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The Grammar School System Funnels And Fails Children At 11 – Is That Really What We Want?

Steve was left behind after primary by an outmoded educational structure – are people seriously trying to bring that back for the next generation?

  • The Grammar School System Funnels And Fails Children At 11 – Is That Really What We Want?

One of the great things about living in a small village – and there are many – is that you don’t choose your neighbours but they become your friends anyway.

When I lived in a city those I hung around with did jobs similar to mine and saw the world in much the same way. Now, in the pub on a Friday night when all the locals pile into the snug, we’re a crowd of teachers, lorry drivers, car salespeople, trainee post-women, chimney sweeps, shepherds and eight-week-old girls who might grow up to be any or none of these.

Steve lives two doors down from me. He’s a month off his 50th birthday, is a supervisor at a local electronics company and, in his spare time, a member of a Parliamentary regiment that re-enacts English Civil War battles.

Steve loves history and knows more about lots of it than I ever will, but never got the chance to study it beyond ‘O’ Level, because he failed his eleven-plus and went to a secondary modern. When I first got to know him he seemed sanguine about it. “Life’s turned out fine,” he said, “I’m happy being what you’d call an enthusiastic amateur.”

Missed opportunities

He’s not fine with it though. Not really. He’s angry. On Wednesday evenings he and I do fencing together (taking up odd hobbies is another pleasant side effect of living in a village) and we call into the village pub for a pint or two afterwards. A couple of weeks ago, with grammars in the news, we got to talking about our experiences of school.

“I don’t hate the teachers,” he told me. “I’d buy my old history teacher a pint now, because he helped me with my project, which was so good the school tried to keep it until my dad went in and got it off them. But I do blame the system. We were funnelled. I was funnelled. One test at 11 and that was it.

I had friends whose parents were teachers, who I never saw again after they went to the grammar. I wanted to do more history, and art, but wasn’t allowed. had to do engineering. We were all funnelled and that was wrong.”

Theresa May would have us believe her conception of grammars comes from a belief that our education system should take you as far as your talents allow. Her argument is preposterous; grammars and the inevitable secondary modern system that comes with them, do precisely the opposite.

Steve is no victim; he’s made a success of his life and pursued his interest in history, but this is in spite of, not because of, the system in which he was schooled. Steve was never given the chance to see how far his talents would take him and the suggestion there are any advantages to returning to this system is a very grim joke.

Great teaching, for everyone

Grammars, are of course, popular with parents – but they don’t want their child to have a 10% chance of getting into one. They want to be sure their child is guaranteed a good quality, grammar-school-style education.

The government’s decision to reverse the ban on new grammar schools demonstrates a dismal lack of faith in the majority of England’s children and is a very real threat to thousands and thousands of lives, including that of my own daughter.

As a teacher myself, and the dad of the village’s eight-week-old girl, the whole thing terrifies me.

I want her to choose the life she wants, whether that be as a teacher, lorry driver, car salesperson, post-woman, chimney sweep, shepherd, lawyer, doctor, circus clown or astronaut. To have those choices, just like every other child does, she needs to compete on the same field. She needs to have the same opportunities, and the same high quality teaching. She needs to befriend people of all backgrounds so she can see what others have chosen to do and become curious about lives different to her own.

We all know this to be true. The evidence, which Ms May is so wilfully choosing to ignore, is overwhelmingly against grammars. Cautionary personal stories like Steve’s are important. Nobody, no-where wants what happened to him to happen to any child.

I certainly don’t want it to happen to my little girl. I want her to grow up in a village and go to a comprehensive that has academically high expectations of all. Metaphorically my fists are up and I’m ready to go toe to toe with anyone who dares try and funnel her.

Ben is an ex-VSO, former deputy headmaster of an International School in Ethiopia, head of humanities and, most importantly, teacher of history. You can find him on Twitter at @bennewmark and on his blog at bennewmark.wordpress.com, and check out his history revision videos on his YouTube channel.

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