Oh no, not Grammar schools again! (https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/sep/09/theresa-may-to-end-ban-on-new-grammar-schools#img-1.)
I know a bit about these, having been to one in the 1950s, and my father having been headmaster of an Essex Secondary Modern at the same time. I can confirm the sense of superiority it gave to us winners, and of failure felt by all the ‘losers’ – those who failed the ‘11+’ – which stayed with many of them throughout their lives. Those who ‘achieved’ in one way or another despite this were true heroes. That a small minority did, was no excuse for demoralising the rest.
Dad naturally went into secondary moderns as a teacher because he himself was of that class. That was despite his winning a scholarship to a grammar school (in Chelmsford), which gave him his first step up the class ladder. (That’s probably what the Tories mean when they claim that Grammar schools encourage ‘social mobility’.) But then he only took a teaching diploma and a London External degree. Heads of Grammar schools were expected to have been to university.
I got the impression he ran his school well and creatively, putting on a Gilbert and Sullivan opera, for example, each year, and with some wonderful and inspiring teachers, many of whom who became my friends and mentors. Some of his pupils he managed to coach through the ‘13+’, a second chance of getting into a ‘good’ school. But the rest all knew they were ‘losers’. Most of them turned into ‘Essex girl’ and ‘Essex boy’, as we know them today.
I can’t see how you can have ‘selective’ schools without branding those who haven’t been selected as losers. The 11+ of course was a travesty as a true test of academic ability, skewed towards the middle classes and those whose parents could afford coaching, and based on very dodgy empirical evidence in any case. (Remember the Cyril Burt ‘IQ Test’ scandal?) It was obvious to all of us at the time – winners as well as losers – that it was actually intended to categorise and separate children by class. My parents didn’t want me sitting at a desk beside a lorry-driver’s boy. (No girls, at my school.) Which is why I’m not sure how Education Secretary Justine Greening’s idea to force her new Grammar schools to take 50% of their pupils from the poorest classes is going to go down with the posh parents of Kent and Buckinghamshire. That looks like a sop to Theresa May’s pretended ambition of freeing up social mobility; part of her initial ‘progressive’ rhetoric which I don’t think any of us quite believed at the time. As every expert is emphasising just now, including some high-placed Tory ones, Grammar schools are the very worst way of achieving equality and social mobility.
But of course they’re popular with nostalgic Tory backwoodspeople, going right back to the 1950s and ’60s, who need to believe – in view of her unreliable position on Brexit – that May really is ‘one of them’. After Grammar schools will come corporal punishment, spotted dick, and AA men saluting them from their motor bikes. (Ah, the good old days!) Many commentators expect this scheme to fail, if not in the Commons, then in the Lords. Good. For myself, I’m convinced that I’d have been a better person if I’d gone to a co-educational Comprehensive. As indeed my children are.
While on the subject of the 1950s: my piece on ‘1956’, which I posted here (https://bernardjporter.wordpress.com/2016/07/16/nostalgia/) because it had been squeezed out of the LRB, has now been taken up by the TLS. It should be there in 2-3 weeks.