Grammar school places are won by children whose upbringing predisposes them to pass the 11+ or whose parents have paid for tutoring. Grammar schools existed when we needed a blue-collar/white collar work force. Passing the 11+ and keeping that achievement level going is exceptionally stressful for children who know that their parents have their hearts set on it.
I’m writing carefully for a particular audience. If you live in a selective area, you’ve got to make the best of it. I’m not getting at you, but the state should protect children from harm, and selection harms children. School places should be planned, not established on a whim. Free School sponsors should be able to demonstrate that any educational provision for which they clamour, to which a Free School is apparently the answer, serves the needs of the democracy, the common good. Greening’s bizarre assertion that selection can be casualty-free is from someone who hasn’t thought through what that means to the child who is not selected.Intelligence is not fixed at 11. The 11+ is a poor indicator of anything but family income. A child may be good at tests or too distracted for tests at 10 or 11 but that means precisely nothing about his or her chances in the future. Intelligence isn’t about to run out and challenging academic education does not have to be rationed. It’s not a zero-sum game unless the structures make it so.
This school is in Greenwich. We are fabulously comprehensive, educators for the world city. Over our southern borders lies selection. Sometimes our year 11s go to look at the grammar schools when they’re deciding about whether to stay on with us. Sometimes a child likely to get a hatful of top grades at GCSE tells us that they have definitely decided to go to one of the grammars. We tell them the facts: that they’ll do as well as or better here and that others in their position have come back, sharpish. They look embarrassed and tell us that their parents have their hearts set on it or ‘My community think this is best’. What would you say?
Grammar schools are a proxy for parental fear: so here’s what we’re talking about when we’re talking about grammar schools. ‘I don’t want my child’s education to be dragged down by slow, naughty or disrespectful children. I don’t want her to learn bad habits or fall in with the wrong crowd. I want him to make his choices within a limited range of options so he can’t make a mistake and end up on drugs and die young. I want him to get the kind of job that posh kids get. I want him to be happy.’ Of course you do, but hoping that your little one is a quick acquirer by the age of 10 and therefore insulated for life doesn’t make sense. It certainly doesn’t make for a stable, just and excellent education system for everyone’s little one.
Parents’ fear is rooted in another zero-sum myth: comprehensive schools are all terrible so we need to replace them with grammar schools for 20% of children because there isn’t enough good education to go around. But comprehensive schools are not all terrible. Very few of them are terrible. Some grammar schools are terrible. Most comprehensive schools are very good and loads of them are absolutely fantastic. The postcode selection trope trotted out by the PM - that good comprehensives only exist in rich areas – is just not true. London proves that, as HMCI (a man incapable of telling it other than it is) has trenchantly said. Tosh and nonsense indeed.
This isn’t policy, but education as nostalgia, a dog-whistle to a bygone era of class distinction and limited mobility. Even David Cameron called it ‘splashing around in the shallow end of educational debate’. It’s part of the anti-intellectualism of the Conservative government, where anyone on top of the facts, from sugar to Europe, is disregarded as an expert. It is the stuff of despair.
When our sixth form leave us we tell them to be kind to people at university who haven’t had their advantages, whose parental choice of school for them has made them uncertain about people from different backgrounds. We tell our young people to share their ease and confidence so that the gifts of a comprehensive education are shared with those whom privilege has restricted.
We do this because comprehensive education is an honourable and visionary undertaking every bit as important as the NHS. It preserves the fabric of our democracy and gives us all the chance to lay the foundations for a model society. These great schools work brilliantly for all our children. Parents love them and communities thrive. We have everything to lose as a nation if they are destroyed. We should rise up as one against this shallow, cynical, divisive, wicked and ignorant project.
We should never judge children by their qualifications. We need to get out of this mess.