I have been a lifelong advocate of comprehensive education simply for the reasons that if we are to create a country that recognises itself in times of crisis we need a common experience of having been educated well together. Relationship is what is threatened most fundamentally in the current crisis about the departure of our country from the EU, as the tribal, relationships-don’t-matter-providing-we-get-our-way approach oozes like slime to the front of our photograph. Local schools, providing good education from very competent, well-trained and highly-esteemed teachers, as Melissa Benn and Fiona Millar have long argued, is the strongest educational service we could provide to our communities.

The trouble is that we have not been educated well together. I was educated privately, for reasons more of parental convenience and military tradition than anything else, and am both richly grateful for all it gave me (especially to my amazing prep school, chosen randomly by virtue of it being less than 20 miles from Gatwick airport) and highly aware of what I did not gain as a result, in terms of a social awareness of Britain as a nation.

Last week there has been an HEPI publication claiming that grammar schools contribute to improved social mobility, when all the evidence over the last 20 years has been that they do nothing of the sort. This evidence ranges from reports to blogs, often from organisations that might be tempted to agree with the HEPI report. This recent report has been tackled in a range of forums, all keen to indicate that it is the poor use of social mobility data that has led to the HEPI making what is a fundamentally erroneous claim. Two responses from UCL will suffice to give an idea, one from Lindsey Macmillan and the other from Becky Allen, of where the HEPI report has gone astray, both for reasons of statistical interpretation and for reasons to do with the stance you take with regard to the overall debate. Macmillan deals effectively with the former and Allen with the latter. Both make excellent points about the way that we need to engage with the debate about grammar schools and social mobility and between them cover the wide range of factors we need to take into account before we can even have a voice in the bearpit.

Other high-achieving countries (I pretend for a moment that we are one) do not tend to carve out, on the scale we do, large chunks of wealthier and highly-achieving children and send them to private schools or to grammar schools. That we would expect the rump of the school population to do as well as those airlifted out of it on academic merit or wealth is a myth that resides more comfortably with ministers who have already done the airlifting for their own children.

But let us look at this anecdotally for a moment, because it illuminates something that is the opposite of my own experience, which was highly privileged:

A good friend of mine, from a situation of substantial economic stress, had the chance in the 1970s to write the 11+ tests and succeeded. This friend was not tutored, but had the opportunity in primary school to do the test. It was a route out of a complex home situation and it was in many respects, a salvation. My friend became a scholar, learnt languages, including Latin, that empowered them. Hard work and focused study in the sciences meant they were the first of their family to go to Oxford University as a result, completing two degrees there. However, around the time of O-levels, the local education authority responded to the Callaghan government’s decision to phase out the tripartite system that had pertained since the war, and as a result the last two to three years were extremely difficult, the school site being more overcrowded and the quality of education dropping like a stone because of the low expectations of the teachers from the school with whom the grammar school was being forced to merge. However, the grammar school ethos had stuck with my friend and they succeeded.

This was a grammar school that, without question, in the local area where my friend studied, raised the educational expectations of children and thus contributed to social mobility for those children. Obviously there would have been children who did not make it through the 11+ test and there would therefore have been a consequent negative impact on the social mobility of those children. They would have gone to secondary modern or technical schools deprived of the academic energy of the most able. That is a key argument in addressing the rushed conclusions of the HEPI report. However, for my friend, it was completely lifechanging. Completely. Nothing else in their background or experience came close to having this impact on my friend’s own expectations, self-regard and eventual academic success.

A couple of points that arise from my musings on this:

  • The only possible way we could claim that grammar school selection was fair was if we tested all children, as we did in the early 1970s. Despite the huge imbalances between local authorities that made it difficult to sustain an equality of grammar school provision across the country, and they were very real and politically charged at the time, we could not have a system that was even close to being fair without that. There are many arguments against this view point, but we have to start here, or somewhere close to it.
  • Given that grammar schools contribute massively now to social inequality, with those with better economic means able to position themselves better with regard to improving their children’s chances of success, we have to see grammar schools, no matter what their educational power, as essentially helping enlarge the divide between rich and poor in this country.
  • The class divide is, without question, exacerbated by the existence of both private education and grammar school education. It is not what happens in these schools that exacerbates the problem, it is the very fact of their existence, the opportunity that they represent. And yet, certainly, some of the best things that are happening educationally in our country are happening in those very places. This is the cause of envy (or mockery) by those who cannot attain to them, or of longing from those in other (often commonwealth) countries who try and get their children here. The result of this envy/mockery/longing has been to make our country less cohesive and less tolerant of each other’s perspectives. The benefits gained through the education provided by selective schooling have always been outweighed elsewhere.
  • None of this would matter one jot if we as a country honoured and respected our teachers, trusted and collaborated with them, and thus ensured that we placed high-quality teachers, trained thoroughly and over time as an investment in our national and communal future, into every classroom. At the moment, we do none of these things, or not in sufficient numbers. Everything that has been done since 2010 has been done in the attempt to replicate the class-dividing aspects of education, in general contempt of the poor and in thrall to a view of progress and success that will simply not work for everybody, because we are not made that way. We need to study, hard, how other nations have avoided this.
  • Thus grammar schools are now a symptom – an honourable one, to be sure, at the start of their existence – of a widely held contempt of the poor that has been one of the hallmarks of the British ruling classes for some time. That they exist is not their fault, and the debate about them will continue long into the future, but as a social construct, it is hard to see past their negative impact increasing.
  • A grammar school education – that kind of strong academic education, with high expectations, strongly resourced, with highly-skilled, well-educated and outstandingly-trained teachers – that is much closer to what we need, and I agree with Benn and Millar when they say that we can have one of those in every school in every community, if we just put our mind, and our money, to it.
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About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher by profession, now working as an educational researcher, in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011. My work looks to make education effective for the whole child and keeps a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, amateur printmaker, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for children. The views on this blog are all my own.

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