Is there really no-one quite like Grammar?

To start at the beginning: the proposals to increase the number of places in the grammar school system bother me a lot.  It bothers me that there has been a natural experiment going on in places like Kent, and that the results don’t show that selective systems work “for everyone”.  It bothers me that it’s hard to imagine a just mechanism of selection (if you use a test, it will be open to tutoring; if you use anything more subjective, it will be open to sharp-elbowed pushy appeals).  The idea of multiple entry points seems odd; if grammar schools are really going to offer something distinctive and better, it’s hard to see how many late arrivals will cope with the step up from their dingy old comprehensive modern.

The whole thing looks like a stunt to address the personal and local interests of some of the senior members of the new government, and to welcome UKIP supporters into the Conservative fold.  The policy looks like it is already held together by huge amounts of sticking plaster.  Selective schools were largely scrapped in the 1960s and 1970s because selection implies rejection and the unhappiness of the rejected was louder than the happiness of the selected.

And yet…

Two of the bloggers whose thinking on education I most admire for their clarity and humanity are prepared to advance an alternative argument.  Teaching personally puts it this way:

When I became a teacher, I wholeheartedly endorsed the comprehensive ideal – but in thirty years, I have never encountered a comprehensive school that came near the academic ethos of a grammar school.

Muggedbyrealitycom gets to the heart of the matter;

An intellectual environment seems to need a critical mass of staff and pupils who revel in intellectual pursuits to get an intellectual buzz… even in schools with a genuinely comprehensive intake and thus enough students to create that flourishing intellectual environment, it is missing.

I was at secondary school in the late 1980s, and grew up in the sort of seaside town that they forgot to close down (but hadn’t noticed would become a problem).  My 11-16 comprehensive was quietly competent (I know that plenty weren’t), but I only really got to experience that intellectual buzz at the town’s sixth form college.  It wasn’t formally, traditionally academic (actually nearly half the students were doing GCSE resits or life skills programmes) but there was a buzz of ideas, perhaps because everyone had chosen to be there.  It was hugely enjoyable, I learned a lot, and got from there to a top university and all sorts of future opportunities.  It bothers me that the schools where I have trained and worked, for all their competence at delivering target grades to students, haven’t had that same buzz.

Since the 1960s, politicians on the left and the right have promised a secondary education system that would provide a grammar school education for all.  If we’re honest with ourselves, the English school system hasn’t consistently delivered on this promise.  The reforms of the last 20 years or so have squeezed out some extreme bad practice, but at the cost of a focus on surface appearance and statistic-chasing.

This leads to a painful question.  Is a seriously academic education something that can only be provided for the few?  Instinctively I’m pained by this possibility.  As a parent, I know that, whatever my children end up doing, I hope that they will do it from the perspective of a broad academic education first.  Is there a reason why that can’t be the birthright of all?  Well, there might be some reasons;

1. We can’t provide the resources to give an academic secondary education to all
That probably was true in the 1940s and 1950s.  Rationing was rightly how the government dealt with shortages then.  We have many more qualified people and material resources now- don’t we?  Whilst there are definite problems finding and retaining teachers (for example, in physics!), rationing access to academic secondary education doesn’t feel like a valid response.

2. We shouldn’t give an academic secondary education to all
Again, this feels like an argument from the post-World War 2 era; that the powers that be can dispassionately look inside someone’s mind and tell them what they need.  Different pathways at 16+ and 18+ are one thing, especially if the choices are student-driven.  Not at 11+ though.

3. We have spent 50 years trying to make comprehensive schools work as grammar schools for all, and experience shows that it just can’t be done.
Maybe, and I can understand the frustration some commentators express.  Schools have made choices, and continue to do so; what curriculum to offer, how to teach, where to focus finite resources.  For the last 15 years, the main incentives for schools have depended on getting lots of pupils over the “5 grade C (+/- equivalents) (+/- English and Maths) at GCSE” threshold whilst looking OK if an inspector visits.

Given those incentives, it’s not surprising that most schools look the way they do.  Most schools are pretty good at delivering what they’re told, if the incentives are sharp enough.  If that needs to be something different, be clear what is desired, try to devise a fiddle-proof measure of it (EBacc and Progress 8 look promising, albeit not perfect), and most schools will do what they need to.

So- are additional selective academic schools a good idea?

Despite the frustrations of teaching in a comprehensive school, I still hope not.  The problems that existing grammar schools have in devising a fair admissions process, coupled with their effect on the surrounding ecosystem of schools, would need to be solved, and I don’t think anyone knows how this could be done.

And yet…

The Toby Young problem– the impression that even good state schools aren’t delivering the type or standard of education parents hope for their children- is a real problem, and one of the shames of English education is how much that problem has been denied over the years.

It’s interesting that when YouGov surveyed attitudes to grammar schools, they found the places with strong demand for more grammar school places were the places that had some access to grammar schools already.  That could be parents liking what they see, but it could also be a recognition that by making selective schools less selective, their children would have a better chance of getting in.  And yes, if I lived in a selective area, I’m sure that I’d want my children to go to the grammar school.

Ultimately, that’s why I want to make genuinely comprehensive schools work.  Not for reasons of social engineering, or because all must have prizes.  Not even for utilitarian, growing the GDP reasons.  It’s just that education is a doorway to a brilliant world of ideas and experiences, and educators shouldn’t be putting a velvet rope across that doorway and saying “no, that’s not for you”.

And yes, that means running schools differently.  We need to admit that real learning doesn’t happen in tidy 1 hour drops onto a whole class.  We need to have the confidence to say to pupils “this is intrinsically valuable, however irrelevant or distant it seems to you now”.  We need the wisdom to choose the standards of a learning community, and the courage to be able to say “these are our standards” and mean it.  Schools haven’t always done that (not really done that), because other things have got in the way.

In a world where parents with clout, connections or cash can opt out of mainstream education, the only way to remove the privileges of elite schools is to make them redundant, by making the state offer really good.  As a nation, we have managed that with healthcare; hardly anyone seriously thinks that you will get better medical care in a private hospital than in the NHS.  I believe that this is possible in education as well.  But at the back of my mind, it bothers me that maybe it isn’t.