In the UK, grammar schools are state-run secondary schools which select students based upon ability. Following the second world war, a three-tier system was put in place. Students sat an aptitude test at the age of eleven, the most able went to grammar schools and the rest went to secondary modern or technical schools. There were actually very few technical schools so, for most, it became a question of a grammar or a secondary modern.
The secondary moderns had a relatively poor reputation and made no attempt to equip students for university. So, in the 1960s, a movement started that sought to replace the tiered system with a uniform system of ‘comprehensive’ schools that did not select students on the basis of ability. This was acrimonious and many claims were made on both sides of the argument. Harold Wilson campaigned for comprehensives under the slogan ‘grammar schools for all’ at the 1964 election. Yet this dream was never realised. Yes, comprehensives became the dominant form of secondary education with only a small rump of grammars remaining (which still exist today). But these comprehensive schools did not look much like ‘grammar schools for all’.
Through the 1970s and 1980s, comprehensive schools were often the test-bed for innovative forms of education. I went to such a school and my own experience was one of project work and a lack of attention to key academic ideas such as… er… grammar. Behaviour was quite poor and there was an ever-present undercurrent of fear where you could have a cigarette flicked at you or someone might punch you without warning. We would sigh with relief when we entered the classroom of a strict teacher. There was a new headteacher who was determined to tackle the problem of behaviour and the situation began to improve while I was there.
In this context, many middle-class parents agitated for a return to the grammar school system, viewing grammars as bastions of strong discipline and academic focus; a view that is perhaps a little overly-romantic. Grammars became a pet cause for some politicians on the conservative side of politics who identified with these values.
There were big differences between individual comprehensives and so sharp-elbowed, middle-class parents would move to the vicinity of the good ones, inflating house prices and locking out poorer students. This was selection by mortgage rather than ability. It is my sense that comprehensives have improved considerably since the 1980s but there are still too many that look and feel like the one I attended.
Now, emboldened by a Labour Party that is dead but for the twitching, and pushed by a Conservative Prime Minister who is a believer in the cause, it looks like the UK government is going to allow the creation of new grammar schools.
This is a retrograde step. The system doesn’t need to change to one based upon the arbitrary labeling of students. That won’t help. There’s no evidence to suggest it will improve social mobility and many of those involved in UK education are making this point as loudly as they can. Yet they won’t diminish the appeal of the grammar schools argument until they defeat grammar school thinking.
Grammar school thinking is the logic that underpins grammars and it is a logic that is, surprisingly, shared by sections of both the political left and the political right. This is the idea that some children are ‘academic’ and some are not. The academic ones need to do academic courses like maths, science and history. The non-academic ones only need functional literacy and numeracy and should spend the best part of their time at secondary school studying health and beauty or car maintenance diplomas.
Once you accept this logic, it doesn’t matter much whether these different courses are pursued within the same school or hived-off to specialist ones, even if many will argue passionately about this.
The truth is that we don’t know what proportion of students are not ‘academic’. Presumably, some will have such severe working memory problems or other disabilities that they will never be able to grasp GCSE English. Yet right now it is hard to distinguish these students from the instructional casualties: the ones who never learnt to read and so spent most of their schooling falling further behind their peers or the ones whose chances were adversely affected by the riotous behaviour of classmates – I never learnt much in French because the main game for my class was about making the teacher cry.
I once taught a Year 11 ASDAN science class. These were students who were unlikely to achieve in science GCSE and so they were entered for a different kind of course. They all presented with severe difficulties and, by this stage, it probably would have been more worthwhile for them to do vocational training than to sit in my science class. But we don’t know what might have been. We don’t know what early intervention with a focus on evidence based practice might have done for these kids.
English and maths are often dismissed as ‘basic skills’ with the implication being that there are other, more worthy goals of education such as developing collaborative skills or creativity. In a way, academic subject are ‘basic’ in that they are a floor requirement for full participation in our sophisticated society. Yet in a different sense, the term ‘basic’ is quite misleading because academic subjects are complex and difficult to teach. There is nothing simple about teaching reading properly. You can’t just scatter a few books about the place and hope that students will pick it up whilst focusing your attention on critical thinking. You need to know the difference between letters and graphemes and have a sequenced structure of lessons and assessments to work through.
And we must move away from the idea of behaviour management being something of a taboo. Reading some of the reaction to the recent decision by a headteacher to uphold his school’s rules, you would be forgiven for thinking that behaviour management is all about making children submit and genuflect in front of an arbitrary authority. It’s actually about ensuring that schools are places of learning where children feel safe and respected. I look back fondly on my old headteacher because he took charge and made school a better place to be.
The ideal of ‘grammar schools for all’ is still an ideal worth striving for. But we need to recognise the assumptions that convince many that this is not possible. We need to be unashamedly academic in our focus because that is what school is for: to deliver on the right of every child to full participation in a democratic society.