Grammar Schools and Selection

Grammar Schools and Selection.


How damaging is this process of selection on the aspirations of so many children? I can only cite from personal experience.

I took this divisive test and failed.

The scientific evidence of grammar schools is that they make no difference to the achievement of the high flyers but do have an impact on those who fail. It lowers their horizons. I can confirm that.

Separating out the top 10%-15% into one school and leaving the rest floundering in their wake as failures firstly creates a self-prophesizing attitude in all, secondly a divisive attitude of failures and winners and thirdly a series of schools that now lack a top end to lead and aspire.

At the age of ten years old I sat a test that altered the trajectory of my life and still has an impact on me 59 years later.

Back in 1960 I sat my eleven plus. My family were thrown into a spin of anxiety. They were horrified by the thought that I might fail. The local Secondary Modern had a reputation of being a battlefield. The tales of disruption, bad behaviour and bullying were notorious. The tales of people having their heads stuffed down toilets and their genitals painted with shoe polish were rife. Nobody achieved from that place yet 85% of students were condemned to go to such places.

I went to a small school. There were only four of us taking the eleven plus. My school did not have a regime of testing. I had never seen an exam paper or practiced any questions. I was told to take my time, read the question thoroughly and think about it.

On the day of the exam I had to go to a neighbouring school to sit the exam. It added to the tension. It was a foggy day. Everything felt strange and terrifying.

I was told to write in pencil because the ink might fade. I had a mental image of all my answers disappearing.

I started the exam and methodically began answering the questions. All too soon it was over and I hadn’t nearly finished the paper.

On results day our Headmistress came in to announce the results. Ann had passed, Billy and I had interviews and Liz had failed. Ann was told to go home and tell the good news to her mother. The three of us were ignored. Somehow we picked up the message that we had let the school down.

The interview came. It took place in the Headmistress’s front living room. That was normally completely off limits and a terrifying place to start with. I was ushered in. There was a wooden chair in the middle of the room and a panel of three solemn adults with notepads. They sat apart so that you could only look at one at a time while the other two studied you from the side. It was extremely intimidating.

Billy passed and I failed.

Through a series of flukes I managed to get a place at a bilateral school. It had two Grammar streams, two non-Grammar streams and a middle stream that followed a Grammar education. Because of my high IQ score I was placed in that intermediary. It provided me with a Grammar curriculum but it was an extremely difficult class with much bad behaviour from the students. In hindsight I can see that a number of the students in the class were clever but came from disturbed backgrounds.

Somehow I managed to get seven O Levels without doing much in the way of work. The only two subjects I failed were French and Latin.

But that experience coloured the whole of my life. It was not the start that anybody would have chosen.

The 11+ and selection are a terrible ordeal to put children through. It shadows their psychological development, career prospects and educational achievement. It is a terrible to label someone at eleven years old as a failure. The 11+ does that to over 80% of our children.

Defenders of the Grammar system say that it enables the brightest to extend themselves. This is not seen to be the case. They achieve no more than they would have done in a comprehensive system. The others produce less well.

What happens with a Grammar system is that the Grammar schools siphon up the best teachers. They have fewer behaviour problems or special educational needs than the secondary moderns and so an easier teaching experience. The Secondary Moderns become a nightmare. They cannot attract in quality staff. There are far fewer high flying students to act as role models. The behaviour problems are not diluted down. Aspirations of students are low. The fallacy of less academic kids being good with their hands is exposed as a lie (some bright kids and some less bright kids are good with their hands – some aren’t good at anything).

Comprehensive education can provide a range of subjects, experiences and skills. People learn to get along with all types of people. There is high aspiration and many of the brighter kids help the others. The academic achievement of the top end is the same but they have the benefit of interacting with a wider range of people. The achievement of the middle and lower groups is higher. Behaviour is far better than in Secondary Moderns.

I taught in and was Headteacher of a Comprehensive school. No child left our school without basic qualifications and every year we had a batch go through to Oxbridge. The aim was to ensure that every student reached their potential.

Education shouldn’t be about winners and losers. Every child is equally important. They all deserve a future.

7 thoughts on “Grammar Schools and Selection

    1. Hi Christine, good to hear from you. This used to be the process but it was largely done away with and replaced by a Comprehensive system. There were just certain regions where the old 11+ still took place. Some parents, particularly middle class parents who can have their children given private tuition to get them through, like it. This Tory government is trying to bring it back.

  1. A thoughtful and very interesting post, Opher. Testing is hated by all teachers (and children) because it really isn’t accurate, nor fair. I want to move to Finland. They get it right.

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