It was the afternoon of Monday, 13th June, 1955. I sat on a suitcase on the quayside at Princes Pier, Port Melbourne, as, with my family and other immigrants from the UK, I waited for a bus to take us to the Exhibition Buildings near the centre of Melbourne, there to be processed before moving on to a migrant hostel.
As I sat at the quayside, I listened-in to a nearby radio broadcast to what I later discovered was the traditional Queen’s Birthday holiday football match between the two dominant teams of that era in the State of Victoria’s Australian Rules football competition – Melbourne and Collingwood.
Melbourne won that game and went on to win the 1955 Premiership Flag.
The fortunes of football teams fluctuate, but Australia, true to its colonial heritage – or its fondness for public holidays, still has a public holiday in June (and a traditional Aussie Rules footy match) to celebrate the Queen’s Birthday. Nonetheless, the memory of the quayside sojourn at Princes Pier in June, 1955, remains etched in my mind.
A month previously, on Friday, 13th May, my family had made an early morning train journey from Cardiff, South Wales, to the port of Liverpool, north-western England. It was from Liverpool that we set sail on the HMV Georgic, a former troop ship during WW2, as immigrants to Australia. They were hectic days.
The day before, on Thursday, 12th May, I had played in a school cricket match in the morning. That afternoon, still dressed for cricket, I attended an interview as part of the 11 Plus Examination process. I was only ten years old at the time. I subsequently learned that I had passed the 11 Plus Examination, and the interview, and now was eligible to attend one of several reputable grammar schools in Cardiff. This was, apparently, quite some achievement for a working-class boy from a housing estate in Cardiff.
In the event, however, the immigration procedure intervened and my academic future in Australia took a direction quite antithetical to that of the status and security of a British grammar school.
It is widely regarded that the heyday of grammar schools in the UK was the period between the mid-1940’s and the late 1960’s. So, it was in the middle of this period that I qualified for grammar school. The period, according to a newspaper editorial comment, ‘represents a period of relative social mobility and income equality in Britain. That reflects the massive levelling function of the Second World War, its austere aftermath and the redistributive policies of post-war governments as much as it validates the era’s education system. That grammar schools thrived in a period of social change does not prove that they were the cause’ (The Guardian, 23.08.16).
It is important to restate this opinion in view of the present-day intention of Theresa May, the current leader of the Conservative Party and the British Prime Minister, to lift the ban on establishing new grammar schools. There are also those who, having themselves seemingly benefitted from the grammar school system, are strongly advocating its return and are seeking to shape the debate.
As I reflect on my personal experience, the experience of a grammar school education may well have been to my benefit, even boosted my social mobility – or, at least, hastened the phenomenon. Grammar schools, however, left many more behind. They did so when I was eligible to attend such a secondary school and they do so now.
There is little evidence that they perform a genuinely valuable function today, or even contribute to the raising of general educational standards. What the evidence does seem to suggest is that grammar schools favour the children of the affluent and obstructs those of the poor. Where the 11 Plus Examination process is still used, it is seemingly more a test of the value of parental ability to pay for academic coaching than it is of a child’s natural academic aptitude and ability.
Grammar schools have been shown to be a factor in social segregation, an expression of income inequality in the UK. Grammar schools tend to be associated not only with the ability to pay for academic coaching but also with housing locations in areas of more expensive real estate and school catchment areas. Wealthy parents will ‘pay for the best in available education, whether in real estate, private school fees or tuition to prepare for an 11 Plus Examination – options that are not available for all’.
Therefore, to again quote from the afore-mentioned newspaper editorial, adding more selective schools, as Mrs May is proposing, ‘…doesn’t increase parental choice for the majority, it simply shifts the focus of payment in a different direction’. Such an action accelerates social segregation. The Prime Minister’s proposal is all the more controversial in that it seems as if the public funding to finance her scheme has motivated the government to quietly withdraw funding promised and ear-marked in 2016 for non-selective schools – a move towards more academies.
This from a Prime Minister who gave such a sanctimonious display when she stated in the first days of her appointment that her administration would be for ‘the ordinary people of the nation’! At the time she looked into that camera in Downing Street, and she said: ‘I know how you’re suffering’. A few weeks later she was proposing the most divisive educational policy possible! Has Mrs May no understanding and appreciation of how educational segregation and suffering are inextricably linked?
An examination of the English schooling system will lead to the conclusion that it has become what has been described as ‘a messy laboratory of competing styles and structures’. What seems blatantly obvious is that the system requires ‘a rigorous evaluation to see what is working in the interests of social mobility and rising standards’. There is little merit in lavishing public funding on a new round of a flawed system of grammar schools for a privileged minority and, by default, second-class schools for the masses
Grammar schools are not the answer to England’s educational crisis, even if there is an eager call for them. Further, this call raises issues of wider import.
With respect to these wider issues, Jim O’Neill, a former Treasury Minister, now a peer, recently stated: ‘The areas of disadvantage and disaffection relate to a lot of young people who are never going to have any chance of getting anywhere near a grammar school. What we need to do is to improve the outcomes of people in those existing schools. Things to do with teaching standards and capabilities are a more worthwhile investment than changing the structure of the school system’.
As one headline put it, ‘Grammar schools are the wrong answer to a valid question’.