Old, but not necessarily a good idea.(Photo: Flickr/Elliot Brown)
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Grammar schools aren’t the answer – and I should know, I went to one

David Cameron's u-turn and Ukip's adoration of them has grammar schools back in the headlines. But they don't work and they shouldn't be the priority – and I should know.

It’s election time, which always means we can look forward to some good old arguments being rehashed in an attempt to distract from a lack of original ideas. A case in point is Ukip, with its pledge to open a grammar school in every town. The long-time debate over grammar schools will undoubtedly continue to rage until 7 May and beyond – particularly in Kent – where the council has been supporting Weald of Kent Grammar School’s attempt to establish an annexe in Sevenoaks, a town ten-miles away with no grammar school. This sounds very much like the opening of a new grammar school, and effectively undermines legislation that prohibits the expansion of secondary grammars.

As a former Weald of Kent pupil, I listened to current students making the case for the annexe and it felt familiar. I too left the house everyday at 7.30am and didn’t get back until nearly 5pm – spending at least two and a half hours travelling just so that I could go to a grammar school. Like them, I would have much preferred to have spent less time on the bus and gone to school in my own town, although perhaps for different reasons – I was often desperately unhappy at grammar school. 

I remember as an early teen secretly lamenting the fact that I had passed my 11+ exam, and wishing I could have just gone to my local comprehensive school with my primary school friends. The only one from my school to get in to Weald, I couldn’t understand why I should be separated from my childhood friends just on the basis of a pass or fail in one exam in English and one in Maths. My teachers told me I would pass, so it was just expected that I would opt for a grammar school. 

Not wanting to rebel, I did what was expected of me, and remember the resentment that I felt towards any of my new classmates that had been to independent primary schools (there were a lot of them). Unlike me, or my ‘borderline’ primary school friends who didn’t quite manage to get a place at Weald, their parents had been pouring money into their education for years, paying for private tuition to prep them for passing their 11+. 

Coming from a low income household and a very socially diverse primary school, I remember being struck by just how boring and ‘middle class’ grammar school was in comparison. I was also the victim of snobbery -  a moment that stands out is one teacher talking about the ‘class system’ and telling us with disdain that working class people lived in terrace houses. I grew up in a terrace house - and as a teenager with low self-esteem, this made me feel even more separated from my classmates. Another memory that sticks out was a schoolfriend’s mum (a housewife who occupied most of her time doing her daughter’s homework) asking me, then aged 12, how my father (an artist) managed to earn enough to support a family. She implied he didn’t. 

I won’t deny I got a good education and did well in exams, but I had plenty of friends growing up that went to local comprehensive schools and did equally well. I’d like to think that if I hadn’t gone to grammar school, I’d have done well too. I was hardworking, and, fundamentally, always had the support of my parents. It’s the people who don’t have those strong foundations at home that should be the focus of our politicians, whether or not they have the ability to pass a school exam at the age of 11. Forget grammar schools - we should be offering first-class education to all children, whatever their social background or academic ability.

Anna Villeleger is a freelance journalist. She tweets as @annajourno.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.