Grammar Schools are once again dominating the British news realm with government plans to take a "pragmatic" look at the construction of new grammar schools. The announcement, luke warm though it was, has been enough to start the familiar debates rolling about Middle Class privilege versus offering opportunities to Working Class children.
The battle lines are familiar and the sound bites all well-worn but, in truth, we're all shedding blood and ink over the wrong fight.
On its surface, and detached from the current debate and Britains previous experience with the Grammar system, there is absolutely nothing wrong with offering an education system that pushes the academically minded in one direction and offers more vocational qualifications for those who are not exam-oriented. Indeed, these systems work exceptionally well in countries like Germany where the youth unemployment rate of 7.8% is one of the best in Europe, and is nearly half of the UK rate of 13.7% (which doesn't include variable or zero-hours contract workers) .
The problem for British advocates of a Grammar system is twofold. Firstly, there is the historic and continuing experience of grammar schools which undoubtedly most benefit children from upper and middle class backgrounds. These childrens parents are those most likely to afford tutors for their children, thereby helping ensure high marks on the 11 plus and taking up a majority of places in highly competitive schools. The second problem is quite simply that we, as a society, turn our nose up at vocational work and assign a stigma of failure to all those children who can't make it on the academic path.
A quick browse of this BBC story paints the picture clearly, with stories of parents who can't bear the thought of their children leaving this academic path. Just one example:
"If we educate all our children to mediocre standards then who will become a doctor, lawyer or a politician? They will only be fit to do menial jobs and not have the skills to become leaders or scientists and push the boundaries." (Emphasis Added)
Provides a perfect look at the language we use to describe Vocational Courses. Everything that isn't at the highest rungs of academic achievement becomes Menial Labour, unfit to be done by our previous darlings who are set to conquer the world.
How toxic is this attitude? Well, toxic enough that failing the 11 plus can become cross that children bear their whole lives, as another interviewee put it:
"After that I felt like a failure. I felt like I was the stupid one in the family. At the time, the view in society was that if you didn't go to a grammar school you had to do the more menial jobs"
If we put that aside for a moment, it's also an attitude that is dooming many of our high performing graduates to take up the worst of the 'menial' jobs we're supposedly helping them avoid.
Essentially, we're helping to perpetuate a skills inbalance in this country that has contributed to our import-heavy and service based economy. For every graduate job there may be dozens, if not hundreds, of applicants while finding a skilled tradesman is a challenge that has prompted the creation of at least three different comparison websites I can think of off-hand. This means that, while academically trained candidates are essentially resigned to 'unskilled labour' due to a lack of practical experience, a good and hardworking plumber, electrician or engineer can command excellent wages for their age group. In fact IT Specialist and Electrical Engineer, both positions possible to attain from Vocational courses, crack the top 30 highest paid jobs in the UK alongside Legal Professionals and Financial Managers.
We need to take a step back from the debate about Grammar Schools and reassess the way we treat Vocational education. The expansion of Apprenticeships is a good start, but even these with their less-then-minimum wages and continued intrusion of Academic achievement are far from perfect.
If the system can be rebalanced then it will offer the best possible future for all our children. Which is, ultimately, what we all should want.
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