My take on the #grammarschools debate

This is a topic I’ve toyed with writing about for years. I’m acutely aware of how fortunate and ‘blessed’ I am on so many levels, and how much privilege I have experienced compared to so many other I know. I’m also acutely aware of the ‘champagne socialist’ charges that may well come with this post. But I’m going to plunge in anyway.

I went to a single-sex, 98%-white grammar school. In Home Counties In the 1980s. In fact, I was very much the child of Thatcher. And like many children of Thatcher I know, I’m almost grateful to her for teaching me what I don’t stand for and thereby making me realise, from a relatively early age, what I do.

At 11, we all sat an exam (there wasn’t a choice). You came out as a ‘pass’ or a ‘fail’. Yes, we used those terms. Yes, I have no doubt that children still do.  You were then set off down your path: ‘secondary modern’ or ‘grammar’. Children aren’t stupid. they knew what this meant. And despite enlightened parents who assured us life’s path really isn’t that simple, the stigma for my closest friends and family who ‘failed’ was firmly in place in the children’s minds.

It was essentially an IQ test. Having come out as ‘below average’ in a recently televised nationwide IQ test on TV, I’m not entirely sure I’d pass today… But I was lucky enough to be one of the lucky ones.

And I’ve done well. Of course I have. Thanks to the school? Well, quite possibly. On the other hand, my self-perception was as someone rather bland, hovering around the ‘average’ at school. Competitiveness was all. I don’t do competition well (despite the claims of my Pontoon-playing friends over the summer). Frankly, it was just never QUITE good enough.

I’m not precious about much, but I distinctly remember my Geography teacher calling me Emma Nell and the perceived disdain and sense of invisibility that came with it. SHE DIDN’T EVEN KNOW MY NAME. I was horribly offended. I never quite forgave her and never got on with Geography after that (girls can be a very unforgiving bunch!)

Did my school teach me well? Of course it did. Am I grateful? Well, yes. Would I have done just as well in a comp? Would I have been corrupted by the ‘less academic’, the ‘less aspirational’, the more diverse? Well, not half as much as I was corrupted by the young ladies of Buckinghamshire in the ’80s, I suspect (toe-curling memories…. There’s a reason why I rule with a fist of iron on school trips). And yes, there was a serious motion to change the name of the school to the ‘B**** Academy for Young Ladies’. Was I happy? Well, no. Would I have been happier at a different school? Possibly. I was pretty brooding teenager. But the ‘not quite good enough’ took me decades to shake off. Ironic, given that I was a ‘pass’…

And then there’s the research, which puts a child’s chance of success firmly at the door of the parents. So, ‘x equals minus b plus or minus the square root of b squared minus 4 ac all over 2a’ will be with me to my dying day (though I have no idea what to do with it!) thanks to hours at the dininig table with my Dad. ‘The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne…’ and the ten lines afterwards, thanks to my Mum. And pathetic fallacy, Chaucer, French irregular verbs. And not being allowed out (the indignation) two Saturdays in a row. And music lessons and travel and museums and the sheer joy of reading under the covers with a torch until 2 a.m.

So, what do I know for sure? That I am a passionate advocate of comprehensive schools. That little gives me more joy than watching motley crews of mixed children interacting and learning tolerance and respect through friendship. That I believe that no child should EVER be branded a ‘fail’ at ANY level, let alone at the brink of adolescent. That happiness is more important than academic achievement. That, like John Tomsett, I was always champion ‘love over fear’. That I would rather eat my arm off than teach in a grammar school. That I’d like to rip down the advertisements for 11+ tuition outside the PRE-SCHOOL. That I will never work in a school with a table-cloth pattern for a blouse. That the children I teach will be challenged to be as excellent as they can be, but that they will also be allowed to be themselves, and explore and stumble and fail and get up again, and be happy.

Am I responding in the classic ‘pendulum’ approach to the generation before? Almost certainly. Am I just the spoilt middle class girl? I fear, at times, I might be. I’ll have to take that charge, if it means I get to continue working in joyful, diverse and ramshackle comprehensives and my own children are allowed to be children for as long as possible.

1 thought on “My take on the #grammarschools debate

  1. Interesting to read, Emma. I went to a grammar school too, though it became a comprehensive during my time there in the 1970s (in fact it started to change the year after I arrived) which, in retrospect, was an interesting process to be part of.

    And, as you now, I’ve taught in comprehensives and grammars and independent schools – and I know that’s not something many teachers would do, but it’s given me an interesting overview of the different systems and I’m pleased I did….

    Hope you’ve had a very good half term break and that you did manage to stop thinking about school for part of it, at least!

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