the Dragonfly journal

Theresa May's Educational Bombshell: Some Thoughts on Grammar Schools

By Peter Dawes

Of all the pet hates of most teachers, right up there must be dealing with "expert" parents, keen to tell you how you should be doing your job. Because having been to school themselves, they know, right?

I'm an ex-grammar school boy myself. I'm not posing as an expert. None of what follows is scientific or evidence-based, and I'm not suggesting my experiences can be extrapolated to influence policy.

But I do hope it will give you a flavour of the issues, and failing that, younger readers may enjoy wincing at how things actually were in The Good Old Days......and seeing what extending Grammar Schools again could mean in practice.

I attended a Boys' Grammar School in Kent in the 70s.

Hot and free school dinners in a canteen. PE lessons with compulsory communal showers afterwards, and yes, occasionally with staff. First year (Yr7) uniform including a cap, just in case students from the town's secondary moderns couldn't pick us out easily enough.

The curriculum was highly academic. Having done a term of woodwork and metalwork, I dropped both and did German. Latin and Greek were also on offer.

An hour or two for homework was simply the norm and rapidly became a habit.

I participated in a large number of clubs, as did most of my friends - chess, football, basketball, tennis (on grass courts in summer). Others did hockey, cricket, rugby, computing (anyone remember cutting edge FORTRAN coding?), bridge, orienteering, DofE, sailing, squash.....

Yes, I benefited hugely.

A work ethic instilled early on. A large range of extra-curricular opportunities.

In fact, as the son of a jazz musician and waitress, and the first in the family to go to university, quite the sort of poster boy I expect Theresa May would give her eye teeth to wheel out come the conference season.

And yet.....

How did I get there?

Let's rewind even further to my penultimate year at primary school.

We sat a test one morning. No word of prior warning, but clearly of some significance as all the desks had been separated, and the booklet was very official looking. The paper was full of questions unlike anything else we'd ever done.

Bizarrely I still recall one of the questions - there was an empty plan of Stephen's party table layout. From the paragraph of text ("Sheila is between two girls, but Susan isn't one of them.....Alex is diagonally opposite Trevor", that sort of thing) we had to reconstruct the seating plan.

By the end of the test no further mention was ever made of it again. I was 10 when I sat it. Several of my classmates would have been 9 still. As we did no further test the following year, this must have been the legendary 11+ test.

No prep, no warning, no coaching. No time for an off-day.

Parents getting divorced that week? Bad luck.

Along with 2 other boys, I was informed during my final year that I had been recommended for Grammar School. I confess, I don't exactly recall the size of my class. Probably 30, but let's say 25.

Half boys, so again a figure of 12 is probably a fair guess. 3/12 is 25%. National statistics broadly reflect this. 75-80% NOT making it through the selection process. 9 of my classmates going to one of the 3 secondary moderns in towns.

The name of at least one of these schools was a byword for thuggery, ill-discipline and breeding ground for ne'er-do-wells around town. I doubt this is much different around the country these days in those areas which still have the Grammar/Secondary Modern system.

I was quite surprised that my best friend, a very bright lad, had not been one of those recommended. The implications were clear to his mother at any rate, who burst into our class one morning after the selection announcements to part remonstrate, part plead with the class teacher to amend his list. With no success of course: and my poor friend sat in class witnessing it all.

It remains, rather sadly, one of my most vivid primary school memories.

And what of my time at Grammar? Happy days for me. But I do also vividly recall:

Being called "A flipping non-heterosexual" by another boy up my road, who saw me cycle past in my new uniform on my first day. I'd happily played football with him throughout the preceding summer at the end of our road.

A teacher telling me in my first week, how 7½/10 was the minimum expectation for homework grades. "5 or 6 is what they get up the road".

Assemblies referring to examples of poor behaviour which were only acceptable at "other schools around here".

My visits to said other schools, for away sporting fixtures, seeing the unloved, unkempt, graffitied  campuses.

I promised not to make sweeping generalisations at the start - but the divisiveness of this system, the encouraging of elitism, both seem intrinsic to me.

My former best friend joined our school in the 6th form.

No doubt supporters of this system would point to that as evidence of how there is flexibility, and every possibility for late developers to make the grade.

Yes, there will always be some who have that strength of character and/or determined supportive parents.

There will also be a vastly greater number who will have given up long before then, if they've been officially rated a failure at the age of 9 or 10.

We really don't need an extension of social engineering in our educational system, thank you very much, Theresa. When it comes to social apartheid, this country is a world leader as it is.