I have been wondering what I think about Grammar Schools. However, I am trapped in a perspective vortex.
I attended a Grammar School myself in the 1970s, and benefited from the education I received. And this could explain why I am inclined to be sympathetic towards Grammar Schools in general. Also my children have benefited from attending a Grammar School, but more details about this below.
People who ‘failed’ to get in to a Grammar School can also be affected by this perspective vortex. Michael Morpugo speaks loudly of the sense of ‘shame and anxiety’ at failing the entrance exam for Grammar School. However this did not hold him back because his aunts paid for him to attend a private school.
Had there not been a possibility to attend Grammar School, that is presumably where he would have gone in any event! To me this illustrates the fact that what Grammar Schools are for is to give a ‘private school style education’ to people who can benefit from it – without regard for income. In isolation, this is definitely ‘a good thing’.
What questions should we ask?
The real questions which need to be asked and answered are not whether Grammar Schools benefit the children who attend them: they do.
Instead we should ask whether the presence of Grammar Schools in an educational system improves outcomes more generally over a comprehensive system.
Also, we need to ask whether the advantages enjoyed by children who attend Grammar Schools are gained at the expense of educational opportunities which are denied to others.
These questions are difficult to answer, but the answer appears to be that Grammar Schools do not improve the system as a whole.
But there is one final question: Even if Grammar Schools are ‘unfair’, do they embody a valuable culture which might be worth preserving?
What are schools for?
Broadly speaking, schools are the way we pass on our integrated cultural and technical understanding of the world.
We know more and understand more about the world and our experiences than at anytime in history.
And we need people with high levels of education in order to be able to thrive in an increasingly complex and technological world.
So it ought to be a good time to be a teacher, or a student. But somehow it isn’t.
Some problems with Schools
One way to think about schools is to look at the exams students take.
At the high achieving end of the scale, ‘A’ levels are hard. But they could be harder and offer some discrimination between students achieving A* grades.
However, it is at the GCSE level where things are a complete mess, with the exams (and the courses leading to them) being simultaneously, much too easy for a wide range of pupils, but much too hard – and widely irrelevant – for another wide range of pupils.
Grammar schools do potentially address the low standards and lack of ambition at some secondary schools. But this is linked to school culture as well as selection.
My experience as a student
I attended Xaverian College in Manchester in the 1970s, a Catholic Grammar School for Boys. The school culture was weird:
- Our recommended revision strategy for GCSE ‘O’ level Maths was “to get down our knees and pray to the Blessed Virgin Mary“
- ‘Sex Education’ was taught by a celibate monk.
- Assaults on students by teachers were just accepted.
- More recollections here.
However all that really mattered was academic performance. So despite the weirdness, I am still genuinely grateful, because the education I received enabled me to go to University and have a career in Physics.
My experience as a parent
Fast forwarding to 2007 and 2009, both my children took an ’11+ exam’ to attend Tiffin School for Boys. Neither were intensively tutored and the older one ‘passed’ and the younger one ‘failed’.
The culture at Tiffin was familiar to me from my own experience, although it was considerably more benign than Xaverian! It suited my older son, and he had a good time there. He achieved good GCSEs and A levels and is now at University. And that’s all I wanted from the school.
I spoke with my younger son last week and he remembered being disappointed after the 11+ results, but actually he had a great time at Teddington School. As a parent I perceived a lack of ambition at the school, but he fell in with a good crowd and achieved better GCSEs than his older brother!
And after achieving good GCSE’s, he then left Teddington and moved into the 6th form at Tiffin School for his A levels and achieved essentially the same A level results as his older brother. We both doubt that he would have achieved such good results had he stayed at Teddington School, or gone to Richmond College, the other state-funded alternative in the area.
Perhaps there is a lesson there: if a route is held open to a more academic education for those starting out on a less academic route, then maybe Grammar schools could end up making sense within a wider comprehensive ‘ecosystem’.
Culture and ambition
Teddington School and Tiffin School differed massively in their ambition. And that is a matter of culture and not directly related to selection.
For example, in his first year at Teddington my son was given ‘science’ tasks that he had completed at home when he was 2 years old. Yes. Two years old.
He was asked to place cartoon panels in order showing the stages of a volcanic eruption. We have a video of him completing the same task in ‘Sammy’s Science House‘ software at the age of two! (The task is 12 minutes and 10 seconds into the YouTube clip below)
It’s not that my son was a genius. Instead it was a measure of the facile and uninspiring teaching that was, literally, suitable for toddlers.
Similarly, at Tiffin School, the Music Department was, and is, outstanding, and the scale and ambition of their endeavours is breathtaking. I didn’t like everything they did, but my son was given a musical education that was truly precious.
Another aspect of the culture change struck my son immediately: at Tiffin School children did not (in general) talk in lessons, and at Teddington, they did.
So many aspects of school culture which make a difference are not related to selection. But for a variety of reasons these valuable cultural traits thrive in Grammar schools. I would hesitate to destroy anything so precious as a culture of respect for academic goals.
I have ignored many complicating factors: Religion: Gender: Class and Discipline come to mind.
I have ignored them because they all seem to me to be secondary to the basic task asked of schools: to pass on to its future owners, the wonderful inheritance of our culture, in all its varied forms.
Ultimately, the current Grammar school proposals may help a few children. And divisive as the move is, I wish them good luck. But the proposals are really irrelevant to most children.
We need a way of developing the culture of schools so that they become inspiring and wonderful places to learn.
And I can only imagine that happening if they are inspiring and wonderful places to teach.
I think we need subject teachers with better subject knowledge and more time to teach creatively. And that almost certainly means spending more money on schools.
- The amount of money we spend per state school pupil is difficult to estimate definitively, but it appears to be between about £4000 and £8000 per pupil per year.
- The BBC report that average day school fees in the private sector are around twice this level. (~£13,000 per pupil per year).
So if education were a purchasable commodity, private school students would be getting about twice as much of it.
And more education is something I would definitely vote for, and be happy to pay taxes for.
[September 24th 2016: Weight this morning 72.3 kg: Anxiety: Medium]