which means that many of our local children cannot attend these schools. It is not good for youngsters to spend a long time each day travelling and to be educated at a geographical distance from their peers. Some young people, who failed to gain entry to the grammar schools at 11 attend them for their sixth form education. Where is the logic in this? Surely if they are good enough at 16 they should have been good enough at 11?
What is wrong with comprehensive schools that give all children parity? Why are we not arguing for the best schools for all young people not just the privileged few?
With the Tories’ suggestion that we return to the retrogressive bipartite system I ask that Labour opposes it vigorously. A return to selection does not always ensure social mobility, it can lead to a feeling of failure and worthlessness, some students struggle in a grammar school and can feel as though they are failing there. If schools are given the option to become selective then what happens to children who do not get into those schools – especially if there are limited non-selective schools within their local area?
When Labour was the party of government they should have ensured that the existing grammar schools were removed but instead they were allowed to continue as it was made difficult for local people to mount a petition against them.
I ask that Labour continues its opposition to this unfair system which would enshrine segregation in our education system for at least a generation. Standards are not raised by changing structures; we have seen this with the academies programme. Our young people are our future and deserve the best and this should be by attending excellent comprehensive schools which give all students equality of opportunity.
The Labour Party should be opposing vigorously any return to segregation in our education system!!!