I’m aware that there are many better-qualified and more expert people than me writing and talking about grammar schools at the moment, but as I said in my introduction on this blog, I’d like to write anyway, just to be part of the conversation. I wasn’t going to, but this Tweet from @disappointedidealist got me thinking, even if it was said in jest:
“On the plus side, the grammar school thing really helps one to identify followed accounts to cut. Like being proBrexit. Or supporting Wigan.”
When I said that I assumed he was joking, he said,
“Sure. But there are some issues where the people on the other side are too far from moral values or basic intelligence.”
This was implying of course that anyone in favour of grammar schools lacks moral values and basic intelligence, a claim that I strongly reject.
Incidentally, I might one day write about why I think it’s a huge mistake to refuse to engage with people, even (or indeed, especially) those whom we think lack moral values, but today I’ll enter into the grammar schools debate instead, and stick my neck out somewhat: I don’t think they’re a completely dreadful idea.
Here’s why. For any students who love learning and spend a proportion of their school day bored by what they feel to be slow-paced or low-challenge lessons, perhaps also sometimes disrupted by other students who aren’t keen to learn, the idea of a school that is a sort of haven from this is very appealing. I was lucky enough to go to a school where the behaviour was pretty much impeccable and the teachers generally highly inspirational (they are of course in part responsible for me becoming a teacher, and I am eternally grateful to them, and to my parents for choosing the school that they did) but even so, I spent time in lessons being bored. By the time I was in sixth form I had decided I was going to be education minister (hah!) and I had also decided that I was going to bring back grammar schools, for students like me. I hadn’t really thought at that point about better alternatives – I just knew they existed, and believed that they would benefit intelligent, keen, motivated students, so I thought they were a good idea.
Fast-forward a couple of decades, and my thinking on them is not so black-and-white, but I’m still not convinced they’re a wholly terrible idea. However, the kind of grammar school I’d want to introduce now wouldn’t be like the ones of yesteryear. Rather, they would be grammar schools in the sense that they would be liberal arts schools – ‘grammar’ being one aspect of the traditional and also the updated Trivium, put forward by those such as Martin Robinson (@surrealanarchy). They would set very high academic standards, and teach traditional subjects such as Latin, Greek, Philosophy, etc; they would require students to study Shakespeare and ‘difficult’ texts, read extensively, and basically, work really hard. In addition, they would require participation in activities relating to music, sports, debating, and service to others, and would require consistently high standards of good behaviour. They would be selective in the sense that those who wanted a traditional, academic, stretching curriculum would select themselves to attend (or their parents would choose this kind of school for them), but there wouldn’t be an entrance exam. To overcome the remaining possibility that the most able might be bored, I would suggest that subjects could be set by ability. I know this isn’t popular with many people, but in a school that specifically existed to challenge students and to set high academic standards, it’s highly possible that those in the bottom sets wouldn’t feel left behind, or ‘stupid.’ Instead, they would (hopefully) just feel that the material – which was the same as was being taught to other students – was being presented at the appropriate pace for them. (Or, you could have one top set and all the others mixed ability, for example.)
To those who would reply, “Ok, but what happens when the school is over-subscribed? It must select somehow at that point, surely?” I would say: if that type of school becomes over-subscribed, it just shows that it’s a popular model, and more schools should become grammar schools. In this sense, in theory, if they were so popular that everyone wanted to attend, you really could realise the ‘grammar schools for all’ idea.
So, what I’m saying is, I don’t think that selecting only the most able students by means of a test at age 11 is a good idea, but I do think that giving parents and students the opportunity to choose to attend a school as described above is a good one. If it were up to me, these schools would exist and would be open to all, regardless of ability. They’d be considered grammar schools because of their traditional ethos and curriculum, but they would be open to anyone within the catchment area (which could be very large, if that were necessary to prevent the ‘selection by mortgage’ issue). In effect, they’d be selective based on the criterion of desire: if a student and/or their parent(s) wanted to learn a lot of knowledge, behave well, and work really hard, then they could attend. If they saw subjects such as Latin and Philosophy as useless, and wanted to study either more modern subjects or gain technical qualifications, then they could attend a different type of school.
Of course, this is fairly idealistic and there are problems with the idea, but perhaps not insurmountable ones.
Some might object to the fact that at least at first, the rate of expulsion from such a school could be pretty high, because in order to establish the academic and behavioural standards, you need to show very clearly where the boundaries are. Although I appreciate that this is a genuine issue, I would suggest that it might be a necessary evil (though obviously, it wouldn’t be the first resort). I think it’s the same problem that schools face in general at the moment anyway. I’m not going to go into this further at this point, because I could write for pages on the methods I’d use to achieve good behaviour in schools. Suffice to say, yes, the grammars might have difficulty at first in making the boundaries clear, and yes, it would put pressure on other schools because they would have to take on those who were expelled if there were any; but all schools should be putting measures in place to help students become well-mannered, civilized, kind, people anyway.
In a similar vein, some might object that students from disadvantaged backgrounds simply can’t behave well (i.e. they have an excuse for their bad behaviour), and that therefore disadvantaged students would end up being excluded and these grammar schools would in effect serve only middle- and upper-class privileged children. I would reply: that is an insult to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. There is no reason why any student can’t learn to behave in a measured, reasonable, kind manner, and to suggest that someone can’t because of their background is tantamount to either calling them a lesser human being, or to giving up on them. Similarly, if anyone argued that some students just can’t access such a curriculum even if they wanted to, I would give the equivalent reply: to deprive any student of the best of what has been thought and said, especially if they want to know it, because you think they’re unable to access it, is just insulting.
It’s possible that this system could still be seen as elitist. Some might still say that there would be a stigma attached to choosing to attend a non-grammar school. I think there are three ways of responding to this, and to be honest I’m not completely sure where I stand, but here they are:
- You could say that, yes, a liberal arts education is better than other forms of education, and if you don’t opt for one, then you’re choosing a worse form of education – and that in fact, all people should come to see this, and all schools should become grammar schools.
- Alternatively, you could say that actually, a liberal arts/grammar school education, and a vocational education, and a whatever-other-options-existed education are all equally valuable, but just play to different people’s strengths, and none is better than any other. If people generally took this view, there wouldn’t be a stigma attached to attending a non-grammar school. It would just be seen as a choice that people made, not as a way of signaling status or anything else.
- People in general always find ways of being divisive, and there simply isn’t a school system that would prevent stigma or prejudice. People will, sadly, always find something to be judgmental about. In other words, it’s not really the school system that creates stigma and prejudice; it’s people. If it’s not the school you attend that people criticize you for, it’s the postcode you live in, or the team you support, or the clothes you wear, or the religion you follow, or the colour of your skin. With better education in general though, people would become less prejudiced, and stigma and prejudice wouldn’t exist; that’s the ideal!
Some people might argue that the grammar schools might attract all the best teachers, leaving the other schools struggling. I’m really not convinced that this is true though. In my (limited, admittedly) experience, different schools suit different teachers, and some would want to work in a grammar school but many wouldn’t. If it did transpire that too many of the best (however you measure that) teachers were migrating to grammar schools, then perhaps incentives to work in non-grammars could be created – fewer hours counting as a full-time timetable so that people have a better work-life balance, or better pay, or something else, I don’t know. I’m sure that some arrangement or another would work though.
So there we go – that’s my contribution to the debate. Let’s take the attractive features of the old grammar schools (ethos, curriculum, behaviour, expectations) but remove the key sticking point (selection via an academic test at age 11), and let’s allow students and parents to choose whether they’d like to attend them, regardless of their academic ability.