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4 March 2015

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.

By Anna Villeleger

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. 

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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.