Prince Charles thinks we need more grammar schools – and many others agree with our future king.
Fortunately we live in a democracy, so the Prince of Wales isn't actually in charge of education, but senior Tories are said to be urging David Cameron to consider the idea of selective state schools again.
So what's it like living with grammar schools? Well, you don't have to go back to the 1950s to find out. The grammar school system is alive and well in a number of counties throughout the country – including ours.
We moved here nearly two years ago and were plunged into the mysteries of the selective system just as we were choosing a primary school for our oldest child.
So, here are 10 things I've learned about the grammar school system already:
1. It sends parents bonkers.
Only the other day I heard a mother describing how her three-year-old daughter had just started private tuition. Yes, that's right. THREE YEARS OLD. There was nothing unusual about this child – she wasn't a genius, or struggling – her parents just wanted her to 'get ahead'.
2. The competitive element is there even from before nursery school.
There is a perceived 'best nursery school', which is seen as the feeder for the 'best primary school' – the one which is rumoured to hothouse the children and train them up for the grammar school entrance exam.
3. The pressure. Seriously, the pressure.
Can you imagine? It's bad enough that kids sit national tests all the way through primary school. Some of these children, as we've already seen, have their parents breathing down their neck about phonics before they can even speak. "Grammar schools put so much pressure on kids," says Hollie, who has two daughters at primary school.
4. Sure, grammar schools allow some academically gifted children from poor families the 'opportunity to escape from their background', as the Prince of Wales puts it.
But those children are competing for places with many kids who have been given private tuition since nursery school. Kids whose parents have enough money to move into the right catchment area for the 'right' primary school. Fair? Not really.
5. Grammar schools divide the community. "They create a two-tier system," says Mark, who has one daughter at primary school and one at nursery. "There's a kind of stigma attached to the non-grammar school kids – it's as if they're written off and looked down upon by the rest of the town. We really should do more to support academically able children, but academic opportunity shouldn't come down to how well off your parents are."
6. The 'secondary modern' school suffers.
OK, it's not really called a secondary modern any more. But everyone knows that's what it is. And because the cream is scooped off the top, of course the school doesn't do as well as it 'should', given its catchment. So parents start to avoid it. Exam results suffer. It gets a dodgy Ofsted report. And the cycle goes on.
7. So another, micro-system of competitiveness kicks in.
Parents start to weigh up their options, often before their child starts primary school. Is little Sophie likely to get into the grammar school? If not, should we perhaps put her in a feeder school for the OTHER comprehensive school over the county border?
8. Children are defined as failures at the age of 11.
This is a big one. Parents, desperate for their kids to get into the grammar schools, insist on them sitting the entrance exam even when they have little or no chance of passing. Imagine the crushing sense of failure for these children as they disappoint their parents.
"Pupils start secondary school feeling a failure. It's not good for self-esteem or motivation to achieve in school," says Catherine, another local parent.
9. Selection changes the local eco-system.
The well-off parents from other parts of the country calculate that they can save an awful lot of money by moving to our town, paying for private tuition to get their kids into the grammar school and avoiding the £5,000 a term they might have to pay for private education.
10. Boys and girls are separated at 11.
Come on – this is 2014. Aren't single-sex schools a bit... last century? Or the century before that? Debbie, whose daughter is currently at primary school, says: "I know I personally had more male than female friends so I'm not sure if an all girls school would be OK or not – she would probably spend half her time trying to see her friends at the boys school!"
What's wrong with the simple aim of making all our schools better, and our society more equal? David Blunkett describes his conversations with Prince Charles: "I would explain that our policy was not to expand grammar schools, and he didn't like that.
"He was very keen that we should go back to a different era where youngsters had what he would have seen as the opportunity to escape from their background, whereas I wanted to change their background."
But that's just more complicated, isn't it? Why bother? It's so much easier to split the 'sheep from the goats' as David Cameron puts it, and define our children's entire lives based on how they perform in a test at the age of 11.
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