The flipside of grammars is most children failingby Alan Johnson / September 8, 2016 / Leave a comment
Read more: The London schools revolution
Theresa May spoke encouragingly about the deep inequality that still pervades our society as she launched what proved to be an unnecessary leadership campaign. As Prime Minister she’s taken the rhetoric a stage further, announcing a government audit, whatever that may be. But incongruously—and in my view, incredibly—she has told her MPs that, as part of this agenda, that she wants to see a re-birth of the grammar school.
Given the weight of evidence demonstrating the damage done by selective education, it’s rather like a new Health Secretary announcing that the NHS must go back to applying leeches. The proportion of poor children in grammars is vanishingly small; several English counties that retain selection have an especially marked class gap in GCSEs; and, the OECD’s number crunchers have looked round the world and concluded that early selection retards social mobility.
Nobody has put the argument more succinctly than May’s former colleague, David Willetts, when he said that grammar schools don’t spread advantage they entrench it. Willetts made that comment as my Conservative shadow when I was Education Secretary. David Cameron, his party leader, accused Willetts’s critics following the speech of “splashing around in the shallow end of the education debate.” But our new PM can get away with paddling in the same old pool because of the abiding myth that grammars rescued poor working-class kids, by offering a route out of deprivation.
Education itself will always provide a path to a better life and there are grammar school kids from poor backgrounds who are undoubtedly genuine in their conviction that the 11+ gave them a leg up which could help others today. But I’m not one of them.
It’s not just because I failed to exploit the advantage of attending Sloane Grammar School in Chelsea. I left aged 15 years and two months without a single qualification—yet I absolve Sloane from any responsibility for my indolence. My argument against selective education is that it wastes more talent than it nurtures; destroys more potential than it realises; ruins more young lives than it enhances.
There were two aspects to my motivation to pass the 11-plus. One was how much I wanted to please my mother, who’d passed her scholarship but been denied the school place she’d worked for because her father refused to pay for the uniform. She stressed the importance of passing the exam time and again to me and my older sister and we both basked in her pride when we did. However, my main motivation was the fear and dread instilled in me by the very thought of attending Isaac Newton Secondary Modern School for Boys at the rough end (our end) of the Portobello Road. Such was the reputation of this poorly funded, blackboard jungle that even Mr Gemmill, my headmaster at Bevington primary would use the threat of ending up there as a motivational tool.
For a small percentage of his tiny charges it worked. We passed. But this didn’t necessarily mean we’d go to a grammar school. Peter Hayward, my bright, bespectacled classmate, suffered the same fate as my mother. His parents wouldn’t pay for the expensive grammar school uniform and he trooped off unhappily to Isaac Newton.
Because I was on free school meals my mother received financial help to purchase the uniform, but first we had to find a grammar school that would accept me. Having applied and failed at the ones closest to where we lived in West London it suddenly dawned on my determined mother that when we went for an interview it was to allow the school to assess whether we were suitable for them, not if they were suitable for me.
Many youngsters who passed the 11-plus went to secondary moderns because they couldn’t find a grammar that would take them. But the worst thing about that brutal exam was that the result condemned 80 per cent of kids to a second-rate education. Children much brighter than me, who had thrived in the comprehensive education of Bevington fluffed one exam and carried the burden of failure for the rest of their lives.
I brought up three children on a council estate in Slough, where as a hangover from its Buckinghamshire past, selective education survives. I saw the traumatic and lasting effect that failing the 11-plus had on one of my own kids.
I’d describe what May is considering, not as the return of the grammar but as the restoration of the Secondary Modern and all the misery and waste of potential that goes with them. If she’s genuine about tackling inequality she’ll put away the leeches and concentrate on what works educationally, not just for kids from poorer backgrounds but for all our children.