25 July 2016

An anecdote in praise of grammar schools

This is an anecdote.

I was born in 1982 and raised in a housing association house on the east of Birmingham. My mum worked as a teaching assistant in my primary school, and my dad on the shop floor of a vehicle parts factory. He biked it to work because we didn't have a car. My mum's parents weren't called grandparents. They were Nan and Granddad, and they too lived in council housing. My Nan used to bath all three of us kids at the same time, and wash our faces with our own underpants. True story. We were working class.

Birmingham has always had a strong grammar school presence, and I was one of the select few to whom those schools afforded an opportunity that I had no right to claim. No one coached me for the 11-plus entry exam, I just turned up and did it. They offered me a place.

That was a critical moment.  I loved the environment at my school, and felt immediately at home. It was an environment in which I was able to indulge my love of learning and my teachers pushed me, tested me and challenged me. I never excelled in any one particular area, but was a kind of jack of all trades.

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The education I received was first rate. Not perfect, but first rate. The seven mile bus ride to school was absolutely worth it. I spoke Latin with a Brummie accent. I went to 'Greek Club' during my lunchtimes, although the club didn't last very long. We sat in rows in nearly every lesson. I played Rugby, Cricket, and Hockey. We wore blazers right up to and including sixth form, and still had to ask permission to remove them. We stood whenever teachers entered the room. Behaviour problems were close to nonexistent. Expectations were high. Very high.

I got some good A Level results and went off to Loughborough University for the sport scene. More than ten kids in my year - none of whom had ever paid a penny for their education - headed off to Oxbridge.

But not everyone thinks grammar schools are a good idea and I get that. (I was taught in one, but I've never taught in one. My school teaching experience has been in state comprehensives.) The debate has been raging for a very long time and there are some compelling arguments on both sides. I'm not getting in to that now; this is simply an anecdote.

Would I have got the A level results that I did, or would I have got to my University of choice had I been to a regular state comp? Would I have cultivated my love of reading, writing and ruminating to the same extent had I not bothered with (or flunked) the 11-plus exam? Honestly, I don't know for sure. What I do know is that plenty of people have done exceedingly well having never set foot inside a grammar school.

But I do suspect, given my background, my personality and my personal set of circumstances, that had I not been to grammar school I would never have gone as far as I have. My grammar school education placed me on a different trajectory, and for that I'm grateful.

Plus, my kids call my mum 'Grandma' and I wash their faces with a flannel.

This has been an anecdote.

1 comment:

  1. Thought provoking post. I think it would have been sad if you had gone to a comprehensive and not reached university. Do the kids in the comprehensives where you teach underachieve and get poor A levels? I went to a comprehensive and reached university. My daughter failed the eleven plus (we're in Kent) yet has got all As in her mocks (not an accurate test) and she suffered awful secondary moderns with far too many supply teachers, but she will get to university. But then again 47% of children get to university these days, mostly from comprehensive schools, things have changed. And I hope those extra university graduates are from a mix of classes too. Everyone who goes to a grammar school seems to speak so highly of them, but I would so much rather all our schools looked out for and nurtured its talented pupils instead of classing them as talented or not with a test at age 10. My daughter will go to a grammar school for sixth form (in Kent that's the way to correct for the 11 plus mistakes, though sadly many stay in sec mods and do BTECS not A levels.) So we have looked at lots of grammar schools, and been absolutely gobsmacked by the differences from the secondary modern. Yes, class differences. I have a sneaky suspicion that grammar schools are great schools not because they gather bright children together, but because don't allow lower classes and their troublesome issues. Perhaps that works, I accept it probably does. Perhaps it allows bright, mostly middle class children to thrive, but it's utterly depressing. It may be the easiest way to make a good school, but is it the right way?

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