Education, education, education

Through no fault of their own, both my parents did badly out of the education system, and were forced to leave school at a young age with no qualifications. In my dad’s case, it was down to poverty and the pressure on him to earn a wage as soon as possible. In my mum’s case, the desertion of one parent and death of another forced her to care for her younger siblings. They both managed a modest amount of success in life, but it came at a price – they had to work long hours in low-paid, menial jobs, and never had much financial security.

They wanted better for me, and went to great lengths to ensure I got a decent education. My sister’s schooldays were bit of a disaster – she got into a lot of trouble. Only later did it become clear that this was down to some brewing catastrophic mental health problems – at the time, my rather conservative-minded parents were convinced it was down to the evils of comprehensive education, which seemed to be awash with dangerous liberal thinking they were rather suspicious of.

Therefore, I don’t think it was a coincidence that we ended up living in an area that retained grammar schools, just before I was due to make the jump to secondary school. For those of you unfamiliar with education in England, I’ll give you a quick primer – you attend primary school up to age 11, and then secondary school from 11 to 18. In most parts of the country, secondary schools are comprehensive or non-selective – i.e. the school does not exclude on academic ability, and anyone can attend. There may be sets or streams for different abilities within the school, but generally pupils will mix with a wide range of different people. A few areas, including Kingston where I grew up, retain selective education – you take an exam in your final year at primary school, referred to as the 11 Plus, and if you achieve a suitably high mark, you can attend a grammar school, where the education is demanding and traditionally academic. If you don’t do well enough, you go to a Secondary Modern, which offers a more vocational range of classes for the supposedly less academic pupil.

It’s fair to say that the standard of education in this country is decidedly mixed, but I’d say it’s generally very good. Anyway, after my parents nearly bankrupted themselves getting me extra tuition for the exam, I passed my 11 Plus and started at Tiffin School in Kingston in September 1985.

I was constantly told how lucky I was to be there. How so few were able to take advantage of its excellence. How I was one of the privileged who would go on to great things.

People on the right in this country love grammar schools – they view them as beacons of social mobility, providing access to high-quality education for the deserving bright poor kids who wouldn’t be able to afford private education, and enabling the less able to go to a school tailored for them, where they can learn skills best suited to their abilities. They view comprehensive schools as cesspools of mediocrity, where the bright get dragged down and bullied by the thick, and where dangerous socialist ideas are practised, preventing the intelligent from reaching their potential. The only way to deal with this, they argue, is to separate off the cream of the crop at age eleven, giving the best a chance to succeed.

Within about a week, I realised that was complete and utter bullshit.

It was extremely obvious that a huge number of kids there were from very well-off backgrounds with parents wealthy enough to afford private education. I was one of the poorest kids there, and my dad had just bought himself a new BMW! The few kids from genuinely disadvantaged backgrounds stood out like sore thumbs and were immediately targetted for bullying – by teachers as well as kids. Anyone likely to get less-than-stellar GCSE results was barred from taking the exams at all, for fear of lowering the school’s league table position. One rather troubled kid in my class therefore left school at sixteen with absolutely nothing to show for it. Had he gone to a comp, he’d probably have got at least a couple of GCSE passes – he was bright enough to pass the 11 Plus, after all.

Everything about the school seemed deliberately designed to be as difficult, hostile, unpleasant, humiliating and uncomfortable as possible, with an arcane quasi-public-school culture that made no sense at all, and was fresh out of the Victorian era. The curriculum was very narrow, you were assumed to be brilliant at everything and were left to flounder if you weren’t, there was a ghastly competitive and brutal culture (it was an all-boys school), and the place was awash with ridiculous petty rules, enforced with sadistic zeal by staff who were borderline psychopaths. Only a few kids got much help or attention with anything – most of us just kept our heads down and tried to get through without being noticed too much. For a sensitive, bookish, non-sporty kid like me, it was a nightmare.

I got a decent crop of GCSEs, but screwed up my A-levels – that, however, was my own fault rather than the school’s. I’d say the only thing they got right with me was giving me exposure to a range of art and culture that I’d probably otherwise have ignored, but that was only in the sixth form, in the non-examined General Studies classes we had to take to fill up the timetable. The day I walked out the gates for the last time, in 1992, my overwhelming emotion was relief.

My wife went to a fairly typical suburban comprehensive school at the same time, and when we met, I was amazed at how enlightened her education was compared to mine. She had access to a much wider range of subjects, did just as well as me academically, and mixed with a wider range of people and was exposed to a wider range of opportunities and ideas.

The current government is keen to reintroduce grammar schools on a wider basis, and I was therefore very interested to read this article which very much reflects my own experience. It’s long been clear to me that grammar schools do absolutely nothing to enhance anyone’s life chances – even the people who get in – and make the educational outcomes for some people significantly worse – again, even for the ones who get in.

The quote in the article that really stood out for me was this one:

…there was no evidence that grammar school children were more engaged in their school work, more likely to expect to go to university or have superior English vocabulary skills than their non-grammar peers.

The only outcome with a marked difference was self-esteem, which actually proved to be worse among grammar school pupils. The authors posit that this may be a result of the “big fish, little pond” effect, whereby grammar school pupils’ confidence is dented by being among other high(er) achievers.

That is such a damning indictment of my own educational experience. My school used frequent, pointlessly difficult exams, with marks made extremely public, as a tool to try and get us to raise our game, but all it did for most of us was act as a huge discouragement, as the same few people came near the top again and again. I spent years feeling thick and stupid, despite having academic abilities way above average (as evidenced by my GCSE results).

It’s long struck me that support for grammar schools is very rarely altruistic, and is almost entirely selfish. There’s a nasty snobbish attitude about education out there, with many middle-class people convinced that comprehensive schools in less well-off areas are hotbeds of bullying. This rather patronising attitude equates to “being poor is equivalent to being an uncultured thug and possibly a criminal”, and is used to justify the existence of grammars as a cheap way of keeping your own precious offspring out of the way of the proles. Grammar schools are packed full of kids with parents who want to keep precious little Fenella and Tarquin away from council estate oiks. Never mind the fact that at my grammar school, bullying was rife and was openly tolerated by many staff, who thought it toughened kids up!

You also never hear people campaigning to bring back secondary modern schools, which always ended up being starved of resources and sentencing the kids who went to them to a mediocre education, because expectations of them were limited. Back in the days when grammars were widespread, only one in four kids left school with any qualifications at all. I can understand concerns about exams being too easy, but surely we shouldn’t be excluding vast swathes of kids from achieving anything at all! Do we really want to go back to that? In the past, there was plenty of industrial employment available which didn’t require any specific qualifications, but in the past fifty years or so, white collar employment has massively expanded, and you need qualifications for that.

Ultimately, grammars are bastions of privilege, and I’m a firm believer that state money should not be used to defend this. By all means send your kid to an elite school, but use your own bloody money to do it. As far as I’m concerned, state-funded education should be accessible to all on a non-discriminatory basis. Obviously, kids who need support to access education should get it – that’s a whole can of worms in itself – but otherwise, I feel it’s morally wrong for a state-funded school to exclude on ability, or treat some better than others based on an arbitrary test at one point in time. It’s been obvious for years that those with more money can pay for kids to get help with passing the 11 Plus, which is exactly what my parents did. Meritocracy, my arse.

Education is always going to be competitive to some degree and there will always be winners and losers in the system, but every kid deserves an equal chance, and the evidence is there in spades that grammars harm far more than they help. I’ll fight tooth and nail to see them consigned to the past, where they belong.

2 thoughts on “Education, education, education”

  1. It’s interesting the way trends occur in education. Once upon a time, we had ‘high’ schools and ‘tech’ schools: the high schools were for academic students and the tech schools were for students who were more likely to go straight to employment after finishing up. There was no difference between the entry procedures, though – you just chose which one you wanted (or, more likely, your parents did). Then someone decided everyone should have the same access no matter what school they chose to attend, so they all became secondary colleges.

    Now, there’s talk of re-introducing tech schools, so who knows what it will all look like in five years’ time.

    Having worked in state schools, a private school and a Catholic school, I can honestly say that the quality of education is not affected by how much it costs to go there but by how professional the staff are. And students who want to achieve will do so, regardless of their peers. There are rubbish students at every type of school, just as there are excellent ones.

    Anyway, the whole thing changes once people go into tertiary education. All of the studies here show that students who achieve well in private schools tend to suffer at university without the huge support network they’re used to in the classroom.

    1. One of the major flaws in the system in the days of grammar schools is that there were meant to be technical schools too, but they were never established in most areas. Now, there are schools specialising in particular subjects, skills or teaching methods, and it’s good that choice exists – as long as it really is a choice. If entry isn’t determined by a fair and transparent process, it’s not a choice at all. If by failing an exam you’re barred from all the best schools, your choice has massively narrowed and it could have a negative effect on your future.

      I agree that bright kids tend to do well anywhere, unless they’re unlucky enough to end up in the midst of really chaotic circumstances, and that’s where decent support from schools comes in.

      I did well at university because I was finally able to focus study on what I was really interested in, and it made me highly motivated. I’d disappear into the library for hours on end and devour vast amounts of material. I certainly noticed that a lot of people who came from expensive schools struggled, though. A lot of these places are simply exam factories who will drum facts into their students. They’ll pass exams without any problems at all, but lack the skills they need to process and analyse what they’re memorising.

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