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24 April 2024

Letter of the week: Schools out

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By New Statesman

I was intrigued by Andrew Cook’s letter (Correspondence, 12 April) about his positive experience of grammar schools, as it is so different from my own. Like Cook, I am a septuagenarian, but I failed the 11-plus and was shunted to a secondary modern. At 16, I spent a few miserable weeks in the snooty local grammar, but its arts-or-sciences mindset couldn’t cope with my A-level choices, which I completed at a technical college. I went on to work in education, and my research on school testing was driven by the resentment I still feel more than 60 years later.

I would encourage Cook to review the research on grammar schools. One study found 22 per cent of pupils who sat the 11-plus were misallocated when their eventual GCSE results were considered. Other research found selective schooling systems increase social inequality. In Europe, two of the best-performing school systems are Estonia and Finland, both comprehensive.

Grammar schools not only fail to outperform comprehensives but they perpetuate class differences and social segregation. They are a blight, not a gift.
Dr Peter Williams, Malton, North Yorkshire

Grammatically incorrect

I read, with some amazement, the letter from Andrew Cook (Correspondence, 12 April) describing the abolition of grammar schools as the “greatest act of social vandalism since the Second World War”. For those who suffered a more discriminatory experience, the idea that their abolition was an “act of social vandalism” is absolute nonsense. I grew up in a single-parent household in the 1950s. My mother, a qualified nurse, who was in receipt of what was then called “National Assistance”, was not allowed to work on pain of losing her benefits. I qualified for free school meals, but how I wished I had not. Each Monday all children in receipt of such state largesse were required to line up outside of the headmaster’s office. Thus, as the whole school filed past, we were put on public display. There were three of us!

I believe I overcame the negativity that grammar schools visited upon those of us from more humble backgrounds, but I know of those who were not so fortunate.
Graham Judge, Barrow, Suffolk

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Like Andrew Cook, I benefited from a grammar school education, but I disagree with his conclusions. I was well aware at the time of my success in the 11-plus exam of the effect of failure on children and families. While walking to school in my smart, navy uniform, I ran the gauntlet of taunts from children at the nearby secondary modern who knew they had been branded as second best while still at primary school. 

Grammar schools still exist in some areas to blight local secondary schools by creaming off the brightest students and the best-qualified teachers. But for most, eliminating the great divide at age 11 hopefully ensured that they have a much fairer chance to flourish at school and a greater chance to move on to higher education. I would not turn back the clock.
Elisabeth Blyth, Maldon, Essex

It’s always good to read that someone thinks their schooling worked for them. But if Andrew Cook and his friend had not passed the 11-plus they would have had the chance to meet earlier, in the comprehensive system, and to “mix” with many others.
Liz Storrar, Oxford

General theory of the Middle East

The thoughtful pieces in the “Israel vs Iran” issue (Cover Story, 19 April) reminded me of a perhaps apocryphal comment John Maynard Keynes made to Churchill in 1920: “Winston, if you insist on cutting up the map of the Middle East with a ruler and a pair of scissors, you’ll be fighting a war there in 100 years’ time.” Tragically true, if slightly misdated. We have to ask how this can be avoided to any greater extent.
David Cockayne, Lymm, Cheshire


What a powerful writer Hannah Barnes is. The piece on the Tavistock (Reporter at Large, 22 March) was among the best writing in the New Statesman this year. However, that was topped by her searing article on birth trauma (Cover Story, 12 April). She is rapidly becoming the first person I turn to every week.
Timothy Cook, Chesterfield, Derbyshire

Lording it up

I read Andrew Marr’s article on Labour’s potential foreign policy headaches (Inside Westminster, 12 April) with interest, but why give David Miliband a role? Presumably, he would be made a peer and then given a senior role in cabinet.

Is Labour as unoriginal and loathing of democracy as the Tories? If Miliband wants a seat at the table, why doesn’t he try his luck at the ballot box? If Labour has any sense, it will reform comprehensively the unelected chamber, not chuck more failed politicians in there.
Max Harrison, Saltburn-by-the-Sea, North Yorks

Green mile

The boast of our governments in Scotland and Westminster is that we are world leaders in tackling climate change; we have the most ambitious targets. Oh dear, we’re not on track to meet them. Never mind, we’ll get around to it a bit later. Can anyone tell me what happens when legally binding targets are not met. Who goes to prison?
Marilyn Spurr, Exeter

Sheltered environment

Vanquishing power dynamics in the interest of the whole is a noble aim but seldom works. What Finn McRedmond (Out of the Ordinary, 19 April) hails as a victory for tolerance in her appraisal of the Michaela Community School is a relinquishing of free will and responsibility. Societies, especially democratic ones, are fluid. Power, attitudes, social mores and traditions ebb and flow. A healthy society evolves and is not static. But Michaela will not prepare students for that fact. Having seven A*s at GCSE will mean very little when negotiating the power dynamics of real life. There will not always be a head teacher to chair the meeting.
James Martin, Southend-on-Sea, Essex

DT phone home

Harry Lambert (Letter from Pennsylvania, 19 April) includes the view of a former [US] immigration official that, “aliens had voted in 2020, costing Trump the election”. So, it would seem there is intelligent life out there.
Austen Lynch, Garstang, Lancashire

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This article appears in the 24 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Age of Danger