Neil McNicholas: The case for grammar schools – pupils learn at different rates

Should a new generation of grammar schools be built?
Should a new generation of grammar schools be built?
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THE subject of grammar schools is back in the public eye again. I already wrote a piece in these pages some time ago and I seem to remember a number of negative reactions to what I had to say. It would have been interesting to know the age of those who wrote those letters because I’m sure criticism of the old 11-plus system has to be a generational thing.

Everyone being interviewed on television seems to discuss the subject of grammar schools in relation to social mobility. I’m not sure where this came from, or when. When I was in school all we knew of the 11-plus was that if you passed you had the option to go to the local grammar school, and if you failed you went to the secondary modern – with a second chance to sit the exam at age 13 just in case failing the 11-plus had been down to nerves rather than a lack of academic ability.

The understanding was that some kids were more academically able than others and the 11-plus provided an opportunity to assess that and set kids off on the particular educational road that was more appropriate for their demonstrated abilities. The system may not have been a hundred per cent perfect a hundred per cent of the time, but it worked in that most kids found their way into an educational system to which they were most suited.

I was never aware amongst my peers of any jealousy or resentment – we went to a variety of schools (not just grammar or secondary modern, but state or Catholic) and we still socialised and played happily together. None of us had to go into therapy over it!

And I can’t help thinking that much of the substance of the current debate has to do with the situation we have created in our schools, first of all by a system that doesn’t allow any child to fail. There have to be prizes all round whether a child wins or loses lest they are traumatised by the experience of only achievement being rewarded. Also, since the dissolution of the grammar/secondary system, we have become used to a middle-of-the-road, one-size-fits-all comprehensive system which so often fails both the more academically able, and those who would benefit far more from a vocational education.

That system used to work just fine. Many pupils left grammar school with enough O-Levels to find a suitable career, or they went on to do A-Levels with a view to applying for a place at university. And perhaps that’s another problem with the current system that supports the right of every pupil to go to university whether they are able or not rather than on academic merit. It’s that “everyone must get a prize” mentality again.

Meanwhile the secondary schools provided an education that, in its way, wasn’t totally dissimilar from today’s comprehensive curriculum, but at the same time it encouraged non-academic interests and abilities also and not only prepared pupils for the job market, but also the apprenticeship system which seemed to vanish as the secondary school system vanished.

The root meaning of the word education is “to draw or to lead out” – school should draw the best out of them. It may not be a very popular thing to say, but not every young person is academically inclined, and similarly many very able young people remain basically unchallenged by the current comprehensive system. If everyone leaves school with eight or 10 GCSEs, what is the point? How is a potential employer supposed to assess individual suitability or merit?

And let’s just return for a moment to the issue of social mobility.

Again, looking back to my time at grammar school, the only mobility I was aware of was having to ride a bus 10 miles back and forth every day! While our headmaster had a thing about trying to eradicate our local accent by providing Spoken English classes of the “rain in Spain” variety, he failed miserably. That wasn’t why were at the school as far as most of us were concerned. For better or worse we were there because we had passed the 11-plus and, as Catholics, that was the nearest Catholic grammar school. If we hadn’t taken up the offer of a place, the “Spanish Inquisition” in the form of our local parish priest would have been round to find out why.

Yes the 11-plus (or the 13-plus if necessary) involved a process of selection, but that wasn’t a dirty word then. It was selection on the basis of assessed ability with the purpose of giving young people the education that was best suited to them. Kids are not all alike academically, and there doesn’t seem to be much sense in treating them as if they are.

Neil McNicholas is a parish priest in Yarm.