Grammar For Everyone?

Assessment TestsWhen I started working as a teacher all the schools in the area had been comprehensives for several years. It quickly became clear that several schools in the city were more popular than others with parents. A little research soon disclosed that those most popular schools usually occupied buildings which previously had been grammar schools. Even as new comprehensives with different names and staff, their reputations as good schools had survived, even when some of them were then fairly mediocre.

164 grammar schools now remain in England after the expansion of comprehensive education in the 60s and 70s. The 1944 Education Act had tried to give every child an equal chance to succeed based on their ability, rather than their parents’ financial status. To achieve this, three types of school were proposed: Grammar, Secondary Technical and Secondary Modern schools. Eleven year olds took an examination and the results determined to which school they were allocated. Those who did well went to the grammars, the middle band to the technical schools, and those who did least well to secondary moderns. Since few technical schools were built, most children went to grammar or secondary moderns. It was thought that only the brightest children would benefit from the academic education that grammar schools offered. Universities also took their students from these schools and this ensured the highly educated people needed to fill professional jobs. The technical and secondary modern schools provided the skills and training for the supervisory and manual workforces required by industry and commerce.

Grammar for EverybodyBy the 1960s informed opinion generally supported comprehensive schools that served all the children of a neighbourhood, regardless of their ability. Once again the aim was to provide equality of opportunity for all pupils. Advocates of comprehensives identified several other advantages. Larger schools were cheaper and able to provide better facilities. It was believed that class divisions, created when middle class children largely attended grammar schools and working class children mainly attended secondary moderns, would disappear over time. Furthermore, children would no longer be allocated to different schools at the tender age of 11. Many believed this selection had resulted in countless children not achieving their potential since they saw themselves as failures, while those at grammar schools had succeeded. Some people of that generation still identify themselves as, and resent having been selected as ‘factory fodder’ by being sent to secondary modern schools.

Today, the Netherlands provides a system in which children are selected to attend one of three types of school:
* Pre-University – 6 year course: 12-18 years.
* Pre-Professional – 5 year course: 12-17 years.
* Pre-Vocational – 4 year course: 12-16 years.
In the PU tier, subjects are taught faster and in more depth, to provide an intellectual challenge to the students who are all of similar ability. At PP and PV levels, students also study the academic subjects needed to succeed, but also take several subjects recognised by professional and vocational bodies. If a student wishes to continue in school after having finished PV or PP, there is a straightforward transfer procedure. They need to finish the last one or two years of that course, adapting to the higher standards and faster learning rates. There does not seem to be the same controversy about selection there, as we experience here.

In Search of the Best School for My ChildThe current Secretary of State has tabled a proposal to scrap GCSEs and enforce a return to traditional O-levels, and already this is provoking demands for a return to the academic rigour which grammar schools are thought to provide. Some local authorities are planning to get around a ban on the creation of new grammar schools by opening schools as an “annex” of an existing grammar elsewhere. This procedure has now received Government approval. Some commentators think such plans are likely to lead to many more proposals to establish grammars where now there are none.

A number of comprehensive schools currently attempt to attract parents by introducing their own “grammar streams” for their brightest pupils, chosen through 11-plus-style ability tests. In comprehensive schools, selection, setting and streaming by ability are far from rare. It was revealed last year that as many as half of pupils who pass the 11-plus entrance exam fail to get a place in grammar school because of the sheer competition for places, which indicates their enduring popularity with parents. Sir Terry Leahy, recently retired from running the Tesco empire, says he would be interested in setting up a school, funded by Government money but free from state control, but only if it could be a grammar. He says that any school he helped to run would have to be selective.

However, selection by ability continues to be controversial. It generates heated political and academic debate and always attracts considerable media attention. Many argue that a comprehensive system has never been achieved as the continuation of private education and the growing numbers attending the surviving grammar schools, means that able pupils are still educated outside comprehensives. A leading education adviser has warned the Government that in England, ‘social selection’ still means, “The better off you are, the better the school your kids will go to”. As a consequence of hosting the Olympic Games, ministers now appear to be worried that in the Beijing Games, over 50% of our medals were won by people who were from the 7% of our population educated privately or in grammar schools. How to redress that balance appears to be a concern for all concerned.

So whether selection is carried out between different types of schools, or within a single school, it seems to be a controversial fact of life for our education system. Increasingly, the successful use of ‘mixed ability teaching‘ is recognised as placing demands on teachers which are beyond the organisational capability of most of them. Setting or streaming pupils by ability appears to provide a more manageable environment for many teachers.

Yet we still need to ask if our love affair with grammar schools is justified if we are to accept their possible re-emergence as the way ahead. Currently, there is little significant difference nationally between grammar and comprehensive schools in the percentage of pupils gaining five or more A* to C grades at GCSE including maths and English. However, recent research shows that regions which still have grammar schools are much more likely to send sixth-formers to elite universities than areas that are comprehensive. When I worked in an area which had retained its grammar schools and selection at 11 plus, we noted that the school population which had been ranked by ability at 11, proved very much more mixed when results at 16 were looked at. Whether this meant that the grammar schools were under performing or that the high schools were over performing we were never able to establish. Perhaps what was being shown was that good schools produce good results while poorer schools produce less good results, whatever they are called and however they are organised.

Comprehensive schools arose from the assumption that the needs of all children are the same and can be met in a similar manner. In our concern to provide equality of opportunity for all pupils maybe we have drifted into limiting educational achievements to levels with which everyone can cope. We may also have been guilty of assuming that ‘equality of opportunity’ also means ‘equality of outcome’, when the two are quite different. Perhaps we now need to accept that there should be many pathways which allow all pupils access to the very highest quality education which is currently available to a minority. We now know that all children learn differently and that assessing and meeting those different needs is a vital part of managing learning. Perhaps identifying and nurturing ability should be seen as a necessary part of educating our children rather than condemned as an elitist plot. After all, we expend a large amount of time and resources to identify children with special needs and ensure their needs are met. Now we want to seek out and support those with potential to be the next generation of Olympic Gold Medallists, without suffering any moral crisis. It might be a salutary experience to ask Sir Alex Ferguson if he would countenance an ‘all ability’ intake to the football academy at Old Trafford! How much longer can we afford to persist with the ‘one size fits everyone’ argument for the rest of our children, before we begin to consider alternatives, whatever names we choose to give them?

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