From the age of thirteen, I attended a grammar school.
I’m from Kent, a county with grammar schools in every town, so this isn’t unusual. However I find as an adult, revealing you went to a ‘selective’ school often provokes a reaction of curiosity, confusion and even open disapproval. It’s a political statement. Even though as a child, your parents’ choice of school isn’t your own political statement.
However, despite being the product of a grammar school, I am completely against the system.
As something of a political hot-potato, the subject of grammar schools and whether or not the government should increase or restrict them is a recurring unresolved debate. Often politicians will use the very idea of selective – but not fee-paying – education to reinforce their broader principles. But do they ever consider feedback from first-hand experience of the system?
I believe the grammar school system is unhealthy for students on every part of the spectrum. And single sexgrammar schools simply add to the problem with another layer of segregation.
My feelings on this are stronger because I attended a mixed comprehensive school for two years before I moved to a girls’ grammar school. Due to a quirk in the selection process, I was among the last years to take the 13+ entrance exam and transition in Year Nine.
It made for quite an intriguing comparison.
Many campaigners argue that grammar schools allow brighter students from working class backgrounds to learn with others of similar ability. On day one at the grammar school, I found myself sitting in a new classroom with all the same girls (but, alas, none of the boys) from the comprehensive top set class. The only difference was a negative: we no longer had the opportunity to socialise and take subjects like sport and art with the other students, experiencing a more accurate reflection of the society we would be part of as adults. It isn’t selective education, it’s segregated education.
In my opinion, there were no major benefits to annexing us in a school for the highest-achieving.
Some people assume that clever kids like feeling special. But at a grammar school, all perspective is lost. Work and grades that would have been celebrated at a comprehensive were average, ordinary, if not even scorned at times. When a certain standard is commonplace, it raises the bar even higher to deliver something outstanding.
But isn’t that the point of grammar schools, to encourage even greater levels of excellence?
If a well-rounded experience were provided I might agree. But in grammar education I experienced a very narrow, academic curriculum with no appreciation for those with different talents; the artistic, the sporty, the practical. It was Maths, English, Science. Maybe History or Languages. Very few other subjects or inclinations mattered, so we had no opportunity (or facilities) to explore our other qualities. We were defined by one aspect of our abilities. As a student with creative interests, I found the traditional academic environment stifling; regardless of the fact that I was a high achiever. And I firmly believe that we could have been pushed just as hard, and reached the same levels of achievement, within the top set of a comprehensive school with a different atmosphere and ethos.
A grammar school education left me with one particular burden: an uncomfortable relationship with my own ‘cleverness’.
Many critics of grammar schools argue that they are full of children from wealthy families and they foster inequality. I can’t speak for every grammar school in the country, but I can say that at mine, hardly anyone was genuinely wealthy. There would always be some girls whose parents drove better cars, and who went on nicer holidays (or, just went on holiday at all). But any wealth was modest. I saw more students from deprived backgrounds with social challenges. That was a reflection on the demographics of the area, which I suspect is the case for most grammars.
But inequality? Yes they certainly do create that.
Separating us from the rest of the student pool arguably did us, and our town, more damage. The atmosphere in a grammar school town at 3.45pm on a school day can be tense. I don’t blame the comprehensive school kids, why shouldn’t they feel insulted by a system that excluded them? The grammar school kids, in turn, felt marked out by their uniform and burdened with a label. Some did enjoy that distinction, but it was just as unhealthy for them.
I believe the comprehensive schools really suffered from the loss, or absence, of their top stream students. It creates an ability chasm, and a skewed spectrum of achievement in their results. The comprehensive students missed the opportunity to socialise and learn with us, as much as we missed the opportunity to with them.
I can only speak from my own experience of the grammar school system, not the thousands who pass through the system and might see benefits to it. But as I stepped out into the world after grammar education, I felt that I had really missed out on something. From a social perspective at least. And in a highly-socialised society, I think that really matters.
In the adult world, it’s highly idealistic to believe that we aren’t still divided by intelligence and class to some degree.
But what chance do we have of addressing that, if grammar schools still exist to separate the top 25%?
So, thanks for that, Kent. You may be the Garden of England, with beautiful rolling hills and many country pubs I enjoy drinking in. But in my view your educational structure needs a good shake-up. And I lived the system.