Today, I read a fascinating exchange of ideas between Heather Fearn and Katharine Birbalsingh regarding grammar schools. It was refreshing to hear an alternative point of view to the usual one peddled about grammars: namely that they are full of middle class children and that they adversely affect the other children in the area by turning local comprehensives into secondary moderns.
Don’t get me wrong, I have much sympathy for that viewpoint and in fact, have first-hand experience of the predicament it describes. My stepson grew up in Kent and failed his 11-plus by a whisker. Had he had access to tutoring and the right kind of academic support at home, as is commonly the case in well healed middle class families, he would most likely have passed. However, instead of going to the grammar, he found himself enrolled at the local high school, where his academic output plummeted. He obtained a fairly dismal set of GCSEs and soon dropped out of sixth form to become a NEET (a young person “Not in Education, Employment, or Training”). He did eventually enrol at a college and got an engineering diploma, and is now gainfully employed, but it took him a while to find his feet and arguably, his job prospects and income have been negatively impacted.
So no, I am not an advocate for more grammar schools. However, I can understand why so many parents are desperate for their children to get into them. If I lived near enough to one, it’s quite possible that I would be too. This is why I find myself conflicted on the matter. On the one hand, I can see the negative impact they can have on communities. On the other, I can see that for the lucky few, they offer fantastic opportunities for a great education. In an ideal world, a great education would be within everybody’s grasp but this has yet to be achieved in over a century of public education and frankly, I suspect such a utopia is unlikely to ever be reached. Short of achieving educational nirvana, just what is it realistic to aspire to?
As Heather Fearn rightly points out, there are winners and losers in all the scenarios. We have already seen how socially disadvantaged children lose out from the “secondary modern effect” of having grammar schools in their locality but, in the absence of grammars, there is also another set of losers: those academically gifted children who are held back from achieving their true potential in comprehensives. Despite some notable exceptions, most comprehensives just don’t manage to develop enough of a critical mass to be strongly academic institutions. Whilst I think it is possible to talk about significantly raising standards in comprehensives, I doubt it is realistic to raise it, across a majority of schools in the country, to that high academic standard achieved in some grammars and independent schools. In order to do this, you would need to have high calibre teachers and leaders in all these schools, but there is a finite supply of such people.
Let’s take a look at the remarkable Michaela school, led by Katharine Birbalsingh. It is a non-selective school with a high percentage of children on free school meals, an indicator of social disadvantage. I have not yet had a chance to visit, but by all accounts, the school is a hotbed of academic excellence. It shows what can be achieved, without selection, when the right ethos is in place. When asked if the Michaela system could be replicated in other schools across the country, Ms Birbalsingh has emphatically stated that it could. Here, I would respectfully disagree with her.
There is a lot that can be learned from Michaela school, and I know that many teachers and leaders who have visited it have been inspired to make changes at their own schools. However, I don’t think it’s feasible to envisage a large proliferation of schools achieving Michaela’s standard. In many ways, Michaela is unique. Its leadership has an almost revolutionary zeal and that level of commitment and motivation is rare to find. The school has recruited a great many Oxbridge and Teach First graduates. Let’s put it this way. If you are academically average, you are unlikely to be employed as a teacher at Michaela. The problem is that there are just not enough of these academic A-listers to staff all the schools around the country and thus I would very much doubt that you could get a critical mass of high achieving schools like Michaela. At best, you would get clusters of excellence here and there, but not across the board.
Inevitably then, you will get winners and losers. And wherever there is an excellent school, be it a grammar or other type of school, you will find ambitious middle class parents muscling their way in. So what should we do? For starters, let’s stop trying to approach education through the prism of social mobility. Let’s just try to raise standards for all children, whether they go on to become lawyers or road sweepers. While not all comprehensives can reach the dizzy heights of top grammars, let’s raise the bar so that they don’t lag so far behind. Tackle behaviour, improve literacy, develop a rich curriculum.
At the same time, let’s accept that there is space for a variety of different options to be on offer, whether it’s faith schools, free schools or even grammars. What’s important is that such schools do not dominate an area. So for instance, if you were to have a grammar school in one area, you shouldn’t be able to open another one nearby or even within an x mile radius. Very bright, academic children, should have the opportunity to attend highly academic institutions, whether they are middle class or not (and I don’t think that middle class children are any less worthy). Surely that can be done without blighting the opportunities of other children.