Grammar Schools - letter to our MP

Wirksworth branch member Roy Pearce writes:

Dear Sir Patrick,

Congratulations on your elevation and your new post.

It is probably thirty years since I first wrote to you about education and when I heard Lord Baker on the radio recently talking of his time as Education Secretary I recalled the occasion he came to Derbyshire and you introduced him to ‘your headteachers’.

He was right then about a national curriculum and in the interview he explained that he was disappointed by the new curriculum. He regretted it is so subject loaded, narrow and traditional; as a result our children are not learning skills important for the twenty first century, but undervalued at present. He identified skills employers and society need: in particular team-work (that is what Toyota say), investigation and oral skills, especially the ability to make a formal presentation. I note that these are skills my own forty year old son uses as central aspects of his job. Having followed with interest the curriculum presented to my grandchildren I am sure Lord Baker is right in the thrust of his argument. How does the Gove curriculum prepare our grandchildren for the age of the technological robots, which they will live with, though, probably,  not in my lifetime?

My reason for writing is because I have remained dedicated to, (some say ‘obsessed by’) education through my twenty five years of retirement. I began my teaching life in a grammar school and that experience and close observation convinced me that selection was wrong, both academically and socially.  I then worked in  good comprehensive schools, including my twenty years at Gell.

You will understand why I am so distressed that your party is planning to return to grammar schools and selection.

Three starting points

1. Mrs May stated on the steps of No.10  that when it comes to opportunity she wouldn’t  ‘entrench the advantages of the fortunate few’. 

That is exactly what grammar schools have done over many years to the disadvantage of the children not selected by the eleven plus exams.  I saw myself how pupils in the much less prestigious  Linconshire  secondary schools (now re-branded as ‘academies’, but still not improving the academic standards of disadvantaged children) suffered limited opportunities, poorer school provision, less well qualified teachers and lower expectations.   Fifty years  later I find, sadly, that my grandchildren live in a selective area where the same concerns apply.

2. There was nothing in your last manifesto to indicate that the Conservative party intended to re-introduce selection, so you have no mandate for a policy which had been rejected by David Cameron, your previous leader.    

3. There is no educational evidence which suggests that grammar schools improve social mobility. There has been much academic research which indicates the opposite, that grammar schools with their financially and socially privileged intake re-inforce social standing.  That evidence led to the comprehensive pattern being adopted for most  secondary schools, especially in Tory dominated county councils and your constituency, is a model of the progress and opportunities produced by a non-selective system. 

So my challenge to Mrs May is to produce the research evidence to support her policy?

I ask the question confidently because I know that the evidence points in the opposite direction, especially on social mobility – and so does David Willets who researched the  evidence for the Cameron government.  When Mrs Thatcher became MP for affluent Finchley she found from a local poll 80% in favour of the comprehensive system. That is why through her premiership she refrained from any action to break up the comprehensive system. I am staggered, but not surprised, to hear an apologist for selection denying that the academic research is valid because it applies to an old system:  Mrs May, he said,  is proposing a different pattern. Sadly she is not.

Please in any discussion  begin in your own constituency and tell everyone how in a prosperous community your successful comprehensive schools in Duffield, Wirksworth, Ashbourne, Matlock and Bakewell are giving the opportunities for social mobility and academic success which are at the heart of the matter.  I can tell you of five first generation university entrants within half a mile of Anthony Gell who earned not just first degrees, but in addition in recent years higher degrees. That is social mobility and I can quote many other academic successes, as will all your schools. These non-selective schools are delivering high academic performance from the ablest and contributing to the massive rise in standard by ‘ordinary’ children in our communities. Nobody in Wirksworth campaigns for the return of our secondary modern school; ask the many Wirksworthians whose lives were blighted by the experience of rejection and diminished opportunities. I remember the furious campaign in Duffield for a comprehensive school led by parents whose children had been rejected by the grammar school, which was taking many children from outside the village. In those days many of them came to Wirksworth and flourished into our sixth form and higher education. Motivation to prove the system wrong was a major factor.

The comprehensive system is a success in Derbyshire Dales.  Imagine under the May plan a grammar school being established and taking the top twenty per cent from each of the five schools; we would lose those students who set the academic standards, who provide leadership in sport and the arts and who contribute to a balanced social intake, vital for community cohesion. Our ablest students benefit because they experience leadership – and they bring on their peers – again I can give you names. We would lose many motivated and supportive parents and our highly qualifed staff and our communities would, sadly, be split from the age of eleven, sad damage to social cohesion . 

You will say that the plan relates to the poor performing inner cities – that would be a much worse scenario with already weak schools decapitated.   It was the Tory heartlands that persuaded Mrs Thatcher, in her time as Education Secretary,  to approve the vast expansion of comprehensive schools, because in an eighty/twenty selection split,  they saw many of their own children failing the exam.  I quote Oxfordshire as a model, having once taught at Chipping Norton comprehensive school.   Inevitably there were errors at the margins and some children were wrongly placed.  Today many grammar school applicants come from fee paying prep schools and there is a private industry of tutors who work with prosperous parents to ensure 11+ exam success: there is great tension among many children at the extra work, high expectations and the intense pressure they encounter at a young age, often from well before eleven.  Poorer families cannot afford the commitment to expensive extra teaching and children who take the exam without tutorial help and practice tend not to be admitted.  Grammar schools extend the area of their intake to keep the entry mark (and subsequent public exam results) high, so more middle class children travel long distances and even more local children are excluded.  

The notion of parental choice is a mirage: the ones choosing are the grammar schools and in most cases they select only about three percent of children on free meals. There is a hidden burden for working class children, because the grammar school will provide optional extras,  additional enrichment opportunities, but they must be paid for and these unmentioned extras are a significant disincentive to low income parents. You can see a social exclusion when in a middle class dominated, affluent entry school  a poor child cannot afford what other students are enjoying.  I know.

Among the children who failed the 11+ and came in my early days to Anthony Gell were many who excelled in music, drama, art and the creative subjects, because those gifts were not assesed in the exam at eleven. Yet they needed the academic support for their talents to flourish to the full. 

Note how London schools  have made great improvement in recent years with a comprehensive system which is meeting the needs of many disadvantaged children, who fare better than those of similar background in areas with selection.

The chief inspector of schools who sees many schools nationwide comments how woeful are the efforts of grammar schools to engage with poor families.  He describes the May suggestion as a profoundly retrograde step.  ‘The notion that the poor stand to benefit from the return of grammar schools strikes me as quite palpable tosh and nonsense.’ He points out that every grammar school produces three secondary moderns.  

There is evidence that selection causes a drag effect on performance in the non-selective schools. In London comprehensives 45% of children on free school meals get five GCSEs: nationally the average is 33%; in Kent, not an unprivileged county, but  with selection in many areas it is 27%.

We are told grammars are ‘popular with parents’.  Yes, until their child fails. Those who don’t get in  - the vast majority - are disadvantaged.  The issue is not what campaigning  parents or elderly grass roots Conservative party members want, but what is best, based on evidence, for all our children. 

That is the mantra of the May government. 

It is not clear what money is available for this experiment. Have you asked headteachers how they are managing the significant financial cuts in local schools? If, amazingly, cash can be found to improve outcomes for the most deprived, all the evidence suggests that it should be targetted not at secondary school age, but at pre-school children, who without support are falling behind their more privileged peers rapidly – and they never catch up.  Read the  medical evidence relating to brain development which explains  this approach.

I accept May’s claim that she wants to help all members of our society; that is her job! Unfortunately she is following the Gove instruction to ignore the expert. Her proposed policies on grammar schools may be well intentioned, but they defy evidence and the expert opinion and experience of practioners and academics.

These proposals are profoundly mistaken.  

For successful progress with the disadvantaged and the disillusioned we need a more child friendly curriculum  - so many adolescents are bored. You know the key is teacher quality and parental commitment. We should pay a teacher premium to attract the most able teachers to work in deprived areas and have a properly funded outreach policy in every school to engage positively with parents.  I have seen how well parents in Wirksworth, who know and trust the school, support their children; that is crucial to success.  Build the triangle of trust with parent, teacher and student working together.

I apologise for the enthusiastic length of these reflections, but I hope they will contribute to your thinking on the comprehensive issue.  Perhaps from your experience you will be able to modify the suggested approach by the government.

I’d welcome your comments.

Yours sincerely,

Roy Pearce.






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