In 1955, my family left Cardiff, South Wales, for Melbourne, Australia. I was ten years old. Prior to leaving the UK, as a primary school student I sat for and went to interviews about the Eleven Plus examination.
The examination determined the type of secondary school to which a student would go. I passed the examination with sufficient merit to be allocated to one of the limited number of grammar schools, as differentiated from secondary modern or technical schools, then existing in Cardiff. The reason for the interviews was that I was still several months short of my eleventh birthday when I sat and passed the exam.
I can only speculate as to what my future, academic or otherwise, would have been had I remained in Cardiff. As it was, when I arrived in Melbourne I attended another primary school for six months in order to serve out the remaining time as a primary school student to fit-in with the Australian school year. From there I went to an all-boys technical school, where I remained until I left school at the age of fifteen to pursue the first of my eventual three major careers. The grammar school became a distant, if not fond, memory
I was reminded of the above when reading a recent newspaper article on Grammar schools and the delusion of mobility (to which I am grateful for the inspiration for this article). A main thrust of the article was to show that… “Selective institutions entrench inequality rather than help the poor. They should all be scrapped”.
The background to the article is, of course, the way in which educational provision, especially in the secondary sphere is expanding, particularly under this present Coalition government, to include the present-day mixture of schools types – including the comprehensive, private, grammar, academy, faith and free school versions. A motive for such expansion is the atmosphere of mistrust surrounding the idea of comprehensive education.
There is a constant voice that proclaims the need to rewind the educational clock to the mid-20th century and bring back selection at eleven, thereby ushering in a new age of ‘exacting meritocracy’. An argument put forward by supporters of this approach to education is that selection affords social mobility to those fortunate enough (as I would have been) to be given a grammar school place.
Where this view lacks transparency is the fact that such social mobility for the few entrenches privilege for the same chosen few – privilege akin to those who have attended fee-paying private secondary schools or those whose parents can afford to pay for subject coaching or prep schools (both of the latter have the expectation that students from such backgrounds will have little difficulty in passing the entrance examinations for state-funded grammar schools).
Evidence that selection at eleven enhances the social mobility of bright students from less-wealthy backgrounds and is, therefore, ‘socially worthy’ (sic), is often supported by reference to those students in grammar schools who are eligible for free school meals (FSMs). Such a view is seriously called into question by a recent report from the Sutton Trust educational charity about who exactly goes to England’s 164 remaining grammar schools.
Three of the main conclusions of the report were as follows:
* 2.7% of the pupils of state-funded grammar schools are entitled to FSMs, as against 17.5 % in other state schools;
* 13% of entrants to English state-funded grammar schools come from fee-paying schools – more than double the proportion 0f 10-year-olds in private education;
* in areas that have continued with selection, 66% of high-achievers at eleven who are not on FSMs get places at grammar schools – among those who are entitled to them, the figure is 40%
So, grammar schools as the ‘turbo-chargers of social mobility’? This would seem to be one more delusion. As the Sutton Trust educational charity would seem to suggest, a bright child on FSMs and, therefore, by social definition from a poor background, is much less likely to make it to a grammar school.
Politicians of all colours claim that they wish to raise the attainment level of all students and narrow the class-based attainment gap in education. If so, then perhaps they should re-emphasise the place and value of contemporary comprehensive education, phase-out the remaining grammar schools, more firmly establish the secular nature of English education and phase-out faith schools – including the traditional Church of England establishments. Whilst they are at it, they should also return the oversight of state-funded schools to local education authorities and democratic accountability, rather than be subject to the diktats and vagaries of a government Minister for Education.
Whilst a parent has the right to pay a fee for a child’s education, such parents should be persuaded against private, fee-paying educational institutions. In this regard, the anachronistic charitable status should be removed from private, fee-paying schools. This is an unjustifiable form of state aid.
As a 10 year-old boy emigrating to Australia from a working class background and, as a consequence, maybe feeling deprived of the future social mobility that would have been personally expected as an outcome of a grammar school education, I was obviously unaware of the self-evident nature of the above educational principles.
However, delusions exist to be dissipated. The passage of time enables this process to take place. Nearly six decades on, not only do I strongly subscribe to these principles, I also live with the hope that, one day – perhaps not in my lifetime, they will be more widely acknowledged and realisable, if not universally practised.
Therefore, I have complete agreement with the main thrust of the newspaper article Grammar schools and the delusion of mobility, that is, “Selective institutions entrench inequality rather than help the poor. They should all be scrapped”.