Why scrap grammar schools now?
Abolishing the remaining grammars can only hasten the decline of standards across the education system, argues Joanna Williams
I teach at a girls' grammar school in Birmingham which selects its pupils by examination. The fate of this kind of school is now in the balance. From September all parents will be able to vote in a government-initiated ballot on the admissions policy of grammar schools in their area. This move has been received as the latest step towards abolishing the remaining grammar schools.
There are many good reasons to oppose selection in education, and to recognise that grammar schools are outdated. A decent society should not think about determining a child's prospects on the basis of two mornings worth of exam papers sat at the age of 11. We need an education system that offers every child in the country the chance to be challenged and pushed to achieve the best they can.
Unfortunately, abolishing the grammars will not bring this day nearer. Far from it. The campaign against grammar schools seems more about lowering the expectations we have of all children and the standards we expect from them.
Last summer my school achieved the highest GCSE results in the country. When the press telephoned, the headteacher and deputy expressed their delight at the results but equally felt the need to defend the school against the charge of being an 'exam factory'. The questioners implied that, since this was a selective grammar school, the girls must have achieved their results only after being made to spend 20 hours a day with their noses in books, buried under a mountain of homework, and reduced to being stressed-out exam addicts.
The assumption seems to be that grammar school girls will grow up to be academically gifted but socially inadequate. In fact most pupils at my school seem pretty well-rounded. The problems and awkwardness they do suffer from tend to emphasise their normality as teenagers, rather than their uniqueness. They have just as much trouble with acne and broken hearts as I did when I was 15 and attended the local comp.
Most of the pupils thrive in an environment where teachers have high expectations of them. When these expectations are actually exceeded, they are obviously not unrealistic. And this is not true for grammar school pupils alone. Children at any school will perform better when they are expected to achieve, rising to the challenge and often surprising themselves. The major difference between grammar and comprehensive pupils is that those at grammar schools tend to be under a greater pressure of expectation, from peers, parents, society and themselves.
Grammar schools also seem more likely to measure their achievements against high standards, aiming for the highest A-level grades, the best universities and, ultimately, the top professions. In the comprehensives where I have worked the emphasis from many teachers seems to be, at best, on pupils improving upon their own previous achievements, rather than achieving in comparison to others or against an objective standard. At worst, I have met teachers whose expectations of their pupils go no further than that they turn up and sit still in their seats for the duration of the lesson.
Resource differences are important. My school has superb facilities for sport, information technology, music and drama, and the opportunity to study a wider range of subjects: Latin from the age of 12 and Greek from 14. Grammar schools are generally more able to attract the teachers they want and to keep them, resulting in a highly qualified, stable, well-motivated staff. Staff, students and parents are all working for the same end, in a school where worries about expense are subsumed by a concern with the quality of education.
Yet instead of people demanding more such excellent schools, today's campaigns want simply to abolish the few grammar schools left. This is the spirit of the government's proposed ballot of local parents. If I were the parent of a child who had failed the 11-plus and whose school had a reputation as second-rate, I imagine I might feel peeved enough to vote against the grammar school's selection policy. But that would not raise the educational standards of the comprehensive one jot. Nor will the government's proposal give any extra resources to the comprehensives. Scrapping the remaining grammars will do nothing to improve the education available to all. Instead it can only hasten the decline of standards across the system.
Grammar schools may be elitist, snobby, unfair, sexist and many, many things, but they do set a standard for others to aim at. Without that golden standard mediocrity becomes the norm and there is little pressure for anybody to strive for anything more. There is much talk about falling standards of GCSE and A-level examinations, but standards are surely maintained by keeping the schools that are doing well and encouraging them to do even better. Scrapping the schools that perform best may appear to raise the standards of comprehensives - but only because the level of expected achievement has dropped.
It is true that pupils who get into grammar schools are not always the most intelligent, but come from the best primary schools, had the best tutors or have parents pushy and sussed enough to know how to play the system. I object to the fact that children who fail the 11-plus get a second-rate education: if anything, I have sympathy with those who say that less academically able pupils need more of a teacher's time and resources than their more gifted peers.
If we were creating the education system from scratch, there would be no place for grammar schools. But in today's circumstances, abolishing the grammar system will only allow all schools to expect equally little of all children.
Painted on the wall of the comprehensive near my home, beneath the name of the school, is the legend 'Excellence for everyone'. But the lowering of standards to enable everybody to 'achieve' equally little is not my idea of excellence at all.
Reproduced from LM issue 117, February 1999