The arguments against grammar schools are well-known and have been revisited with gusto this week, following the Prime Minister’s proposal to increase their number in England.
Whilst research shows that the attainment gap between children eligible for free school meals and those not eligible is smaller in selective schools at GCSE, the fact remains that this is a very small number of children (about 11 each year in each grammar school, according to BBC Reality Check). Teresa May declares that there will be more grammar school places for children from poorer families, which is to be welcomed, but you have to wonder how she will combat the ‘teaching to the test’ that takes place amongst wealthier families. How can less privileged children compete with those kids that receive private tuition for up to a year preceding the entrance exam? One option is for primary schools to offer free tuition outside of the school timetable (how this would be implemented is another story, with teachers already stretched way beyond what is realistically possible to achieve in a school day). But I am not here to be a cheerleader for selective schooling, because the question will always remain – what about those children who don’t get in?
I enjoyed reading Jonathan Freedland‘s take on selective schooling today. I felt that he opened up an honest debate about what schools mean to parents. It is easy to be churlish and take vicious swipes at grammar schools if you believe, as I do, that education should be offered on a more level playing field. But as Freedland rightly points out, ‘most human beings will always seek the very best education for their children, and that’s perfectly natural’. Today, my 10-year old nephew sits his entrance exam for a grammar school, and I wish only wonderful things for him. He has worked tremendously hard to prepare for the exam and deserves to do well. And therein lies the problem: we all want the best for the children we love, which is why every child must have the chance to succeed, not just the privileged few. It is not fair to pass judgement on parents who seek grammar school places for their kids – most of us would do the same given the chance. I can sit cosily in judgment in Northumberland knowing that grammar schools are not an option for my children, but Freedland is right to say that we need a system that ‘works for the collective good’.
To me, this means developing a truly collaborative education system, where academic prowess sits alongside practical skills and holds equal value. We need to be brave enough, too, to admit that all those parent with sharp elbows should be working with less influential and less vocal parents in order to offer the very best to each and every child. The playwright, Alan Bennett, was heavily criticised in 2014 for suggesting that ‘private education is not fair. Those who provide it know it. Those who pay for it know it. Those who have to sacrifice in order to purchase it know it. And those who receive it know it, or should.’ This comment was deemed radical and provocative, but Bennett speaks the truth. Rather than segregating children based on their wealth or their academic ability, why not pool resources and offer every child the same opportunities? It is simple and obvious, yet it has never been taken seriously as a solution to social mobility because it will mean such a huge shift in the status quo. The trickle-down effect of changing educational provision so dramatically would be greater social cohesion, and an opportunity for us all to reconsider what success actually means. It would take ambitious vision, a stretch of imagination and generosity of spirit to make it work. Are we up for the challenge?