My Uneasy Relationship with the UK’s Selective Education System

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.


Photo courtesy of Gaelle Marcel via Unsplash

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.


handwritten Hayley




  1. Clare Cameron
    July 20, 2018 / 6:42 pm

    I agree wholeheartedly. Having taught for 8 years in comps (4 in what was strictly speaking a secondary modern as it was in a grammar school area) and 9 in grammars I also felt the sense of relief tempered with guilt at taking the ‘easy’ option (NOT easy at all, as we both know…)
    From a parent’s point of view, F certainly found her teachers more enthusiastic and inspiring in y7 and 8 at a comp (younger???) than in y9 onwards at the Grammar school and for M’s sake I’m SO relieved (as we’ve discussed) to be moving away from a selective area. Our children are luckiest, however, to have engaged parents who will help them to achieve their potential whatever type of school they attend. Others are less fortunate…

    • onamindfulmummymission
      July 22, 2018 / 4:46 pm

      Relief – tempered with guilt – so true Clare! Thank you xx

  2. July 21, 2018 / 7:19 am

    Such a tricky one for sure. I hate all the testing that our children have to go through; even at primary level. In our area we don’t have the grammar system but that doesn’t mean that certain schools are seen as more desirable that’s others. Luckily, we have some great schools in our area so there isn’t the push of one school over another that many areas have.
    Confessional? Well it’s a job Hayley and has to work around you own family. I, too have had struggles with what my life needed and what my educational moral compass was telling me. That’s part of being a teacher I’m afraid. I have worked in tough schools where you go home during the summer holidays and worry that certain children will still be here in September -they don’t get fed at home or will fall through the cracks -but what can you do? You are human. You are but one person who is also struggling with child care, bills, family life. The school I’m in now gives me a chance to breathe again and actually teach rather than battle problem after problem. The way I look at it is this; I am a teacher. I am just a teacher. I am not a social worker or a government adviser. I tried to change the world as a young teacher but quickly learnt that would possibly kill me in the long run and you know what? That’s ok. I’m a mother and a wife too. I know who will there for me when life gets tough and it won’t be this government or that kid that left me worrying at night. Harsh? Yes, but truthful although I do feel guilty sometimes.
    Sorry for the long post! Your post was wonderfully accurate of how I often feel!

    • onamindfulmummymission
      July 21, 2018 / 7:56 pm

      Please do not apologise for the long post Sophie – you speak sense and your words about being able to ‘breath and really teach’ resonate. People don’t always understand this is what we are juggling in our minds as well as everything else besides. xx

  3. July 21, 2018 / 7:48 am

    It does seem that we over test kids at school and increase their stress without much to show for it. Interesting that kids in Gramma schools are likely to do just as well on comprehensives too! #thatsatsesh

    • onamindfulmummymission
      July 21, 2018 / 7:53 pm

      Yes – I think that’s a powerful research-based statement. Thanks for commenting

  4. July 21, 2018 / 8:25 am

    This is a tricky one. My children are likely to have to sit grammar school tests and I wonder how I will feel, but I sat private school entrance exams and I didn’t pass all of them. I have to say I wasn’t bothered by the ones I didn’t get, but maybe it would be different if I hadn’t have passed any. Tricky tricky tricky #thesatsesh

    • onamindfulmummymission
      July 21, 2018 / 7:52 pm

      Very tricky indeed!

  5. July 21, 2018 / 8:36 am

    The age old dilemma of which school for our kids is often a topic of competition especially with both of us working in higher education. The option of a Grammar School or private education are not open to us but I think we would seriously consider them. However I do hold true to the belief that a significant contribution to the success of a child is forged in the home environment and support you create 🙂 #TheSatSesh

    • onamindfulmummymission
      July 21, 2018 / 7:51 pm

      Excellent point – thanks Tom.

  6. July 21, 2018 / 10:53 am

    This is a system I was not aware of, nothing like that in our neck of the woods. However, I can relate to the worry of the stress we put on our young children. My youngest will be starting year six in September and that means the dreaded SATS. Both my older two children did not react well to the pressure that the teachers applied and as a parent I felt terrible to see such young children struggling with the stress and expectations being put upon them. #thesatsesh

    • onamindfulmummymission
      July 21, 2018 / 7:32 pm

      I agree – we really shouldn’t be testing our young children so much xx

  7. July 21, 2018 / 5:13 pm

    I agree with this 100% and the unfairness of it makes me angry X #thesatsesh

  8. thesingleswan
    July 21, 2018 / 9:29 pm

    I agree, we shouldn’t be testing our children so much. I also, I confess, have a bit of a chip on my shoulder against selective education. I spent much of my education and university feeling inferior to those who went to private and selective schools. That inferiority complex was unfounded because I received better grades than most, but there is an inner confidence that selective education provides that i did not have. Pen x #thesatsesh

    • onamindfulmummymission
      July 22, 2018 / 4:48 pm

      This is exactly the problem with the system Pen. Thanks for commenting xx

  9. July 22, 2018 / 9:31 pm

    It’s a difficult one, and it’s certainly something that is going to affect us more in the coming years (we have a nearly 9 year old) – we’re lucky we’re at an ‘outstanding’ school at the moment, but we live near Grammar schools and it’s something my wife and I have discussed. Overall, i do think we over test our children as it is and for very little benefit #thesatsesh

    • onamindfulmummymission
      July 23, 2018 / 8:55 pm

      Thanks for the comment Stuart.

  10. July 24, 2018 / 12:13 pm

    I found it a massive wake up call moving from the UK into independent (International) Education in Holland. Being from a north eastern comprehensive school working class background I found it hard to fit in at one international school setting (British) My accent was criticised constantly and laughed at. After 13 years here I realise that actually, place of birth and family background still have a massive influence on children’s life experiences and future success. And that doesn’t sit well with me at all! The whole system create inequality.
    My brother works in banking and has a very good job, he is one of the only people on his level (company director) who comes from a comprehensive school background. Jobs for the boys remains a real issue! You know where I sit on testing too! No!

    • onamindfulmummymission
      July 26, 2018 / 11:04 pm

      You are so right about the impact later on aswell and how ‘networks’ are formed early on… It makes me feel very uncomfortable xx

  11. July 25, 2018 / 5:15 pm

    What an interesting read. I always hated all the tests at school and always became quite anxious. I obviously understand the reasons for tests but I think children are over tested. I dread the thought of all the tests my little girl has in her future. X #thesatsesh

  12. July 26, 2018 / 11:14 am

    From my understanding it may well be the children that are sadly losing out. #thesatsesh

  13. July 27, 2018 / 2:23 pm

    #thesatsesh no we shouldn’t test kids as much as we do, in the way that we do….i like the idea of a variety of schools for a variety of pupils – but not based on how privileged the vagina they fell out of is.

  14. July 28, 2018 / 7:47 am

    Interesting post. I’m definitely against so much testing, and so young, I see no benefit in it. Now I’m in a completely different context, in Mexico I would say there is a selective system in place, but one based on money. Since there is a wide variety of private schools available – some more affordable than others – for most middle class families who can afford it a private education is the only option (state schools just don’t have the same level of resources and quality can be hit and miss). So the perception is that the more expensive the school is, the better quality of education you get and the better opportunities you will have in the future. And of course the schools can be selective with entrance exams. I wouldn’t feel so bad about the UK system, although it’s not at all perfect. #satsesh

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