The Prime Minister's decision to lift the ban on grammar schools has been met with celebration by some and derision by others. The argument goes that grammar schools encourage social mobility and raise standards, despite a raft of evidence to the contrary.
For those a little bewildered by the concept, in the pre-comprehensive days children were required to sit a test at age eleven (imaginatively known as the eleven plus) that would determine whether they attended the more superior and successful grammar school or the secondary modern where standards were perhaps thought to be lower. Only a handful of grammar schools still exist, but if Theresa May has her way, they'll be a whole lot more.
When I was eleven I lived in an area of the UK that had chosen to keep the grammar school system. I recall having to sit through a test that I didn't quite understand and chatting to some people I didn't know and then going home to await my fate.
My best friends had passed and had won their coveted places at the grammar school. There was this unspoken assumption that I would leave school at sixteen and find some non-professional occupation that didn't require too many qualifications.
University seemed far out of reach and my hopes of becoming a journalist like my dad had been dashed. To top it all off, the kids at my primary school had divided themselves into factions and one particularly confident lad had decided that all the grammar school boys should sit on a special table by themselves (there were only three of them). Thankfully, the head teacher put a stop to that pretty quickly.
My parents had expected me to be offered a place at the grammar school; I suspect many parents expect the same for their children and that's why they are in favour of them. Of course, more children fail than pass, so the chances are the majority of children won't get into the grammar school anyway. No matter, we have state comprehensives, academies, free schools and goodness knows how many other varieties to choose from.
In the end I only spent two years at the secondary modern (which was a pity because I was very happy there) and re-entered the comprehensive system when my parents moved. I was never very successful at school from that point on and it's taken me some time to catch up. I'm perhaps more proud of my graduate and postgraduate success because of it.
I also once taught at a comprehensive school with many pupils who had also sat the eleven plus. The school attracted children from the neighbouring city that has also retained the grammar school system, many of whom chose not to sit the test, had failed the test or had passed it but didn't want to go to the grammar school. One such pupil of mine had been offered a grammar school place but had turned it down. She told me that she never agreed with the system (even at eleven years old) so she wasn't going to play the game. Her education didn't suffer and she's now in her final year at prestigious UK university.
Psychologically and developmentally an eleven year old has a great deal of growing to do. They are on the cusp of dramatic neurological changes that can have a major impact on their behaviour. Summer born children are also at a distinct disadvantage (after all, an August born child is nearly a year younger than a September born child) and this has been shown to impact academic achievement. Eleven is not good age to make such important assumption about future success.
When I sat the eleven plus I didn't really understand what it was or what I'd be asked to do. Times have changed. Parents who can afford to, purchase resources and hire private tutors to coach their children to pass it. Less well off parents don't have this luxury so their children are less likely to get into the local grammar school. So much for social mobility.
Grammar schools won't improve anything. Indeed, it's more likely that they will widen the differences that already exist and label a whole generation of children as failures. The Prime Minister knows this because the evidence is clear but it would seem that, once again, we have a leader more concerned with currying favour than making a difference.