Football in the playground at Davenant Foundation Grammar School in Stepney, 1964. Photo: Getty
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Despite good intentions, grammar school selection was dysfunctional right from the start

The tragedy lay in the way the system was allowed to continue long past the point where its failings were clear.

The romantics who want to bring back grammar schools think they know what they were like in their heyday. Taking only the cleverest junior school kids they could conveyor-belt them through GCE O- and A-levels, finally projecting them, at 18, done and dusted, into proper universities, to do proper subjects.

To me, though, nostalgia has once again transformed dysfunctional reality into revered myth.

I “passed for the grammar school” in 1948, the only one from my junior school that year, and on 6 September I was the solitary “fuzzer” (first year) boarding the school bus at my stop. A little further on, though, at the next mining village, a whole gaggle of excited fuzzers piled on. Their junior school was well known for getting a third of its children into grammar school.

The difference was down, quite simply, to coaching. Our head was ideologically opposed to it. At the other school, children were made to buckle down to endless practice tests.

In a letter to the Times Educational Supplement in September 1951, secondary modern school head J Kelly confirmed that coaching in primaries was widespread.

“The A stream,” he wrote, “known to children, parents and staff as the ‘scholarship class’, is prepared for the selective examination with intensive drill.”

Coaching was often identified as one reason why many children who passed failed to make the grade at grammar school. The numbers were worrying. The 1954 government-sponsored Gurney-Dixon report on “Early Leaving”, discovered that in 1953, in a sample of 120 grammar schools, 37.8 per cent of pupils left with two, one or no GCE O-levels. Half of these actually left at the then statutory leaving age of 15, a year ahead of the exams. Working class children, incidentally, were heavily over-represented among the low achievers and very thin on the ground in A-Level courses.

Of course, society was different then. There were jobs and apprenticeships for 15 and 16 year olds. That said, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that many children passed the eleven plus only to be let down by their schools, allowed to fail when they should have passed, to leave when they should have stayed. Looking back, I see that my grammar school teachers, good-hearted graduates with no teaching qualifications, were effectively exam-focused lecturers, ill-equipped to apply more inclusive, personalised methods.

Meanwhile, under the noses of the grammar schools, underlining the nonsense of selection at eleven, college-trained teachers in secondary modern schools were quietly and routinely demonstrating that significant numbers of their children were capable of O-level. The 1959 Crowther Report into education 15 to 18 mentions

… the discovery that a fair number of the pupils in modern schools are capable of reaching academic standards that have in the past been confined to grammar schools.”

I taught such groups in two sec mods. Dubbed “late developers”, they were, in fact, able youngsters who had fallen foul of the bluntness of the instrument wielded against them at eleven.

The inevitable solution to what Crowther called this “overlap” came with the arrival of non-selective comprehensive schools.

Of course it will be argued that today’s grammar schools are different from their predecessors. It seems clear to me, though, that the fundamental problems remain the same.

Inevitably each sought-after grammar school is part of a package that includes less desirable secondary moderns – proponents of selection have a puzzling blind spot about that.

Then, selection, potentially life-changing, will always be error-prone, and subject to manipulation by coaching.

Finally, although no system of education can be perfect, the particular fault of a selective system lies in its attempt to classify children according to their likely adult roles. It evades the real challenge, which is to achieve excellent teaching that starts with the needs and attributes of the individual child and goes on to open up the greatest range of choice.

Gerald Haigh, author of several books about teaching, and contributor of many articles on education to a range of publications, was a teacher in primary, secondary and special schools for 30 years, 11 of them in headship. You can find him on Twitter at @geraldhaigh1

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage