If it ain’t broke . . .

After Brexit—Grammar Schools.

The papers are full of it! Grammar School Revolution intones The Times; May’s School Revolution yells the Daily Mail; May Opens Floodgates on Grammars says The Guardian, always striving to be different.

All of which seems to mean that every school will have the opportunity to select their pupils and become Grammar Schools. Heaven help us all, in that case. The last time all schools were Grammar Schools most children didn’t go to school.

The original Grammar Schools took boys from the middle and working classes and taught them Latin and Greek so that they could become lawyers, teachers, administrators and civil servants. Useful to the ruling and upper classes, who couldn’t or wouldn’t do those jobs themselves. The pupils could be poor but they had to be bright and it could certainly lead to social mobility. Think Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell. Many of those Grammar schools are still going strong five hundred years later, having adapted and modernised and evolved.

In the main, those are not the Grammar Schools we are talking about now. The ones in the news at the moment are the schools created under the Education Act of 1944 as free schools, for any child able to pass the Eleven Plus. Any engineer will tell you if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. How ironic that it was those schools, which did so well, which were scrapped. The Secondary Modern schools did much less well, because they had never been properly designed and quickly developed a reputation of being for losers and yet they developed into the  Comprehensives we have today.

I went to a Grammar school in September 1948 because my father couldn’t have afforded private school fees and fortunately I was bright enough to pass the exam. I think I had as good an education as I could have had anywhere at any time. Highly qualified and dedicated staff instilled in us great expectations and those British values about which we seem to have such hazy ideas these days.

For all the enthusiasm and hype of their supporters now, and despite the excellence of a Grammar school education in the past, most of those Grammars lasted only for around 20 years.

What went wrong? Right from the start the Secondary Modern schools were seen as second best, rather than as a genuine alternative. The teaching they provided should have been as good as that in the Grammars, as enterprising, as exciting and as rewarding, so that children had a real choice of where to go. The educationalists were preparing for a post war future  that would be challenging and often tough but it should have been hopeful. Instead, those schools were allowed to become uninspiring, a place for duffers.

I taught in a Secondary Modern School and I know that the pupils there were far from being losers. I had mainly D streamers so we took things more slowly, concentrated more on reading and writing accurately, and had plenty of scope to spend time doing things which seemed important to us at the time.

By all means create new Grammar schools for pupils who will benefit from that sort of education—the academic, the bookish and the nerdy—at the same time as we create new schools with a new name for all the rest of our children who have important, though different, skills, qualities, and needs, like the D streamers who taught me so much.

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