There is a rosy view of grammar schools that looks something like this...
Children who are clever, bookish, and dedicated but might not have a lot of money (those who the Victorians considered the 'deserving poor') are creamed off from the ones who aren't so bright, or those who are disruptive, or the ones who just don't want to learn. They're given an inspiring education among other similar children, and head off seven years later to university, bursting with knowledge and full of plans for their wonderful future.
Sounds great, doesn't it? No wonder Prime Minister Theresa May and education secretary Justine Greening are so excited about the prospect of bringing back selection to education.
Except it's not like that at all. My son has just started year five and secondary school is looming. We live in Bromley - a London borough with two super-selective schools. We are also close to the border with the borough of Bexley, which runs borough-wide selection tests and has several grammar schools, and not far from Kent, the county that is widely thought of as the gold standard for selective schools. It's positively over-flowing with grammars and recently managed to get round the law forbidding new grammar schools by exploiting a loophole to create an annexe of an existing school.
So my son could potentially take three tests this time next year. If he passes he will be eligible to attend five or six very good schools. What a wonderful world of opportunity awaits him - what chances he has.
Except, once more, it's not like that. The stark reality is that already - with a year to go before he sits the tests - most of the kids who plan to take the grammar exams have been having extra tuition for a year, or longer and most of the tutors are already booked up. By the end of this year, between 90 and 100% of those children will be having extra lessons. That's at a state primary in a London suburb.
So those 'deserving poor' kids? The ones who can't afford the extra £30 plus a week for tutoring? They're out straight away. And do you know who's in? Prep school kids. Friends with older children at grammars tell me at least half of their kids' classmates were at independent primary schools. Schools where they are taught how to take these exams, where they have dedicated exam classes, and extra lessons at weekends, and summer school - and sometimes external tuition as well.
Anecdotally, I've heard that boys from all over London and the south east come to take the test for our local super-selective, and sometimes from as far afield as Hong Kong or Singapore, with their families relocating if the children pass the test. The school's results are comparable with the top private schools in London so it's a risk worth taking - if you can afford it.
The stats bear this out. According to The Sutton Trust, grammar schools take just 3% of kids on free school meals, compared with the average of 18%. It's not an even playing field and it's not giving poor kids - deserving or not - opportunities. In fact, it's thought that poorer children do dramatically worse in grammar areas. A study for the Financial Times in 2011 found that selective education benefits the top 5% of society by income, and leaves the bottom 50% worse off.
Meanwhile the nine and ten year old children at my son's school are spending their evenings, weekends and holidays doing extra schoolwork for a year, or maybe two, or even longer. And how will they feel if something goes wrong on the day? If they feel ill? If they forget to turn over their question paper and miss half the test? If they're distracted by a bee in the room or another pupil with a runny nose? Will they feel like failures? Because I think that's a lot of pressure to put on a child.
My son is kind and empathetic. He's funny, and creative, full of energy and enthusiasm, and he's a brilliant swimmer. As far as the grammar schools are concerned, though, that's not important. All they care about is how he performs in one exam he takes on one morning, this time next year.
Grammar schools are a step backwards in my opinion. They don't improve social mobility, they don't benefit poor kids and they don't value children in the right way for the things that are really important. I hope the government takes off its rose-tinted glasses and sees these plans for what they are, before it's too late.
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