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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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.