Do you remember Jennings? Possibly some kids still read about the terribly posh, awfully naughty Prep school boy. More likely, he lives on through the fans of his 1960s heyday. There is even a Jennings Appreciation Society to stir old memories.
Even less plentiful than Jennings books are novels about Anthony Buckeridge’s other creation. Rex Milligan. Young Milligan is Jennings without the money. Although he is still extremely middle class, poor Rex’s parents had to send him to the local grammar school to enjoy his Enid Blyton style adventures. Although Rex was never as popular as Jennings, he did have one advantage; a ready supply of easily identifiable foes. The grubby, nasty boys from the local Secondary Modern down the road. Boys who were, wait for it, working class.
‘My parents kept me from children who were rough,’ as the poet Stephen Spender might say.
Snobbery is an odious disease. Its tentacles corrupt far beyond their reach. Grammar schools are breeding grounds for it. Not, it has to be said, among pupils. Snobbery is an adult disease. It lives among parents. It comes to light at the school gate and at dinner parties. And it is perpetuated by many of society’s leaders.
For a number of years I was head of a Buckinghamshire primary school – (somebody has to be) – and for those from more educationally meritocratic regions, that particularly county is so enamoured with grammar schools that children have to be consciously opted out of taking the 11+ exam or they are forced to endure it, irrespective of their own thoughts on the matter.
Other counties – Kent and Lincolnshire notably, but pockets in other regions – also subject their ten-year olds to this early judgement of potential (what kind of potential, of course, being open to debate).
Typically, anxiety begins to show around Year 4. It is at this point that parents are seriously reaching into their pockets to pay for specific 11+ tutoring – typical cost, £25-£35 per hour. Of course, local authorities try to perpetuate the myth that tutoring makes no difference. NFER, who for many years provided the exams used by Buckinghamshire, admit themselves that three years of tuition makes a substantial difference to results. It is bound to. Tutoring means that the simple questions can be answered quickly, giving more time for the harder problems.
Techniques and tricks can be taught.
Further, in the county’s schools specific 11+ practice is limited to two sample papers. Thus, only those parents rich enough to afford tuition are likely to see their children pass.
Where parents can afford it, a number of Prep schools exist around the county which specifically prepare pupils for the 11+ test. They face no restriction on the preparation they can offer. Unsurprisingly, four years of unrelenting practice might stultify a child’s enjoyment of education, but does at least improve their chances of scoring the magical pass mark on the entrance exam.
So, one of the biggest iniquities of grammar schools immediately comes to the fore. They overtly cater for children from wealthier homes. In the already affluent town of Buckingham, its two secondary schools sit back to back. The Royal Latin School is a grammar and has a miserly 2.8% of students on pupil premium (the school calls these students ‘scholars’!) while its immediate neighbour, the comprehensive Buckingham School, comes in at 8.2%. The figures do not lie.
Back to life for grammar school area primary pupils. Year 5 is one of great stress, as parental and peer pressure is racked up but as Year 6 begins, the youngsters (in Buckinghamshire at least) are thrown immediately into two days of 11+ tests. They then face a six week wait for their results. Inevitably, tensions are raised. While the rest of the country’s ten-year olds have a good idea which secondary school they will go to, those in a grammar area must wait before being pushed towards either a highly successful, well-funded (lots of endowments!) and strongly staffed school, or one for ‘failures’. What chance does a comprehensive school have with students already burdened with low self-esteem, academic failure and parents who feel let down by the system?
But of course, these secondaries are not comprehensive schools – such institutions cater for the full ability range while a grammar school area comprehensive has no access to the brightest 20% of students. Is it any wonder that many frequently fall foul of OFSTED?
Statistics suggest that, on average, students of similar ability attending a grammar school score about one grade higher at GCSE than their counterparts outside grammar school areas. So, there is little doubt that such schools do a good job. But then, they really should. They are highly selective: academically more so than the likes of Eton and Harrow, and socially because house prices are higher in areas with grammar schools (no wonder the Tory councilors in Buckinghamshire – and most probably the likes of Lincolnshire, Kent and so forth – support them…).
In a way, the structure that allows for this kind of selection is more iniquitous than the independent school system. At least there, social exclusivity is transparent. Grammar schools, through no fault of the teachers who work in them, are claimed to be the agents of social mobility whereas in reality they widen the achievement gap between middle- and working-class students. They reduce social mobility.
It remains a Conservative party wish to extend their availability. But so sensitive is the subject that it is a policy that remains on the back burner. There can be a case made for different types of educational provision for different styles of learners. But not while the ‘academic’ education that is perceived as being provided by grammar schools is valued so much more highly than practical study. If that perception could change, then the case for the existence, and even expansion, of grammar schools becomes more valid.
I am happy to admit that this article has not been particularly balanced. I make no apology for that. Because I have seen the effects that grammar schools entry tests have on young people; how success and failure at the ludicrous 11+ exam affects them for life – psychologically as well as academically; I have seen first hand the devastating impact of getting the ‘Results Letter’ (so important, it must be capitalized) and opening it to see the word ‘Fail’ casting a judgement over a child’s entire educational career.
But it is not the schools themselves that are to blame. It is historical elitism perpetuated by largely right wing, middle aged local and national politicians which allows these schools to wreck children’s lives. They should be ashamed of themselves. But they are not.
Anthony Buckeridge caught the mood of the tripartite educational system of the 1960s perfectly. In many ways, education is now more socially just – although it is far from perfect. However, the existence of grammar schools perpetuates inequality. Not because they are inherently evil, but because of the attitude society maintains towards 11+ success and failure.
1- State school teaching job vs private school teaching job
2- Working in independent schools
3- The rise in private tuition: Why are so many pupils having extra lessons outside school?
4- State v independent – Dispelling the myths?