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Roland Martin - Issue #30

The Great Grammar School Debate

Roland Martin

September 20 · Issue #30 · View online
Headmaster - City of London Freemen's school; Chief Officer - City of London - '...write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing' Benjamin Franklin

The Great Grammar School Debate

I doubt anyone has missed the furore that has been surrounding one of the pillars of society over the last week or so. 
But those of us who do not follow Bake Off might have cast our attention to The Department of Education’s Green Paper, Schools that Work for Everyone, currently open for consultation, and which seems to have drummed up its own share of comment and interest. For those of you who have been in a bunker for the last fortnight, or who would rather read a summary than the paper in its entirety, the following link will enlighten.
PM to set out plans for schools that work for everyone - Press releases - GOV.UK
I suppose the biggest question that is being currently asked is will the proposals in this document really do what it says on the tin and ‘work for everyone’? Or will these proposals, ironically, construct a hierarchy that seems opposed to the egalitarian foundations upon which they are founded?
I confess to having been both surprised and delighted that Theresa May’s first speech as Prime Minister referenced - in some substantial degree - a desire to work for greater social mobility in Britain. It may not be something that I expected to hear from a Conservative PM in my lifetime but I was glad to hear a radical and responsible message and I am always likely to jump on a band wagon that is driven by the fuel of 'great meritocracy’.
But are Grammar Schools the way to ensure that all children receive a good education, an ambition for which any educationalist, whatever sector they are in, might wish?  
It would seem that there is plenty of opposition to the idea.
Cards on the Table
In the interests of clarity, I ought to declare my hand. I am unashamedly the product of a working-class background. My father died when I was four and I was brought up as an only child by my mother in a council house in which she still lives. As it happens, Gloucester, the town of my birth, has always been in Grammar School territory and Sir Thomas Rich’s Grammar School (‘Tommies’) - a Blue Coat School of renown - by a quirk of fate happens to be on the same council estate, at the other end of the same road, on which I was raised. I passed the 11+ to Tommies and was destined to walk the four minute skip up the road and back to receive what I know would have been an excellent academic education.
But members of the Church I attended had other ideas. Two or three of the Church leaders went to see my Primary School Headmaster and asked him if he would talk my mother into letting me sit for a Scholarship to a local boarding School that had an excellent track record with boys from working class backgrounds, namely Rendcomb College. It’s easy to fill in the rest, but I have certainly spent some little time over the last few years wondering how I would have handled that meeting!
Needless to say Mum cried a lot before deciding I should try for the scholarship; I have been forever grateful that she made a decision that changed my stars. Not because Tommies would not have served me well academically, but because I learnt a great deal beyond the curriculum - and through living away from home - that shaped me in a way that I needed in order to do well in life.
So, in short, I should have been the product of a Grammar School, as were a good number of my friends from Primary School and who themselves have done well out of the experience. But let’s remember that the Government - quite rightly - wants to do well by everyone. I could certainly tell some stories about those friends who found themselves in some ropey non-selective Schools in Gloucester in 1982.
Tommies, incidentally, is now one of the 'new academies’.
Division of the Assembly
Taking it as read that Jeremy Corbyn and Nicky Morgan were not likely to be waving flags on this one, whatever was suggested, Asa Bennett got straight to the data in The Telegraph by pointing out that a majority polled a year ago was in favour of increased numbers of Grammar Schools in spite of early polls this last week that have suggested significant opposition to the scheme.
Parents are crying out for new grammar schools, so why should hypocritical Lefties deny them? 
Tim Lott’s article in The Guardian has a misleadingly positive title, though the reasons for his gratitude for his own Grammar School education might not necessarily be the ones that his reader - or the Government - might have in mind.
Grammar schools might be a leg up for working-class children | Life and style | The Guardian
The proposals have been crushed by those prominent in the media with Morpurgo branding them as ‘quite deeply stupid’…
Plan to introduce new grammar schools is 'quite deeply stupid', says Michael Morpurgo | News
..and Walters suggesting that they are ‘divisive and dreadful’:
BBC Radio 5 live - In Short, Julie Walters: Grammar schools 'divisive and dreadful'
Perhaps more balanced opinion came from Chris Husbands in The Conversation, albeit a challenging read for those of us who administer selective entry processes in our schools.
Dear Theresa May, this is what you need to know about grammar schools
Social Mobility or Social Justice?
… might possibly be the question. And the answer is unclear. If the Government wants to promote Social Mobility, Grammar Schools have played some part in promoting it in the past. But possibly at the expense of Social Justice. For every Lott who felt inspired to do better (at some point) because of what they had achieved by gaining entry into a Grammar School, there was a disenfranchised throng who was forever resentful and de-motivated by not cutting muster. Alan Milburn - branded as ‘social mobility tsar’ (sounds like a paradox to me) was interesting on this point:
More grammar schools would be a disaster, says social mobility tsar | Society | The Guardian
And there was also a huge number of children who - like the multitudes unfortunately tutored to within an inch of their life to gain entry into selective independent schools - gained/continue to gain entry into Grammar Schools because their parents ‘invest’ in the many tutoring agencies that sell their wares. How does paying to pass a test fit into the concept of meritocracy or reward the naturally talented?
Or, of course, those pupils who come from more than respectable families who play the postcode lottery and buy properties near ‘the right’ schools. I was accused of having 'become cynical’ by a Head last week when I suggested that the Government policy might have more to do with inflating property prices than about improving children’s chances in life, though the thought has crossed my mind. The Prime Minister suggested that rich parents already dominated state education; what would prevent them from influencing Grammar School places?
Grammar schools are a racket that offers the middle classes a public school education for free | The Independent
The Route to Progress
I would have to say that my biggest concern about Government policy in education is not concerned simply with the issue of whether or not we should increase the number of Grammar Schools. The two most recent educational ‘reforms’ - the poorly judged changes to public examinations and this latest Green Paper - involve turning back time as a reference point for building a future. I am fundamentally opposed to a philosophy that this strategy provides the best route to progress. Taking us backwards to the eighties, seventies, sixties, fifties in a time-machine constructed of rose-tinted glass does not - I would suggest - build a future for the children for whom we are responsible and who - incidentally - don’t need to learn by rote, cram and pass tests at the drop of a hat, but who do and must have a skills-based education behind them in order that they might lead successful futures.  Some of this was articulated well in The Independent.
Theresa May, a seriously old-fashioned politician, is building a bridge to the 1950s | The Independent
IF (the important conditional conjunction in Cher’s power ballad) I could turn back time, I probably wouldn’t.
However, IF I could advise the Government on the direction of travel for education, my advice would be simple: put great teachers in front of every class in the country, whatever sector they are in. 
That might just work for everyone.

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