Football in the playground at Davenant Foundation Grammar School in Stepney, 1964. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

PMQs review: Theresa May shows again that Brexit means hard Brexit

The Prime Minister's promise of "an end to free movement" is incompatible with single market membership. 

Theresa May, it is commonly said, has told us nothing about Brexit. At today's PMQs, Jeremy Corbyn ran with this line, demanding that May offer "some clarity". In response, as she has before, May stated what has become her defining aim: "an end to free movement". This vow makes a "hard Brexit" (or "chaotic Brexit" as Corbyn called it) all but inevitable. The EU regards the "four freedoms" (goods, capital, services and people) as indivisible and will not grant the UK an exemption. The risk of empowering eurosceptics elsewhere is too great. Only at the cost of leaving the single market will the UK regain control of immigration.

May sought to open up a dividing line by declaring that "the Labour Party wants to continue with free movement" (it has refused to rule out its continuation). "I want to deliver on the will of the British people, he is trying to frustrate the British people," she said. The problem is determining what the people's will is. Though polls show voters want control of free movement, they also show they want to maintain single market membership. It is not only Boris Johnson who is pro-having cake and pro-eating it. 

Corbyn later revealed that he had been "consulting the great philosophers" as to the meaning of Brexit (a possible explanation for the non-mention of Heathrow, Zac Goldsmith's resignation and May's Goldman Sachs speech). "All I can come up with is Baldrick, who says our cunning plan is to have no plan," he quipped. Without missing a beat, May replied: "I'm interested that [he] chose Baldrick, of course the actor playing Baldrick was a member of the Labour Party, as I recall." (Tony Robinson, a Corbyn critic ("crap leader"), later tweeted that he still is one). "We're going to deliver the best possible deal in goods and services and we're going to deliver an end to free movement," May continued. The problem for her is that the latter aim means that the "best possible deal" may be a long way from the best. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.