The Holcombe Study Suite of Chatham Grammar School for Boys, opened in February 2003. Wikicommons/Gary Kirk. Some rights reserved.I come from Kent, one of the few places in the United Kingdom to have retained the grammar-state school divide. At the age of 11, just as Year 6 starts, all kids are made to undertake a series of tests to divide them based upon their ‘knowledge’. I was lucky that I passed this test. I now attend the University of Birmingham, yet if I’d have failed that test it could have been enormously different.
Passing the test was not guaranteed in any sense of the word. I needed a tutor from the start of Year 5 in order to come close to passing and when I actually took the exam the result was very much up in the air. Time was on my side though, back then the test was taken later in the year. Had it occurred early on in Year 6 like it does now I never would have passed: my tutor and teachers told me as much. That is one reason why I oppose grammar schools, because the margins between passing and failing can be so fine.
Moreover, the argument that they create social mobility is flawed; those midway children whose parents cannot afford a private tutor would not pass, so grammar schools act as a way of creating a class divide in education.
I don’t wish to disrespect the state schools that many friends of mine attended, but I am extremely lucky that I passed the ‘Kent test’ as we know it and secured a place at a good state grammar school. I did enjoy school, I loved it even, and throughout school I improved year on year, to the point that I could discuss going to many top universities when I reached the Sixth Form.
But say I had failed and ended up at one of the state comprehensive schools, my life would probably have been very different. Of course many people in comprehensives do end up at universities, and many top ones, but it cannot be denied that the proportion of comprehensive students going to university is much less than that of grammars. If I had taken the exam at the start of Year 6, as they do now, do you think I’d be where I am now?
Unbuilt proposal for school in Cranbrook by William West Neve, Architect, March 2010. Wikicommons/ ArchiPilgrim. Some rights reserved.You might say yes, if I worked as hard as I did at grammar school, then of course I would. But I think that is easier said than done. Does an 11 year old who has been told they have failed, that they are not clever enough for the school that many of their friends go to seem to you like someone who is really going to rally behind learning? So my argument against grammars is more about the psychologically shattering effect it has upon children. It tells them that they are not as valued as others, in terms of the quality of teaching and the levels of resources, based upon an arbitrary test they cannot possibly comprehend.
For most kids it sets them on a path of seeing themselves as not being ‘smart’, and it predetermines them away from university because they believe they are not ‘good enough’. This is wrong: an 11 year old should not face such devastation. I am lucky in the fact I went to Grammar School, but others are not so lucky due to reasons entirely beyond their control or, for an 11 year old, their understanding. That is why, rather than reopening the debate to reopen socially divisive grammar schools in the UK, the right thing to do would be to turn those grammars that remain into comprehensives, to help ensure that class does not become a determinant of quality of education.
If this government decides to allow new grammar schools to be built, it will be recreating the class divides in education that successive governments have fought so desperately to dismantle. Reopening grammar schools will show the entire country that Mrs May is no friend of the working man. She wishes to stifle social mobility based upon some arbitrary test taken in primary schools. So, whilst I went to a Grammar School, and am privileged to have done so, I can plainly say they are not the answer to the problems our education system faces.
Wilmington Hall, 1954. Wikicommons/ Ajmcluckie. Some rights reserved.