Wednesday, July 13, 2011


Education isn't like it was when I were a lad. Back in the 1960s at Meadow Lane Infants and later at College House Junior School, the uniform had just been abolished. Homework was a dire threat that people at secondary school talked about, and in 4th year at juniors (aka Year 6) we had a cool teacher who filled lesson with interesting music and craft projects. We even made pottery in a kiln, little suspecting that our children would be doing SATS at the same stage in their education.

At some point I have vague memories of my parents talking about the fact that grammar schools were to be abolished and a new comprehensive school was being built locally. In a last ditch attempt to get me to what they saw as a better school I was duly entered into exams which subsequently gave me a scholarship covering all the fees for me to go to Nottingham High School. Although state grammar schools had gone by the time I started there, the local authority continued to make these awards for a places at this independent school, so off I went.

Wind forwards 30 odd years and uniforms are back, primary school kids get homework, and we even still have grammar schools in some counties, including Lancashire. Despite having benefited from a highly selective school system myself, I have to admit that deep down I believe in a fully comprehensive education system. Something in me just isn't convinced that people's educational fate can be decided by an exam at 11. The problem is that the implementation of comprehensive education had early failures. It's notable that local schools which have a non-selective intake refer to themselves as 'high schools' not comprehensives. However, given we have a grammar system round here, I fully understand people participating in it; I just wouldn't have designed it that way in the first place.

Of course, selective schools get the results at GCSE and A level - they ought to, as they start with the brightest kids. My school was no exception - it was very efficient. There were lots of A grades even when they were relatively scarce, and a batch of boys off to Oxford and Cambridge each year. But is that everything that education is about?

I know people will regard this as education heresy, but it's an important question to ask. Some advocates point out that selective education can also be a source of social mobility and I guess it was for me. I ended up at secondary school and University with all sorts of people I would never have met otherwise (including former education minister Lord Adonis!). But my being lucky doesn't make the system the best we could have; it just means I was lucky.


Revsimmy said...

I wouldn't say it was just early failures - they continue to this day. Unless you have parents who are well off and/or good at playing systems, education in this country is still something of a lottery. This despite successive governments' attempts to "drive up standards," which means that no one system ever gets properly bedded in before the next comes along. And my impression, after all the tinkering, is that social mobility has reduced rather than increased and that education is far more utilitarian in nature. What price liberal education today?

You and I were both "lucky", but I also think that our generation was "lucky" in ways our children's generation isn't so much.

Chris said...

My mum missed out on a grammar school scholarship in the late 1930s as her father didn't want her moving outside her class, and looking down on her mum and dad.

Consequently we were coached for the 11+, 2 of us getting scholarships to the Girls High and one a place at grammar school.

I struggled socially for seven years until I went on to Teacher Training College (with Polys, considered very second best in the eyes of NGHS) where I met people like me.

I had lost touch with everyone from school by the time I finished my 4th year (school would have been more impressed if they'd realised my 4th year was mainly in Oxford, at the schools of Geography and Psychology, and I am now an Oxford graduate, albeit only with a B.Ed!)

The National Curriculum has equipped my children in ways we missed. In the 60s and 70s we weren't taught how to structure an essay, how to debate, how to stand up for yourself, how to use facts, not just remember them....

My daughters went on to the local comp with most of the children from their large primary school, and I consider they had a better time in those years than I had had. They may disagree, but I consider they came out of school better equipped to face the world.

Maybe these days selective schools are less snobby. I thought I was unique in carrying this chip on my shoulder (yes, I've had prayer for it, and no, it's not an ongoing problem, but you raised the subject and I'm responding). But recently I've met a head teacher's daughter who quoted her mum's co-op divi number at the High School, rather than admit to not having a phone at home. There will always be bullying to face, however politely and well spokenly it's done.

Sorry to rant - I've been mulling this since you first posted it.