It’s the 11-plus that should be the real bogeyman, not grammar schools

Grammar schools are in large part very good, argues one education writer in Tes. So why can’t we find a home for them in an eclectic, diverse school system?

Why are people so afraid of grammar schools? I mean, they’re just buildings after all. When we put those alcoholic chuckle brothers, Blair and Brown in charge of the bar, we seemed perfectly happy when they gave us lots of new buildings, before leaving the PFI tab for us to pick up. What’s so frightening about a building that, even before Damian Hinds had time to plant his brogues up on the ministry coffee table, voices were being raised, warning him against any attempt to even think about new grammar schools?

One reason, of course, is that teachers know schools are so much more than a building. They are also much more than the sum total of their exam results, but some organisations seem to have forgotten that, too.

If you look into this a bit deeper and read what anti-grammar school lobbyists have to say when they’re busy lobbying, what you find is it isn’t really the grammar schools they hate. The most vociferous clearly have little knowledge or any experience of them. They condemn from a very distant kind of ivory tower: made from recyclable plastic but almost identical to the real thing.

No, it’s the 11-plus that’s their real bogeyman. The idea you can separate children at eleven on the basis of a single test, for which only some will have been carefully prepared – and cart them off to two very different types of schools for the rest of their education – appeals to very few reasonable adults today.

Is it so beyond our combined wit to conceive of a local landscape of secondary schools that includes comprehensive schools, secondary moderns, academies, UTCs, studio schools, free schools and maybe even a grammar school, but which doesn’t run a school admissions policy that uses a single exam aged eleven, to determine the fate of every single child in that local area?

Or are grammar schools just so superior, so good at educating the children they accept, that every single parent, in every single area of the country, given a choice, would choose them? Because if that is the case, then what we’re dealing with from defenders of the comprehensive school really is, nothing more dignified than envy.

Read the full article It’s the 11-plus that should be the real bogeyman, not grammar schools

Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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  1. Graham Nutbrown

    Looking through the writer’s TES back catalogue, he appears to have some interesting themes, but this article is unpersuasive. He says grammar schools are good schools and parents want their children to go to them. If we knew for sure what a good school is, wouldn’t we want all schools to be good schools, not just one or two in each area? He is thinking, perhaps, that grammar schools are good for children who can most benefit from a challenging academic education, that good schools are good if they cater well for children of particular kinds and capacities? If this is what he believes, it is surely undermined by his opposition to selection exams at eleven on the grounds that children’s academic abilities and interests have settled at that age. Anyone who has taught in a comprehensive school knows that students can flourish academically, and in other ways, at any point in their educational careers. As long as there are grammar schools in an area for parents to aspire to for their children, schools for the majority will be deemed second best. The writer could respond that preferences and differences in reputation are inevitable in any system, but at least in a fully comprehensive system reputations can wax and wain; where grammar schools exist they are fixed permanently at the top of the hierarchy, They provide places overwhelmingly for children who have had social advantages, and children from disadvantaged backgrounds who are admitted tend to do relatively badly because the curriculum and pedagogy is inflexible. Yet these are said to be good schools. Whatever comprehensive schools are called – and the point in the article about nomenclature, like the point about envy, is just daft – they are the schools that give every child a chance to flourish, given, of course, that they are good comprehensives. You cannot have secondary moderns, comprehensives and grammar schools coexisting: they are incompatible. Comprehensives must be mixed ability. We know this and we should not unlearn it. Instead, let’s once and for all focus attention on making all secondary schools comprehensive and good for all children. Precisely because we don’t have a magic formula for what good school should be like, we should allow schools to experiment and be diverse, as long as they do not select children, at any point, by ability. To use the writer’s own rhetoric, is it so beyond our combined wit to conceive of a local landscape where every school is a comprehensive school that provides a good education for all children? Perhaps the only unrealistic assumption here is that all parents will be willing to relinquish the opportunity to socially segregate their sons and daughters.

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