“We put so much pressure on children”: BBC2’s new documentary examines the grammar school debate

It might be the most moving real-life scene you’ll see on TV this year, the moment a disbelieving ten-year-old in south-east London learns from their mum that they’ve failed to get into the local grammar school. The child, one of four that are followed in a new BBC2 three-part series, doesn’t believe it at first and their mother has to repeat the words “you didn’t pass”, before the bad news fully registers. The Radio Times reports.

Desmond Deehan describes the child’s experience as “a harrowing emotional journey”. And he should know. Deehan is headteacher of the school in question, Townley Grammar, in the south London borough of Bexley. “The most heart-rending part of it,” he says, as we meet in his office, “is the parental and adult pressure put on young people. Nowhere in anything that we do, or any grammar school I know, is there any mention of pass or fail.”

The claim doesn’t sit well with the woman who’s also here at RT’s invitation. Beth Mckenzie is headteacher at Upland Primary School, where the four prospective grammar school students – Joanita, Summer, Philip and Roman – begin year six by taking the 11-plus. From her point of view, pupils do see an unsuccessful exam day performance as a failure, and she has to pick up the pieces.

Deehan believes in seeking out children with potential – “talent-spotting” is how he describes it in the programme. Mckenzie is focused on the psychological effects of a potentially traumatic encounter with success or failure so early in a child’s life: “We put so much pressure on children. Socially, and in education, they’re experiencing pressure like they never have before. I worry for this generation – what type of adults we are actually going to have. I think mental health is going to be a huge issue.”

There are other iniquities in the system, Mckenzie suggests. Children who aren’ t selected for grammar school are further disadvantaged when the pupils who are chosen are then withdrawn from general education. “Those children should have the exposure of having the most able around them in the class,” she says. “That’s why we don’t stream for many subjects at primary level, because we want our children to learn from the others. In English, we’d never stream, because being in a classroom when you’re hearing vocabulary from your peers is going to be far more powerful than hearing your teacher delivering that.”

Matters are further complicated for primary school head Mckenzie by the fact that her own daughter, presently at Upland, will be taking the 11-plus. “She’ll do it, because this is a selective borough,” says Mckenzie. “And if she passes, she’ll choose where she will go. Not me.”

Read the full interview “We put so much pressure on children”: BBC2’s new documentary examines the grammar school debate

Will you be watching? Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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Categories: Exams, Grammar Schools, Mental Health, Primary and Secondary.

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