Category Archives: Grammar Schools

For Theresa May: On Grammar Schools and Private Education

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I offer the following as a ‘what if?’ A little train of thought to add to the grammar schools debate currently raging through the veins of the educational world. I offer it to Theresa May as I think it solves many of her problems with the policy as currently envisaged, however it also opens up a whole lot of new ones…

Our most famous schools have been around for centuries, some are fictional like Hogwarts others exist in collective folklore like Rugby with William Webb Ellis and Tom Brown. Whether you like them or not the famous independent schools and not so famous ones have a culture that is recognisable throughout the world.

Our Independent schools, also famously, seem to provide a vast number of recruits to the ‘top jobs’ in the UK. Whilst educating a meagre 7% of the population these schools provide 71% of the top military officers, 74% of high court judges, 51% of ‘print’ journalists, 32% of MPs, 61% of ‘top’ doctors, the list goes on… as the chair of the Sutton Trust, Sir Peter Lampl puts it:

Our research shows that your chances of reaching the top in so many areas of British life are very much greater if you went to an independent school… The key to improving social mobility at the top is to open up independent schools to all pupils based on merit not money … as well as support for highly able students in state schools.

For Theresa May looking at setting up more grammar schools this might offer an interesting quandary, if we are to take her at her word that she wants the UK to be “the great meritocracy of the world,” does she intend to ignore the great bastions of paid for privilege that the Independent sector undoubtedly is?  Over the past 25 years fees in this sector have increased by 553% meaning that those who once felt able to pay for this type of education have effectively been priced out. Therefore those who attend these schools are more likely to be ultra privileged than those in the past and an increasing number are from abroad, including the sons and daughters of Chinese and Russian oligarchs. Is this tolerable in May’s great meritocracy of the world?

At the 1953 Labour Conference Hugh Gaitskell pointed out that having 4 to 5% of Independent School places free would bring scant rewards, instead he proposed 50% of the places should be free; maybe this is something Theresa could consider, in fact she could go one step further and instead of imposing grammar schools onto the public sector, she could in one fell swoop prove that she means it when she states that the UK should be the world’s great meritocracy by turning our private Independent schools into her beloved state grammar schools.

This extremely radical move would be a highly interesting one for it would succeed in addressing a central point of her speech on grammar schools that the country wants change. And her Government is going to deliver it:

Everything we do will be driven, not by the interests of the privileged few. Not by those with the loudest voices, the special interests, the greatest wealth or the access to influence. This Government’s priorities are those of ordinary, working class people…  

above all they want to believe that if they uphold their end of the deal – they do the right thing, they work hard, they pay their taxes – then tomorrow will be better than today and their children will have a fair chance in life, the chance to go as far as their talents will take them…  

I want Britain to be a place where advantage is based on merit not privilege; where it is your talent and hard work that matter not where you were born, who your parents are or what your accent sounds like.

Let us not underestimate what it will take to create that great meritocracy. It means taking on some big challenges, tackling some vested interests. Overcoming barriers that have been constructed over many years… there is no more important place to start than education… at the moment the school system works if you’re well off and can buy your way into the school you want, and it provides extra help and support if you’re from a disadvantaged family… I want to encourage more people, schools and institutions with something to offer to come forward and help… 

I want to encourage some of our biggest independent schools to bring their knowledge, expertise and resources to bear to help improve the quality and capacity of schools for those who cannot afford to pay.

This is entirely in keeping with the ethos that lies at the heart of many of these institutions. Most of the major public schools started out as the route by which poor boys could reach the professions. The nature of their intake may have changed today – indeed these schools have become more and more divorced from normal life. 

These are great schools with a lot to offer and I certainly don’t believe you solve the divide between the rich and the rest by abolishing or demolishing them. You do it by extending their reach and asking them to do more as a condition of their privileged position to help all children.  

If working class children find themselves, on merit, being educated in our ‘top’ schools instead of the wealthy then that would be a sign that Theresa May was being serious. If ‘extending the reach’ of the Independent sector meant that they stop just educating people of wealth with a small number of bursaries and assisted places for poorer children, she could go the full Gaitskell and ask that they educate the children of ‘ordinary working parents’ by merit through opening up 50% of their places or she could go the whole hog and do a double Gaitskell and in one fell swoop abolish fee paying in the independent sector and bring them fully into the state sector as Independent Grammar Schools with the full rights for self governance that academies currently have.

This would mean that Theresa can have her cake and eat it, it would show that she is  serious about creating a meritocracy in which: “advantage is based on merit not privilege,” whilst at the same time disarming many of those who are arguing against her green paper. How many on the left would need to pause to contemplate the ramifications of such a policy before they argued against her abolishing private education?

Now, I don’t pretend that there are no problems with this scenario, for a start many involved in the independent sector might object but if the Government promised to pay the same for each child that these schools currently receive it might go some way to alleviate these concerns, though I have no idea how much it would impact on the Government’s coffers. There is talk that some private schools would welcome the possibility of becoming a state grammar school but there would be an ideological problem if all schools had to operate under the auspices of the State. Other objections might be along the lines of those that currently bedevil this debate, how would the children be selected, is there such a thing as a ‘tutor-proof test’, should we have a segregated education system at all? None of my proposals here address these very real concerns and objections, though neither would keeping things as they are.

 

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Theresa May Went to my School

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In her foreword to the book School Songs and Gymslips Theresa May née Brasier wrote:

I went to Holton Park Grammar School in the 1970s and during my time there it changed from a girl’s grammar school to a co-educational comprehensive…

By the time I arrived, in 1975, Theresa May was at Oxford University and the school was now called, ‘Wheatley Park Comprehensive’. I started in the second year (year 8) at the old Secondary Modern site of the Shotover School in Wheatley, which had merged with the grammar in 1971. Later, as a fourth year, I moved to what was known as the Upper Site, mainly in the new build near the entrance of the school and some nissen huts from an old US military hospital in the grounds of Holton Park. There was a moat and a manor house, where the old grammar school had been based (pictured above). For a comprehensive school the grounds were abundant, on both sites, we could run and hide and run and hide we did.

In her book about Holton Park Girls, Marilyn Yurdan, wrote that a 1955 report made by the Ministry of Education described:

…the catchment area from which the pupils came from as ‘a sparsely populated rural area’ extending a dozen or so miles to the foot of the Chilterns and about 4 miles to the north and west. Pupils came from about twenty-five different primary schools. Over 80% came to school by bus, the furthest away having a journey of more than 14 miles…

The report also made the following salient point:

‘The area does not produce a large number of pupils of Grammar School calibre… if the school is to remain full it is necessary to admit a proportion of girls with relatively little academic ability’.

Not all grammar schools cream off the creme de la creme!

By the time I arrived twenty years later the school was in chaos. The Headteacher and senior leaders from the grammar school had remained in charge and the teaching for the top sets was mainly done by old grammar school staff. That we all were being brought up in an area in which there were few of grammar school calibre makes one wonder what it is about rural peasant stock that even a comprehensive school couldn’t sort out. Little aspiration, little hope, we certainly didn’t dream of the spires of Oxford that were just along the A40. Theresa would have been protected from the chaos due to her being educated away from the oiks, across the moat in the old manor, with the same staff and grammar school mores she had become used to. As the school was full of children of ‘little academic ability’ she had also seen herself rise meteorically, being moved up a year and was therefore untainted by the ‘comprehensivisation’.

In Robert Peal’s book Progressively Worse the period 1969-1979 is given the subtitle ‘Riot’, and a more suitable word I cannot think of. That the riot was fed by a huge amount of apathy on both pupils and teachers behalf might give you a feel for how it came across. Anarchy today? Nah, just a bit of passive resistance; the next day motorbikes in the school corridor and a teacher’s car turned over onto its roof. Discipline was attempted by some stronger Secondary Modern teachers, the cane, the ruler, the slipper, the detention and lines and a scary deputy head who was entrenched in the Lower School.

We were streamed and in sets and in the top sets copying out of books and/or copying off boards, was the order of the day. An over reliance on text books or worksheets or reading Macbeth out loud in class for weeks on end might have worked for the girls of Holton Park with “little academic ability” but for us many boys full of hormones and 1970’s angst it really didn’t nor did it work for many of the new girls, hormones and angst would have been a good name for a punk band; a few of my friends did reasonably well is one thing, knowing how much more they could’ve done is another.

A new teacher arrived and he gave us a vote as to whether we should call him sir or by his first name ‘Alan’, we voted to call him ‘sir’… He was the most progressive teacher I can remember and he taught us in rows… but he wrote a musical and I was in it, and we were in the national press, this got me interested in theatre which I will always thank him for… but my overriding memory of school is one of never working very hard, hardly ever being stretched and, having moved from bottom sets to top sets in languages and Maths after a term or two of starting the school, with no catch up lessons, I spent those lessons being totally confused as to what was going on.

It wasn’t progressive teaching that did for me, it was bad teaching, ill thought through curricula, bad or irregular discipline and very low expectations. I wonder how much grammar school education got away with being poor due to a placid intake? There was a malaise on behalf of the teachers and also a lack of ambition in us rural types. The problem was lazy traditionalism: talk and chalk, text book, copy, sometimes marked with a tick, a C+ and a ‘good’. Even if this had been allied with good discipline it would have failed many of us.

Many of those around education who might look back on their school days as hours of boredom, might wish for edutainment approaches but thinking children should all be taught in groups via discovery learning techniques or being educated through ‘Minecraft’ or Pokémon Go does not address the issue. I can see how some teachers have ended up putting an emphasis on the need to motivate and engage pupils, especially boys, and why they sometimes talk about texts not being for ‘our kids’ but none of these things allay the problem of poor teaching.

What I was crying out for was great texts, high expectations, teachers responding to my confusion, knowing what I didn’t know and explaining it to me. I was crying out for great classroom dialogue, stretching me, questioning me, not ignoring me… My cheekiness was probably a cry of “Help! Educate me please!!” Looking back over my exercise books what strikes me is how empty they were, as was my mind, and even the hours of copying from the board resulted in little being copied down, because in the most tedious of lessons we rioted. If only there had been an expectation of us useless idiots producing some great quality work, then more of us might have done!

As for Theresa, the Wheatley Vicar’s daughter, she certainly got out in time but I suspect even for her the secondary school could have done so much more and I wonder if she had attended a better school whether she would have got a better degree than a second class honours at Oxford.

 

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