Under the veil of the recent election result, the government published the briefing summary Grammar Schools in England, composed of three sections: Current Position; The Debate and A Brief History of Grammar Schools.
Currently there is a ban on opening new grammar schools, imposed under Labour in 1998. Previously Margret Thatcher closed or merged most grammars in favour of non-selective comprehensives. It has been suggested this was due to middle-class resentment of selection.
One of the main arguments for bringing grammars back is that selection will aid social mobility between classes, despite the briefing summary making references that contradict this. It will be interesting to see how parliament will address this issue.
While we wait, it seems important to highlight one of the most prominent working-class grammar school students turned academic, Richard Hoggart, published in 1957 a ground breaking book The Uses of Literacy: Aspects of Working-Class Life. The book was so powerful it helped lay the foundations of British Cultural Studies. I wonder if he have become an academic had he not attended a grammar school?
Actually, I have met a multitude of older academics and professionals who are from a working-class upbringing, however, I have met only a handful from my own generation and younger. The common factor for the older generation is selection through grammar school. I wonder how many more of my working-class peers would have made it to university had we all been given the option to go to a grammar school?
From my own personal experience, university was a massive cultural shock to me. The vast majority of my university peers had very different childhoods to me: they had never been in fights or around drugs and crime; had money and nice houses with cars; went on yearly holidays to nice places abroad; were well spoken and came with a kind of innocence that I hadn't known since I was a young child. These differences left me feeling rather isolated and were rooted in the fact that most of my university peers were middle to upper class and grew up in a demographic served by a good school that destined them for university and professional careers.
As I have grown older and entered the professional world, my feeling of isolation and 'otherness' has remained, as the vast majority of my professional peers are also consistently from middle and upper class backgrounds. It seems that the decline of grammars has resulted in selection by social class.
It was my cultural isolation, along with the sense of injustice at the lack of academic opportunities for kids from my background, that inspired me to go into teaching. I wanted to help change the status quo, acting as a role model for working-class youths, inspiring them to go to university and gain professional careers.
If grammars still existed at large I would not have become a teacher after university, as more working-class children would be selected for a good education. Currently good schooling is too often based on catchment i.e. selection by house price, and/or access to tutoring, often excluding the less well off. Should the future of child be based on the income of their parents and local demographic?
I believe that working-class children who show potential or have a thirst for a good education, which leads to a professional career, should be granted one. Unfortunately this is not the case, but more grammar schools could make it possible. It annoys me that the media and politicians are using pro-social-mobility for their anti-grammar stance, particularly when they use the argument that lifting the ban will result in the others getting left behind. Who are the others though? It seems to me this would be the rest of the working-class who are currently being left behind either way. We cannot all be socially mobile of course, but, surely its better that the most talented working-class children are supported to transcend social classes rather than none at all. In turn some would become as important and influential to society as Hoggart.
If proposals do go ahead then the selection process needs to be revised, for a number of reasons: Firstly there is the ethical question of selection at eleven, that is not solved by the conservative manifesto allowing later entry; Wealth enables private pre-schooling to help secure a place - currently the amount of grammar students from independent primary schools is disproportionate to those on Free School Meals (FSM - the governments poverty indicator), with prep schools providing four times the amount of students; There is also a big market for tutoring for the eleven plus exams, something that those from poorer backgrounds cannot afford, however, it has been suggested that entry grades for children on FSM should be lowered ; Although, even the FSM criteria itself is questionable as it is not a good indicator of poverty, meaning that many worthy candidates could miss out; We also need to ask, do entry tests actually work at all?
Finally, should we be opening grammars at the expense of other schools? Many schools are already struggling with budgets and could make good use of the funds diverted to grammars and other schools, which have been designated £320 million in March's budget.
With all these questions perhaps there is a better solution? Maybe one such option is to ask the independent sector to provide many more places to working-class children. This would not only facilitate social-mobility but would also lessen the burden on state education budgets and expense to existing schools. The government could then focus on raising the achievement and make a school system that works for all rather than just the middle classes or academically inclined.