I was asked recently by a campaign organisation if I want them to do any campaigning for or against grammar schools. Well this is not a simple decision to make and I have my own thoughts on it.
To give a bit of an intro to my background, I currently home educate my 3 children. 1 or 2 of them may never go to Uni or be academic material, due to their mild learning difficulties and special needs profile. 1 of them has aspirations to work with animals but we’re all happy for her to do whatever helps to materialise this dream. Thus we won’t be necessarily aiming for vet school (which would entail possibly applying to grammar or selective schools when she is 10) but we’d also consider either schooling or home educating and doing exams as a private candidate in local exam centres for GCSEs and A levels so she can apply to Uni to study Zoology, or helping her gain experience working with animals locally.
I think grammar schools are good for certain children (I benefitted from a similar system in a former Commonwealth country -prior to grammar I went to a state primary where I was bullied for being booksmart and not stretched in my abilities). I also think the existence of such schools ensures a better educated population and this will drive progress for the nation. I also think that it is important to remember most of us are not naturally talented at academics and comprehensives and sec moderns should not be focusing on making their students do well in academics but rather teach from a more holistic mindset, helping each child in their schools find their natural talents (which should not be focused on academics in the main, unless the child requests for it or shows a strong interest or ability in it). I think it is a complete waste of time and money for the government to make all comprehensive and sec moderns focus on pushing academics on their students, who may not have an academic bent and may grow to loathe school altogether and not do well in exams simply because the schools are pushing them in directions they are not naturally inclined to nor interested in. I support the existence of a more child-led approach to children who are in state comps and sec moderns. Allow them to focus on their interests, support their focus, and not force them to do better in academics especially when they don’t want to do academics.
What also upsets the whole system in the current situation is that richer parents are “buying” their children a way into grammar schools by private tutoring or such. A lot of revision books for 11+ can be found in bookshops and the like. Any child can be drilled to do better at that kind of questions. This, coupled with private tutoring, can help a more mediocre child get in and deprive someone who is naturally talented a place. So I propose that firstly, grammar schools use exam questions that children cannot be drilled for at home or with private tutors. If Oxbridge unis can set entrance exam questions or interviews that applicants cannot be easily drilled for, surely grammar schools can come up with something along the same vein?
Secondly, the way the 11+ is administered in this country (or at least in the parts of the country I’ve lived in) is currently an “opt in” type arrangement where children are only entered to do the 11+ exam if their parent/carer applies to the grammar school or council for them to do the exam, when they are beginning year 6. This is disadvantageous to parents in poorer households who may not be knowledgeable of, or know how to access advice pertaining to 11+ exam applications and such, these affected parents may miss out on helping their children obtain a place in the 11+ exam. So these children won’t even get a shot at these exams. I propose that all state primaries ensure all children in their schools are entered automatically for the 11+. In fact, I think the 11+ could be done in place of KS2 SATS or perhaps it might be possible to come up with a Year 6 exam paper for all children that combines KS2 SATS and 11+ questions so average and higher academic abilities of children can be measured and then children who perform very well in these exams should automatically be offered a place at the local grammar.
That’s what I think at the moment about the situation.
There are many iniquities in life. In fact life itself isn’t “fair”. Perhaps my vision is short-sighted or would still in some way perpetuate those iniquities in society, but I don’t think iniquities can ever be eliminated nor are they better if we changed all schools to comprehensives and made all children focus on whatever those in charge deem worthy of their attention.
In fact as a home educator who has read up a lot about unschooling and John Holt and Gatto, I feel a lot of modern compulsory education today is not ideal. I’m more in favour of schools that encourage autonomy (like the Sudbury school which, if not for its prohibitive fees, might be better for many children than any of the state or private alternatives).
However I do think that there are a lot of forces in society outside of my control. That no matter what my personal preferences are, there are a whole lot more people out there who disagree. I know I am quite unconventional, and I do find that in daily life I have to make certain adjustments to accommodate conventionality so I can still mingle with most people I meet on a daily basis whether for work or pleasure, like dressing in a more conventional manner to compensate for my unconventional thoughts or keeping up with general trends. Otherwise I’m afraid my personal interests would bore a lot of people to death and most people don’t want to enter into conversations about them!
State schooling is a way of learning conventional ways of the majority, and it would be difficult to argue against it. Going private or going to grammar will allow the less conventional people to learn convention (though not in as large a degree as going to a state comprehensive) whilst being free to express or practice their natural inclinations towards academics without being ridiculed or bullied for it would benefit them. I think those poorer children who are less conventional in certain areas (and I am arguing that having a naturally high intellectual IQ and natural inclination for academic subjects sufficient to cope well with grammar school curricula is a form of unconventionality especially when one comes from a working class background) would certainly benefit from assistance with grammar school entry, in ways that I’ve stated above.
Ideally our state schooling system would have adequate schools to cater for those who are grammar school material, those who are autonomous learners, and anyone in between. However for now the system is very limited, very one-size-fits-all (even when it is evident it doesn’t). The overhaul of such a system would be a mammoth task and I don’t even think it is a realistic goal what with the current situation in politics and societal expectations and culture as a rule.
But grammar school reform and improvements can certainly be a step forward. Academics can do a lot for the country’s progress in terms of upper level management in all sectors of society as well as research and development, which will improve the country’s export potential and expertise, so it makes sense to start with encouraging those who are naturally more able (but due to poorer family backgrounds aren’t given adequate access to grammar schools to fulfill their talents) to go to grammars, rather than allowing mostly the children of parents wealthy enough to buy in tutors and revision books to drill their children into such schools.
Inevitably this ability gap will be evident and these drilled children won’t be as ingenious as the naturally talented in tertiary education level for a start. We need the best talent to lead the country forward. Not a pool of rich mediocre people who could not have gotten to high places without their parents’ help.