Grammar school thinking

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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.


11 thoughts on “Grammar school thinking

  1. Progressive idiocies aside, my fundamental view of the comp system is that it’s roughly OK for the majority in the middle of the curve but is rubbish for the extremes at both ends. Where you draw lines is very debatable, but for now assume the top 5% on the right-hand side. If the local comp had a perfect distribution that would be a handful of children which isn’t enough to fill a classroom, so they get to exist on what’s good for the top 25% which means they rarely get any significant “stretch and challenge”.

    Perhaps you have to walk the mile (for nearly a decade here) to really appreciate the effects on a child of continual coasting in several subjects, the difficulties fitting in with peers and the “you’re a difficulty” message they can’t help pick up from teachers. Most children want to fit in and outliers typically don’t unless you put more of them together in the same place. I don’t see how within-school selection can ever be the same as between-school for them, unless you start making schools extremely large. I’m not convinced by top 25-30% grammars because I don’t see why comps couldn’t serve the needs of the majority of them, but I’m not convinced that the comp model will ever meet the needs of a rarer top percentage.

    Probable shiny future exam grades regardless, does not compensate for any of this and it’s fascinating to see some people who like to rail against exams, for ‘happy childhood’, suggest that they will.

  2. Hi Greg
    I wonder where you would place our former employers in Hillingdon in your vista of UK schools?(Large comprehensive, sent kids to Oxford and Cambridge, big SEN department, high attainment outcomes, reasonably diverse social mix etc etc) I’d like to think that a lot of the students who were taught by you and I did receive plenty of “academic focus” and met the needs of that top 25% pretty well. I don’t know about you, but what that experience taught me was that it was the leadership and management of the school that meant we did a pretty good job of within-school selection (given the curriculum and wider political constraints of the time)
    What do you think now – looking back – about that experience, given that it did manage to meet the needs of at least some of that “rarer top percentage”?
    Steve C.

  3. This is a very complex issue and, in my opinion, one which needs to be dealt with on a country-by-country (or even state-by-state) basis, depending on the culture – educational and socioeconomic. It’s not one-size-fits-all. People love to point to good old fetishized Finland as a shining beacon of a fully comprehensive system, but with a massive middle class, a socially and ethnically homogeneous culture and an ingrained respect for teachers within the society, it’s probably possible to combine a comprehensive system with a level of academic rigour. Elsewhere, I’m not so sure that it works, or can work, so well.

    In NSW we have a very widespread selective system which has gotten somewhat out of control (especially since the de-regionalization), but I’m very glad that we have one. Ambitious migrant families who value education are given a chance for their kids to learn in an environment free of crowd control issues and pathetically watered-down curricula, and I’m very much in favour of that. The problem with the idea that, with a return to proper teaching methods and discipline, even comprehensives can provide an environment in which able kids of all backgrounds can excel is that at the moment, it’s simply a pipedream in countries like Australia (I know this post is about England, but I’m assuming there are plenty of similarities in the educational culture). Would it be better at least to modestly implement a selective system in the short term, for the benefit of ambitious and able kids who find it impossible to learn properly at a comprehensive? I would think that it’s at least worth considering.

    And by the way, the piece you linked to there (on the Conversation website) raises a number of questions for me – the study they cite seems to be comparing apples with oranges. And for what it’s worth, social mobility is not the ONLY purpose of having a selective system, this should be obvious.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Yes, social mobility is not the only issue.

      It’s worth pointing out that Finland has a two track system where students either go into a vocational or academic stream at 16, depending on test results. This creates considerable pressure to achieve down through the system because the academic steam is considered much more desirable. Tim Oates is good on this.

      1. That’s quite true (thank you for the link you provided elsewhere to that Tim Oates piece by the way – very interesting). I think people tend to mention the lack of streaming at an earlier age in Finland though.

        What I think is very important is for there to be flexibility within the selective system so that “late bloomers” are able to switch from the comprehensive system to a selective if they excel in Years 7 and 8, say. That way, the sting is taken out of the “it decides their whole future at age 11!” cry. My knowledge of the pre-Wilson English system is a bit patchy, was there a provision for this in the old days of the eleven-plus?

  4. You’re conflating England and the U.K. Scotland does not have state-run grammar schools. Scotland did not have the tripartite system of schooling after 1944.

    It is also slightly problematic to suggest that ‘most able pupils went to the grammar schools and the rest went to secondary moderns’. This was part of the problem: there wasn’t enough capacity in the grammar schools to cope with all the children who were able enough to get in. This is why many middle-class parents in the 1950s and 60s agitated for the comprehensive system – to make sure their brighter children to have access to something better than a secondary modern.

    I agree with your overall view that grammars are not the answer.

  5. I’m still waiting for someone to tell me why selective universities are a good idea, and selective sixth form colleges, but not selective secondary schools. Unless they are specialist schools, in which case it is apparently OK after all.

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