I am a product of the grammar school system. I am exactly the sort of person pro-grammar school campaigns would use as a poster-girl: child of a single parent, brought up in poverty, went to grammar school, got into Oxford. Because that’s what grammar schools are for, right? Social mobility, a chance for the poor-but-bright child.
Except that I’m the exception to the rule.
Every study of the effects of academic selection at age 11 that I have seen has certain conclusions in common:
- children who go to grammar schools do better than their peers do in areas which don’t practice academic selection.
- children in areas with academic selection who don’t go to grammar schools do worse that their peers in non-selective areas.
- grammar schools have a significantly lower proportion of disadvantaged children than non-selective schools.
So: grammar schools “work” for those who go to them, and don’t for those who don’t. No surprise there. In any area which still practices academic selection at 11, a minority of children will go to grammar school. Which means the majority of children in that area are disadvantaged by the selective system.
But what of the “social mobility” argument? Quite simply, it doesn’t add up. Grammar schools have a higher proportion of children from affluent families, and a lower proportion of children from poor families, than other state schools do. That isn’t because rich kids are brighter, it’s because by 11 (and long before) the amount of money you have and the background you come from makes a significant difference to your life chances.
This will come as no surprise to anyone who works with children anywhere which still has academic selection at 11. The children who get into grammar school are, by and large, the ones who have been privately tutored, hothoused for the 11+ exam. They are the ones whose parents have the time and ability to help them with their homework. They are the ones who have a desk at home, and enough to eat. The ones who aren’t worrying about caring for a parent, or when the bailiffs will turn up on the doorstep.
By and large, the children who already have the advantages get the advantages of a grammar school education. By and large. There are exceptions (like me) but that isn’t enough to justify a system with a bias to the rich.
And what of the children who don’t get in to grammar school? The ones who “fail” the 11+? Remember, that’s the majority of children in areas which still have academic selection. Imagine how it feels to be told at 11 that you’ve already failed. Imagine the impact of that. I don’t have to imagine it – I see it every day in the devastatingly low self esteem of many of my young people.
That’s what the academic studies and political arguments don’t talk about – the human cost. And that’s what we should be concerned about. Our education system shouldn’t be primarily about ideologies or attainment figures. It should be about nurturing human beings and enabling them to flourish in ways which include, but extend far beyond, the achievements we measure.
People ask me how, as someone who has clearly benefitted immensely from the grammar school system, I can call for its abolition. The answer is simple: this isn’t about me. It isn’t about what worked for one bright child 20 years ago. It’s about what works for every child, of every ability, now.