Grammar Schools: Who Will Get In?

At one time British documentary films about education were concerned with projecting a vision of a renewed society with improved educational opportunities for all at its heart (Think of Children at School, Children’s Story, The Three A’s, Children’s Charter).  When this vision didn’t always go to plan, TV documentaries exposed and diagnosed problems associated with, mainly urban, schooling systems.  Take for example BBC 1977 Panorama episode The Best Days or Undercover Teacher, part of Channel 4’s Dispatches series.  As ‘fly on the wall’, or ‘life caught unawares’  (‘zhizn ́ vrasplokh’) (Hicks, 2007) these documentaries claimed authenticity. After all, the camera doesn’t lie. But it can be made to present a preferred version of reality.  But now, the same attempts at using film to tell the ‘truth’ about education and school focus on the lives on individual pupils and their families.  This is what we see in the three-part BBC documentary series Grammar Schools: Who Will Get In?

Focusing on the lives of children and their families through primary schools as they prepare for the 11+, through experiences of different types of secondary school and into VIth form.

At the start of each episode the commentator announces that:

“Grammar Schools are making a comeback”

Which is an overstatement, possibly referring to expansion in parts of Kent, but ignores the fact that there are no state grammar schools in Scotland and Wales, and no 11+ selection across larges parts of England.

As a documentary the series is, arguably concerned with real life, but this is partial.  There is no attempt to consider how we have arrived at this situation.  The question of why a selective system has persisted in some areas of England, whilst the comprehensive system thrived in other parts of the UK is not posed, nor answered.  Instead the series focus on the experiences of the children, their families and the teachers involved in their education.

We cannot deny that this is real, of course, but there is little attempt to relate the everyday experiences of those who we meet in this series to the wider social structure.  The series lacks a sociological imagination, you might say.

For example, social class and ethnicity don’t get a mention in relation to differential attainment. Yet this is clearly evident when we meet Juanita who shares a bedroom with her sister and nephew and whose mother, schooled in Ghana, works for £8 an hour in supermarket to raise the family, and still manages to pay £300 a month to a tutor.

Inequality is acknowledged however though as the commentator says:

“In general if you’re better off you’re more likely to get in.  Not many, from poorer families, make it”

That’s social class without mentioning it. There are other examples too, with references to ‘socially disadvantaged students’ who lack the parental support ‘prevalent in affluent families’. Not only is this a gross oversimplification this serves to deny that these inequalities are structural, instead suggesting the cause is with the individual.

Various head teachers give their thoughts on the selective system.   Desmond Deehan, head teacher of Townley Grammar School tries particularly hard to justify his belief in the grammar system. This is understandable, he is the head of a grammar school and needs to promote it.  In justifying the ‘unfairness’ of the selective system he states that

“it’s not fair that some people are born into poverty and other people are born into affluence. None of that is particularly fair”

True, but it’s not inevitable and we don’t have to accept it.

He refuses to use the word failure, preferring the designation ‘selective’, and I’m wondering if this is because he finds more aesthetically pleasing .  Does he really believe his own narrative about selection? Possibly, though he is confused:

“Effectively what we want to show is that selection isn’t the issue.  The issue is the segregation caused by selection”

This hardly clarifies his thoughts.

Beth Mckenzie, head teacher of Uplands primary is more brutal, pointing out that there is a ‘pass’ mark, meaning that if you don’t reach the pass mark you have failed:

“Its stark, you know, they’re given that piece of paper which shows what the pass mark was.  They haven’t reached that pass mark so it is a failure”

We see the impact of that ‘failure’ in the lives of the young people who took the test in the first episode. It is here that the documentary, which relies on observing the experiences of the young people, becomes intrusive.  Juanita’s mother, returning home from work late at night asks the crew to help her to read the text message informing her that her daughter has not been selected for grammar school.  It is painful to watch. The mood picks up when we observe a more joyful scene with Summer announcing that she has passed.

Episode 2 contrasts the patterns of behaviour and behaviour management in Erith School, the secondary modern and Townley Grammar School. This episode reveals the level of low-level disruption at Erith School, and the strategy to deal with this:

“Disruptive students are taken to the reflection room in Erith’s specialist student-wellbeing centre”

It is  a portakabin.

Stark contrasts in behaviour and attitudes to education are shown between the two schools.  Within Erith School there is a discernible ‘academic’ and ‘delinquesent’ subculture (Hargreaves, 1967).  Chichi, a pupil at Erith with ambitions to go to medical school is often anti-school, though, as she explains, she values education (Mac an Ghaill, 1988) .

It is only towards the end of episode 3 that there is reference made to research on the ‘effect’ of selection.  It is a disappointing documentary series, focusing on the lives of individuals as if they, and the schools exist in a vacuum.

All three episodes remain available to view at:

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Ackley Bridge, series two, so far…

Somehow, in the midst of other, more prosaic commitments, I missed the return of Ackley Bridge to Channel 4 until this weekend. Series 2 has now, it appears almost concluded. Thankfully, there has been very little to miss. A year on, the pupils remain the same age and in the same school year in some kind of groundhog day that applies to TV school dramas.

Miss Sharriff, the science teacher in series one has failed to make it to the second series. Where did she go? Newmarket, to continue her career as an equine vet perhaps? [1]

This series, we have been introduced to new science teacher Rashid Hyatt. In the first episode he is knocked off his bike by Nasreen’s mother, Kaneez Paracha as she learning to drive. Naturally, this collision marks the start of a tentative romantic relationship between Mrs. Paracha and Mr. Hyatt..

Jordan, now a street artist, remains troubled, but is at least trying to be an uncle to Candice’s baby, Jamie. Meanwhile his Lothario of an older brother Cory, who is father to baby Jamie, refuses to ruin his “life for a two-minute grope” as he discards an invitation to his son’s christening. Cory, clearly confused about the finer detail details of human reproduction nevertheless appears to develop a moral compass over the course of the series.

The head teacher, Miss Carter, under pressure to achieve ‘good’ grades in external examinations where only the core subjects ‘count’, pulls all ‘low achievers’ from the subjects which they would likely achieve well in. This is, of course, illogical. However, in the ‘A-C economy’ (Ellsmore, 2016; Thrupp, 2018) it makes complete sense. Inevitably, Miss Keane, who teaches English and drama protests with an entirely reasonable and logical argument about young people having talents in subjects other than the core ones. It gets her almost nowhere. As a compromise, Miss Keane is allowed to direct a play and inevitably chooses Shakespeare, a Midsummer’s Night Dream to be precise. This serves to demonstrate that working class kids can engage with challenging material and triumph. We all feel good as a result.

The on-off sexual relationship Miss Keane and Mr. Qureshi were having in series one continues into series two following his marriage to the new Mrs. Qureshi. It is only cut short when Mr. Qureshi is stabbed to death. Elsewhere, the everyday life of the school continues. Cory, partly as a consequence of a motivational talk by Mr. Bell takes out Riz on the rugby pitch. Riz, recovering at home in a halo brace welcomes Hayley Booth round to his for some company. Next, via a text message he boasts about the nature of this visit and the story is soon round the school and a scene is caused. In an attempt to resolve the fall out from this event Miss Carter displays embarrassment in referring to the ‘sexual act’ which has taken place suggesting that in spite of her senior position and ultimate responsibility for safeguarding she hasn’t yet become desensitised to explicit disclosures of young people.

So far, the most memorable quote of the series has been:

“We’re not making mattresses here, we’re making people”

Continue reading “Ackley Bridge, series two, so far…”

School badges, twelfth century battle standards & drones

School crests, arms, or badges featured in a number of cigarette cards issued from the earliest years of the twentieth century through to the 1930’s. Wills cigarettes issued a series of cards featuring the arms of public schools and Carreras issued a series of ‘school emblem’ cards with their Black Cat cigarettes. The Black Cat ‘school emblem’ cards featured school caps from a number of public schools along with the, allegedly, ‘better’ county schools. The reverse of the cards provides a brief description of the school, covering such information as the founding of the school and an explanation of the origins of the school crest and/or motto. The school emblem, or badge of my alma mater, Northallerton Grammar School was, inexplicably, omitted from this series. This post will resolve this oversight.

School badge on the gates of Northallerton School and VIth form.

Unlike the heraldic school crests of long established public schools, crests or badges of state schools are relatively recent yet nevertheless “mimic the tradition of heraldry” (Synott and Symes, 1995: 142). Here, Synott and Symes (1995) draw on the ideas of Hobsbawn (1983) in his introduction to The Invention of Tradition. Hobsbawn (1983) identifies some invented traditions as “those establishing or symbolizing social cohesion or the membership of groups” (p. 9) and, of course, the socialising function of things such as school uniforms, which the badge forms part of, is already well considered in the social sciences (Meadmore and Symes, 1996).

In short, school emblems, badges and crests serve to convey a message. They are a symbolic representation of values and ideas which seek to enrol members into an imaginary of tradition:

 “the badge represents a symbol of invariance, an emblem of educational values that stand out against the passage of time; it serves to join one generation of learners to another; it constitutes an ideological and axiological constant in the fluxion of time” (Synott and Symes, 1995: 143)

A St. Cuthbert’s cross, a reference to the long association with the Dean and Chapter of Durham Cathedral sits in the centre of the former Northallerton Grammar School badge forming quadrants. Each quadrant contains an image designed to symbolise the heritage and values of the school.

Two white roses of York, correctly orientated, sit in diagonally opposite quadrants as if to reinforce the geographic location, in case you were in any doubt as to where the school was located [1]. It is in Yorkshire, by the way. Whilst the white rose has come to symbolise Yorkshire as whole there is no ignoring its historical use, symbolising Yorkist forces in the15th century civil war, or War of the Roses. Aside, the whiteness of the rose is significant, as in Christian symbolism represents light, innocence and purity. It is as if the badge is saying we are proud to be located in God’s own county. Yet, the white rose has been used symbolise Jacobitism, this too is an invented tradition, but one which the Northallerton school probably overlooked when the bagde was designed in the early twentieth century.

The beehive, a visual representation of the school’s motto ex opera felicitas or ‘from work hppiness’ (not, thankfully, wrought into the school gates) was used to suggest to us that the fruits of our hard work will be happiness. Alternatively, I invite you to consider what a Marxist analysis has to offer here. The beehive represents a social hierarchy where worker bees and drones propping up the Queen who can’t survive without them.  Socialised to be alienated from their species being pupils, as a future labour force prop up the upper layers of the hierarchy who reap the benefits of our hard work. Raised to accept this as legitimate, we can be forgiven for believing that work produces happiness. You might be happy in this state, but you will still be alienated.

In the top right quadrant is an object which must never be mistaken for a trolley with a pennant on it. This is the twelfth century standard that was charged across the fields outside of the town on the 22nd August 1138 in the Battle of the Standard during The Anarchy. It represents the defeat of barbarian Scots by the chivalrous, and much smaller English contingent. The mere sight of the standard with its Christian symbolism made the Scots retreat along the A167 towards Darlington.  Admittedly, this account may be lacking in the finer details of accuracy. Nevertheless, legends of the Battle of the Standard live on, embedded into the ‘symbolic architecture’ of the town such as the town crest, a light industrial estate, and a pub. Therefore, it is entirely consistent that generations of Northallerton school children should have had the death of 12000 Scots emblazoned across their hearts.

A very large cigarette card would be needed to convey this interpretation.

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