Neil McNicholas: Learn the lesson and bring back grammar schools

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I REALISE as I begin this article that what I am about to say isn’t going to be very popular, but I base my opinion – and that’s all it is, my opinion – on that very practical principle that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

I remain convinced that there was little or nothing wrong with the tried and tested system of grammar schools and secondary moderns. Since that system was done away with, we have seen a gradual but inexorable decline in the performance and outcome of our education system.

In recent years, government after government, and education minister after education minister, has tried to make the comprehensive school system work effectively, but nothing changes – certainly not for the better.

The old 11 Plus examination wasn’t the seal of damnation that many try to claim, and I suspect that many, if not most, of its detractors were people who failed the 11 Plus and had to blame someone or something.

Educationally speaking, the 11 Plus may well have been Robert Frost’s two roads that diverted in a wood, but at age 13 there was a path that linked them, a second chance to prove that the outcome of the 11 Plus had been wrong – if it had been wrong.

But if after those two further years the outcome was the same, then, for by far the majority, a secondary education held far more promise for their future than struggling to keep their head above the heavily academic waters of a grammar school.

Yes, I admit it, I passed the 11 Plus, and so did a number of my friends at the time, but it never separated us from the rest of the gang who didn’t.

All it meant was that we spent the day at different schools, that’s all. I was the only Catholic in the street and therefore I would have gone to a different school anyway and that wouldn’t have made any difference either.

We were typical kids in that such things simply washed over us – it didn’t matter which school we went to.

I don’t know that I was aware of how the grammar school education I was receiving differed from the experience of my secondary school friends.

All it meant was that in our final year some of us would be taking GCEs and some CSEs,
and while grammar schools catered for those who were supposed to be more academically able, some of the emphasis (though not exclusively so) in secondary schools
was on vocational training instead.

No one at the time saw that system as elitist, it was simply playing to pupils’ strengths.

I’m sure there were as many at grammar schools who shouldn’t have been as were at secondary moderns and shouldn’t have been – no system is perfect, but the 11 and 13 Plus system proved itself for many years until it was decided to fix it even though it wasn’t broken.

And after all those years of offering all pupils everywhere a “comprehensive” education (for comprehensive read: middle of the road, unchallenging, lowest common denominator, one size fits all) this month’s political, on-the-hoof, pre-general election policy-making, has suggested that we have pupils in secondary schools who can’t even recite their twelve times table by heart, can’t string a grammatically correct written sentence together, and many are showing up for job interviews five years down the road with nothing to show that is of any use to potential employers.

Once again we are reinventing the wheel. Someone woke up one morning and thought of the concept of apprenticeships – as if it hadn’t been thought of before.

It used to be the road into a great many skilled trades and professions, and it built on the vocational training gained in (but again not exclusively) secondary schools prior to their untimely demise.

When is someone going to swallow a little humble pie and admit that the powers-that-be got it wrong back in the 60s when they opted for a system of comprehensive education that caters to mediocrity and provides little or no incentive or reward for pupils to achieve their full academic potential?

David Cameron hinted at a new wave of grammar schools during a campaign visit to Kent on Tuesday, but it was just
a hint.

Someone needs to wake up tomorrow and reinvent the wheel of the 11 Plus examination leading to a “two-roads in the wood” education system (grammar and secondary or call them what you want) that will accommodate the varied abilities of young people in education, supporting and encouraging their individual potential, inviting them, challenging
them, to do the best they can because they can set their sights on goals that are not only achievable but sensible, that are fitting for them and not one-size-fits-all.

I will now don my helmet and duck down behind the parapet because I’m sure there will be one or two salvos of the politically correct calibre heading in my direction.

Neil McNicholas is a parish priest in Yarm.