The current system is not without its faults. However, the grammar school model provides an exciting prospect for improving the educational chances of so many bright, working class kids.
Teresa May’s recent announcement that the government will be creating more grammar schools has been a hot topic in recent weeks. To say it created a storm among those who like to think of themselves as the “liberal intelligentsia” is something of an understatement. On my Facebook timeline, as well as among those in government, it appeared to be the critics speaking the loudest. I could write forever about my frustration with some of these key opponents. Many of these cynics tend to include not just those who had parents rich enough to pay for private schooling. Some enjoyed the benefits of a grammar school education themselves – and no matter what they tell you, I think that there are indeed benefits. Take it from someone who moved from a comprehensive to a grammar school at the age of 16, after my GCSE results. Someone whose parents did not attend university, yet who is now studying at one of the best higher educational institutions in the country. I would never had got many of my academic opportunities, as well as life experiences, if I had remained at my comprehensive. Some may turn around and state that this shows it is comprehensives that need improving – and of course they do. In an idealised world we wouldn’t need any school reforms because all schools would be of a universally great standard. Yet, meeting the needs of each child (specifically), and life (generally), are both far more complicated than what many are willing to admit. While we should strive to make all schools the best they can be for pupils we cannot ignore the part grammar schools play in securing equality of opportunity for bright working class kids.
The core reason I praise my grammar school education, which I will reiterate throughout this article, is precisely that it gave me equality of opportunity. Equality of opportunity in specifically academic pursuits, that many seemed to judge a child from my background should or would not be capable of achieving. That is not to say I didn’t have some very good teachers at my comprehensive. However, the default expectation was that a pupil would follow a vocational pursuit post-16. If you were capable of an A* or an A grade, but were currently working at a B level due to (most of the time) the teaching not being of a great standard, it didn’t really matter- only rich kids would be studying at the country’s top universities.
While grammar schools are not the only way to secure equality of opportunity for children in education, done correctly, they can be one of the best. It is worth noting that the grammar school I attended had a results record several places ahead of Eton in the leaderboards – an educational experience that many from my background could only dream of. It is without a doubt that the majority of the teaching at my grammar school was better than at my comprehensive. The studying of a good subject at a good university was not just a mere prospect; it was an expectation.
Upon those who criticise grammar schools, one of their main arguments is that segregation based on aptitude is awful, and a root cause of educational inequality. This argument holds no merit; grammar schools are not unique in segregating children based on their educational ability. All comprehensives segregate children into a tiered system of teaching, based on how they perform in testing. And the reason for this? The reason is that segregation on the basis of aptitude is the most effective way of delivering equality of opportunity to children in education – best meeting the requirements of those best gifted and those needing help to improve – disparate requirements that surely necessitate segregation in terms of aptitude.
A standardised education plan – in which teaching resources are simply thrown at a mixed ability class of children, without taking into account the unique educational abilities of each child – is, in my opinion, never going to work. In order to give each the best chance at success the answer is not to mix them together and throw information at them as if at a wall, hoping that something sticks. Instead, it is to make learning bespoke to each ability. Organisation based on academic ability allows teachers to focus and adapt their resources to the specific needs of the children within that class. This is why from a young age we are divided by our academic ability anyway – regardless of whether the school is selective or not. Therefore, why crucify grammar schools for wanting to take the most academically capable children early, and to accelerate their learning potential? For equality of opportunity to happen in our education system this segregation on the basis of aptitude is vital. Yet, not only is it vital – it is inevitable. There will always be children more capable in vocational pursuits, as well as those who are more academically gifted. In their intention therefore, one cannot object to grammar schools as being a good way to ensure equality of opportunity for children.
Of course, questions are rightly being raised about how the intention falls short in practice. There is an argument against grammar schools, in their current state, that I do sympathise with – particularly when coming from the angle of equality of opportunity. It seems in the current state of things richer parents are able to pay for their children to be tutored for the 11+ entrance exam, giving them an unfair advantage over children with poorer parents. The current 11+ entry exam is not the best way for achieving equality of opportunity when it comes to the grammar school system. However, I believe that it does not have to be this way.
The current 11+ test has little to do with proving a child’s academic intelligence. In fact, as the test currently stands, it is an open door to providing children with richer parents an unfair advantage for admission. The “skills” of verbal and non-verbal reasoning most schools test at the admissions stage – which consists of matching patterns of shapes, among other strange things – are not taught in the national curriculum. The more paid sessions a child has practicing what shape fits where, the better they are going to be at doing it. So, when they turn up to the exam the rich can procure (or rather master) a skill which, throughout the rest of their secondary school education, they will never use again.
Throughout year 6, the curriculum focuses on maths, English and science. So, why not be testing children on these core components, when applying for grammar school admission. Subjects that all children will have had to have been taught in their school hours – not in a Saturday morning class their parents are paying for. Though some grammar schools do have a numerical component to their test, verbal and non-verbal reasoning remains the most dominant form of testing. Testing children on what the national curriculum teaches to all would be a much better way of ensuring equality of opportunity when it comes to admission. Children are given a level in these subjects once they leave school anyway. Why not make use of the testing we already make them do, to give them the best chance at a quality education fit for their potential?
When it comes to reforming education for the next generation of children, it is crucial to recognise that some thrive in practical environments whereas others, like myself, are academic bookworms. Academic excellence should not remain the preserve of the elite classes, and academic children should be allowed to mix with and work alongside many others of the same ability.
As long as future grammar schools are committed to reforming, a commitment that is in line with reducing all economic boundaries in order to reach a superb state of education in our country, we have a chance to accelerate the learning potential of a whole generation of intelligent yet underestimated children.
Writer and editor for Conatus News, and contributor to various other publications. Student at University of Birmingham and recovering member of the Labour Party and student politics.