I have finally finished watching the BBC’s Grammar Schools series – it’s been downloaded for a while now but I haven’t had the stomach to watch the second two episodes after watching the first. Watching the heartbreak unfold in that initial episode when the Year 6’s were sitting their 11+ was extremely upsetting to say the least.
It also made me feel incredibly uncomfortable. You see, I have a confession to make…I have spent some years teaching in a selective school.
The system has never sat easily with me but I have tried not to think about it too much.
They say you become more conservative (with a small c I hasten to add) as you get older but I guess what happens if your ideals (or mine anyway) bend and flex (a little) over time. Especially when it comes to your own family. Look at Shami Chakrabarti for instance (not that I’m comparing myself to her, but you know what I mean). This isn’t a post justifying my decision to work in a selective school, however I think it’s important to understand that sometimes your own well-being and that of your family’s is a decisive factor in the career choices you make.
I have often wished that south-east London wasn’t in the clutches of Kent and it’s grammar school tradition. But I have reasoned that, as it is, and I have also worked in a non-selective secondary school too, I mustn’t beat myself up too much about this. I must just do what works for me and my family at this time. And yet I have always had a nagging doubt about my choice. I sense that what is outlined in the quote below from the series, is the case, and it plays on my mind.
“Some studies have found that secondary modern students do a bit worse over-all in their GCSEs than children with similar ability in areas that don’t have Grammars”
The irony is that I moved from north-west London to south-east London to ‘make a difference’ by being a head of department in a large and challenging comprehensive school. However, after two years I moved on to the grammar school down the road. I took a pay cut and a ‘demotion’ in one sense (back to Head of Department as opposed to 2nd in charge of the Humanities Faculty) but my depleted energy levels meant it was a move I needed to make.
Last autumn was the first time I had invigilated an 11+ exam. It didn’t sit easily with me and the guilty feelings of being part of this system, which I had buried for some years, were reignited.
I felt uneasy with the sight of a sea of mostly 10 year olds in front of me and couldn’t fail to pick up on the obvious nervous tension in the room. I couldn’t ignore that I am a bit-player in a system that, in my opinion causes families, and young people particularly, stress, and that can negatively impact on self-esteem. As the programme-makers pointed out:
“research casts doubt on whether grammar school students do significantly better than they would if they had gone to normal schools, and some research shows that the existence of grammars negatively effects children who don’t get through the 11+”
My mixed feelings about selective education stem from my own formative years too. I experienced three fairly happy years at a comprehensive and four fairly happy years at a grammar school.
The difference? Not much really. However, hand on heart, I had more of a love of learning instilled in me at the comp. My teachers were more engaging, the student body more interesting.
At the grammar – yes I loved some of my lessons – my A Level History lessons in particular – but the more traditional way of teaching turned me off education in many ways.
These experiences have undeniably stayed with me. My take on my own secondary education may well still be a true reflection of what goes on today – when non-selective (in fact any) schools have a stable staff, the teaching can often be high quality.
Yet the competition for grammar school places, in the areas where they are, is more intense than ever. This isn’t about the teachers. This is about the perceived opportunities this type of school offers their students.
I love the area where we live but I feel very uneasy about the secondary school situation, and so as my own children grow older this is going to play on my mind even more.
So what’s the point of this post?
I guess it’s a bit of a confessional on my part. But it’s also an appeal to look behind the hype which always surrounds the topic of schooling. Ok we have selective education in some places in the UK, and we can’t get away from this at the moment.
But please don’t buy into some of the arguments advanced by the establishment about why there should be more. As someone who has experience of both types of educational establishment, as a student and as a teacher, I remain deeply uneasy about the UK’s selective education system.
Ultimately we should be trying our best to lessen the stress on our children, not increasing it, in their final years at primary school. We should also be celebrating the hard work – from staff and students – that is going on in ALL our schools, NOT making some, in certain areas, feel like the ‘poor relation’.
I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts.