Grammatically Incorrect

I don’t often agree with Michael Wilshaw in fact I often make a point of it. However even a stopped clock yada yada, Michael Wilshaw said something so spot on last week that I felt the need to mark this rare occasion with a blog post.

I took the 11+ the year after my youngest brother Blaine was born. In Kent it is still expected that all children will take the exam, along with SATs, in their last year of Primary school. My school was fantastic and didn’t pile on the pressure but I still remember a certain amount of anxiety surrounding the test that would decide my Secondary school. I have memory of saying to Blaine on a walk (he wasn’t walking) back from school, “It’ll be your turn one day.” My Mum laughed and said “Oh, I imagine the 11+ will be long gone before then.” That was over 18 years ago and in Kent, Buckinghamshire and Reading the 11+ is still going strong. In London there are a handful of selective schools that use the 11+ as a form of entrance exam but the Primary schools do not administer the test. There shouldn’t be much more to say about this test. The 11+ has ticked along relatively unchanged for decades now – so why the post? In 1998, the year I started at the local Grammar school, Labour passed a law that made it illegal to open up new Grammar schools. So that was the end of that.

Yet last year my home town of Sevenoaks hit the National Press with the news that a new Grammar school was going to be opened. The loophole they had used was that the new school was to be an annexe of an already existing school in the next town. Now this was big news for a town whose local paper had once published, “Town not ready for sushi” as their front page headline.

The Grammar school system as we know it was established in the 1940s with the noble idea of offering public school education to children from working class backgrounds. The schools would promote social mobility: rescuing children from disadvantaged backgrounds and offering them a route out of poverty. This all sounds wonderful – but has it worked? No is perhaps the short answer. Yes pupils that attend Grammar schools achieve very high results. However, very few of these children are from disadvantaged backgrounds.  In 2013 The Sutton Trust research into Grammar schools found that:

  • “Less than 3% of pupils in Grammar schools qualify for Free School Meals (FSM) compared to the average of 18% for non-selective schools in the same area.” For those not familiar with educational shorthand, Free school meals is a rather clumsy measure of poverty but it is the best we have at the moment. To put this figure into perspective in Haringey on average 29% of pupils are eligible for FSM.
  • “Children in selective areas do worse than children who go to comprehensive schools in areas where there are no grammar school.” This one is fairly obvious. If the most able pupils are skimmed off the top and sent to Grammar schools this leaves a whole school of less able pupils without role models or peers to learn from.
  • In local authorities that operate the grammar system, children who are not eligible for free FSM have a much greater chance of attending a grammar school than similarly high achieving children (as measured by their Key Stage 2 test scores) who are eligible for FSM.

These findings should not be a surprise. In 1959 the Conservatives commissioned the Crowther Report – interesting reading if you’ve got a free afternoon; there’s at least one future blog post in my drafts based on its findings. The report found that “the children of non-manual workers are much under-represented, and the children of semi-skilled workers over-represented” in Grammar schools. So we’ve known for nearly 60 years that the system doesn’t work.

The reasons why children from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to pass these tests are numerous and wide ranging. An article published earlier this week summed up it up quite nicely and it’s certainly been a discussion point in staff meetings for many years. When it comes to the 11+ access to private tutors is the perfect example of the advantages children from more affluent backgrounds have. A quick Google search will throw up the numerous options wealthier parents have for helping their child prepare for the paper.
In 2013 Buckinghamshire County tried to address this imbalance by producing new papers that were more closely linked to the curriculum taught in school with less emphasis on verbal reasoning. This way pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds would be covering the content in school. Sadly, analysis of the results showed that these new test made the gap in achievement between FSM and non-FSM even wider.
Social mobility (or lack of) aside, surely the strongest argument against the Grammar school system is that it labels children as failures at the age of 10/11? They see their friends pass and immediately draw the conclusion that they’re stupid, an attitude they take with them to Secondary school. A system that labels children as failures at 11 is not just unfair: it’s cruel.

5 thoughts on “Grammatically Incorrect

  1. Another great blog! Almost my entire career in schools, as a teacher and then as a headteacher in three different schools, was spent in the selective system. Despite being deeply opposed to selection at 11, I worked within this system and watched as Year 6 pupils split from friends as they discovered which of seven or eight selective or non selective schools they would be attending in September. This was already decided by January! Devisive and labelling, this system caused actual deaths as parents and children faced up to admitting that they had “failed”! The stigma can and does last a lifetime! I know because, as a child, I passed the 11+ and my sister did not. So she went to a fee paying school as a boarder and I went free to a Grammar school. We have never really communicated since! So where do I stand? I worked in this system, as many teachers today work in the system of testing both at 11 and 7 and now, potentially at 4. So I guess I am guilty of failing more children than most, along with them. What is that awful phrase: “Well, it’s just the system”! Sorry!

    Liked by 1 person

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  3. ….further to my comment on your other post! I was just going to say this, too – the girls in the secondary modern school didn’t seem themselves as failures because they were with others of their academic level. And if they did, isn’t that just life? Isn’t inequality and having to strive, and being disappointed and working against others’ prejudices all part of the adult world? Do children have to be cushioned against reality?

    I realise that I am a fair bit older than you so my views might seem outdated, and I do not have the inside experience as a teacher, but I think my arguments are still valid, because I’m talking about human nature. I do like your posts, btw!


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