Return of Grammar Schools?

Grammar Schools never really went away, despite comprehensivisation in the 1960’s and 70’s.  One part of England that retained the Grammar system was Kent, whose Grammar Schools continue to use the ‘Kent Test’, the county’s own version of the 11+ as a means of selecting pupils.

Sevenoaks is one town in Kent without a Grammar School.  Children who pass the Kent test take up places in other Grammar Schools in Kent (involving what might be a lengthy commute).  Alternatively , they may enter the ‘Grammar Stream’ of Knole Academy in the town.  However, this is about to change.

In September 2017 an annex of the Weald of Kent Grammar School for girls will open in Sevenoaks.   Due to section 99 of the Schools Standards and Framework Act of 1998, restricting the creation of new Grammar Schools, this is not, technically, a new Grammar School.  It is, however, an expansion, on a different site, of an existing Grammar school.

For those residents of Sevenoaks who have been campaigning for a Grammar School in their town this is, clearly good news.

Speaking on the day the Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan announced approval for the expansion of the Weald of Kent Grammar School, Andrew Shilling from the Sevenoaks Grammar School Campaign said:

“Today’s news addresses the deep unfairness of Sevenoaks being the only district in Kent without a grammar school, which forces 1,100 Sevenoaks children to travel daily to grammar schools in Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells, a round trip of up to 25 miles and two hours. This negatively impacts on their ability to learn, on their opportunities for hobbies and sport, on their opportunities to develop friendships, and on the time they spend with their families.”

Here we have the Grammar system normalised.  The reference to the ‘deep unfairness’ refers not to the selective system as a whole, but the lack of Grammar School places in Sevenoaks.  The unfairness isn’t felt by those who ‘fail’ the 11+ and who miss out on the opportunity for an academic education, but those children who are, apparently, ‘forced’ to travel outside of the town for such an education.

But is this ‘unfairness’ now resolved?  The annex will be an extension of the Weald of Kent, a girls school. Boys will continue to travel out to Grammar Schools.  Overall, the opening of the annex may not mean more pupils from Sevenoaks attending Grammar Schools.  Rebecca Allen from Education Datalab thinks that there will only be a marginal increase in the number of Sevenoaks pupils attending Grammar Schools.

However, elsewhere we may be seeing a turn towards selection as other Grammar Schools make use of the ability to side-step the School Standards and Framework Act and establish annexes or satellites.  The Telegraph reports that floodgates have opened, allowing a ‘wave’ of new Grammar School applications. The Guardian predicts that other Grammar Schools will be spurred on to apply to establish satellite schools. Schools Week has identified ten potential new areas of England which could see Grammar annexes established.

Teachers vs Government: Seventy Years of Education Policy

BBC Radio 4 this week broadcast Teachers vs Government: Seventy Years of Education Policy.  Roy Blatchford, Director of the National Education Trust tells the story of developments in education policy over the seventy years since the Education Act of 1944. The half-hour broadcast can only be a brief overview of the key moments in education policy rather than an in-depth policy analysis.  However,  while useful as a documentary in that it provides an overview of key developments and asks key questions, this broadcast draws on and perpetuates some myths about the development of education after 1944.

Blatchford begins with the claim that the 1944 Act was a  “fundamental reform of the English education system”. Arguably, this was the case.  The legislation provided for universal, free, secondary education and this was distinct from what had existed previously when a secondary education was not an entitlement, but was largely rationed according to the ability to pay or obtain a scholarship through the passing of an 11+ style exam.

Blatchford goes on to describe how the new legislation “…meant pupils would  have a choice between a grammar, a secondary modern and a technical education”  which is only partially accurate.  The tripartite system to which he is referring reflects the ways in which the Act was implemented into existing contexts, rather than the Act itself, which did not prescribe specific secondary school types.

The broadcast also draws on the idea of a ‘post-war consensus’ claiming that “there was certainly a strong political consensus around the ambitions of the 44 Act” though, in relation to the aftermath of the 1944 Act at least, this has been contested (see for example, Jones, 1990).  Blatchford continues:

“What then disturbed the postwar consensus was a seemingly mild but radical request from the Labour Government in 1965 in the form of the infamous circular 10/65, a request to abolish selection at 11+ and end the divide between secondary moderns and grammar schools.”

However, this oversimplifies the process by which comprehensivation became a popular means for LEAs to organise secondary education.   Circular 10/65 did request that LEAs submit plans for comprehensivisation but there is evidence to support the claim that “[t]he drive for comprehensive education in England and Wales was a ‘bottom up’, rather than ‘top down’ initiative” (Crook, 2002: p. 257).

Nevertheless, featuring interviews with former Ministers and LEA  personnel the documentary offers some interesting insights to key policy developments.  It is broadcast again on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday 27th April at 17.00 and is available to listen to here.

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Widespread Coaching for Kent’s 11+

Kent is an unusual place, at least in terms of schooling.  It is one of the few Local Authority areas to retain an 11+ exam, the ‘Kent Test’ .  Recently Kent Online reported the following headline:

Bid to make 11-plus test ‘tutor-proof’ amid review by Kent headteachers

The accompanying article highlights concerns raised by Headteachers in a review of Kent’s 11+ system, that due to a “widespread coaching culture” the test is biased in favour of pupils from more wealthy families.  In response, consideration is being to ‘tutor-proofing’ the test.

This concern appears to suggest that, until the emergence of a “widespread coaching culture” there was no social class bias in 11+ results.  This would be to ignore over fifty years of sociological research on the patterns of educational opportunity and attainment (For example Halsey and Gardner, 1953; Little and Westergaard, 1964).

Similarly, the suggestion that ‘tutor-proofing’ the 11+ by including teacher assessments, or through the use of non commercial tests as a means of  rectifying this is, at best, naïve.  This view ignores the evidence gained from sociological studies which has explored the strategies that middle-class parents employ in seeking a preferred school for their child  (E.g. Ball et al, 1996, Ball, 2003).  Tinkering with the way the 11+ test is conducted is unlikely remove social class bias.  The 11+ test, in itself is not the problem, the problem is that the test is a symptom of a selective system.

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KES

This week, Film and Education students have been watching KES.

Fifteen year old Billy Casper is physically and verbally abused by his older brother Jud, ignored by his mother and bullied by his peers.  Billy, determined not to follow his brother “down the pit”, seems hopelessly destined to do just that. When Billy takes a young kestrel chick from a nest he nurtures a significant, touching bond, and inhabits a world seemingly removed from his other, more brutal reality. As the story unfolds, we learn that it is not and while Billy is powerless to break free from his reality he is never broken.

Ken Loach’s retelling of Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave has become a cinematic classic.   Using pupils from local secondary modern schools (in other words those who had failed their 11+) including David Bradley as Billy, as well as other non professional actors drawn from around Barnsley, Loach attempts a gritty realism, an authentic portrayal of one working class boy’s life as he faces the transition from school to work.  The use of natural lighting emphasises the contrasting environments that Billy faces, or will face; the dark interiors of home, the pit and school versus the light, bright freedom of the outdoors.  The Barnsley dialect, which allegedly rendered Hungarian more understandable to Rank executives (Stephenson, 1973) along with a plot focusing on the mundane with its absence of dramatic events or happy endings is surely used to add a feeling of purity and sense of authenticity.

KES’ representation of secondary education in the late 1960‘s reveals its ideological opposition to a school’s role in preparing working class pupils for a life of routine manual labour through inculcating a culture of subordination, obedience and powerlessness.  In this way KES is a dramatisation of Bowles and Gintis’ (1976) correspondence theory. Yet, through its  fictional ethnography of schooling KES also illustrates the agency of pupils in response to this culture, akin to some of the observations found in Paul Willis’ Learning to Labour.

Powerless as Billy Casper and his peers are to escape this structure the film reveals the pupils awareness of it, as well as their resilience to it. The hilarious football scene in which a deluded Mr. Sugden (played by Brian Glover, then a Barnsley school teacher and part-time wrestler) plays out his Bobby Charlton fantasies, shows the pupils arguing with him about unfairness and cheating. MacDowell vociferously protests his innocence regarding the ‘offence’ of coughing in assembly while the ‘culprit’ keeps quiet.  Assembled boys, waiting for the head teacher collectively discharge their contraband to an innocent messenger, and together they laugh as the head speechifies about the “generation that never listens” before he, in turn fails to listen to the protests of the unwitting mule.

The caning scene is brutal, but it is routinised, as is all the violence in KES, making it, perhaps more acceptable to those receiving and perpetrating it.  Certainly, as one boy says  “I’d rather have the cane than do lessons”. Similarly, Gryce, the head teacher describes having no option but to use the cane, even though he is clearly aware it does not work:

“I still have to use this to you boys everyday….until someone produces a better solution I’ll continue to use this cane, knowing fully well that you’ll be back for it, time and time, and time again….”

Interestingly, the DVD describes the violence contained in the film as “infrequent/mild” suggesting to viewers that, perhaps, routinised violence is acceptable.

Then there is Billy’s awareness of his own employment prospects and his philosophy surrounding this. Following a fight on the coke heap with MacDowell, Billy’s conversation with Mr. Farthing (played by Colin Welland, at the time the only professional actor in the film) about his impending transition from school to work reveals Billy’s acceptance of his position in life, but crucially his awareness of it:

Farthing: What sort of job do you want?

Casper:  Not bothered Sir, anything’ll do me

Farthing: Yea, but you want something that you’re looking forward to, that your interested in, don’t you?

Casper: I’ve not much choice Sir, I’ll take what I’ve got

Farthing: I thought you wanted to leave school?

Casper: I’m not bothered

Farthing: I thought you didn’t like school?

Casper: I don’t, but it don’t mean I’ll like work, does it. Still, I’ll get paid for not liking it, that’s one thing

Farthing: Yea, I suppose it is

And so, Loach problematises middle-class sympathy in his attempt to privilege the voice of the working-class pupils in describing the reality of their lived experience.  Limited agency, yes, but Billy and his peers are no somnolent sufferers of false class consciousness.

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The Grammar School: A Secret History

BBC Four have just finished broadcasting a two-part series The Grammar School: A Secret History.  Both episodes can be accessed via the BBC programmes page.  I found the series less than illuminating, and not as analytical as it could, or should have been.

The narrative of episode two focused on “the golden age of grammar schools” indicating a particular, positive view of this type of secondary school.  Far from being a secret history this episode repeated several common sense assumptions about the opportunities grammar schools gave to working class children, as well as the turn towards comprehensivisation.

A number of problematic phrases stood out:

“Grammar schools offered talented children from the poorest backgrounds the chance to go to some of the best schools in the country”

Talent in this content clearly refers to academic talent. It assumes that the 11+ was effective at identifying talent in children,  and implies that only talented children from the poorest backgrounds deserve a chance to go to the best schools.  It says nothing about middle class children, do they automatically go to “some of the best schools”?

“The grammar schools created a generation of upwardly mobile high-flyers who helped transform Britain”

This suggests that the grammar school system created social mobility.  Evidence suggests otherwise.  Middle class children were more likely to enter grammar schools, and once there, a middle class pupil was more likely to succeed than a working class pupil (Halsey and Gardner 1953; Little and Westergaard, 1964; Lacey, 1971).  True, the post-war years saw some upward mobility, but it also saw a change in the occupational structure, with an expansion of professional (middle class jobs) and a contraction of manual (working class jobs).

The mobility claims are less firm when considering the overall numbers of pupils educated in grammar schools.  As the narrator went on to state, they:

“educated a quarter of all secondary school pupils”

Can a “golden age” really be claimed for a system which excluded 75% of all pupils?  Even this “quarter” figure is misleading as grammar school places were not evenly distributed across the nation.  You had more chance of getting to grammar school in Wales than in parts of England.  The rationale for selection to a grammar school is that a pupil is suited for a grammar school education, in other words the 11+ identifies the possession of academic talent. How then can the uneven distribution of grammar schools places be explained?  Were Welsh children more academically gifted than English children?

The episode went on to describe how grammar schools would compensate working class children for the

“cultural impoverishment of home”

which, not only is this offensive, suggesting that working class culture is impoverished compared to the middle class culture of the grammar schools, it was immediately contradicted by the vignettes of working class ex-grammar school pupils whose families clearly valued education and aspired to greater educational opportunities. The programme makers have apparently, not read Nell Keddie’s Tinker Tailor.

Then, the programme moved on to the demise of the grammar schools, which, we were invited to believe is lamentable.  It was all the fault of

“The Labour Government [who] persuaded and pressured them to go comprehensive”

How much persuading, and pressuring did LEAs need?  True, there was the famous circular 10/65 which hardly compelled LEAs to go comprehensive.  This programme did briefly refer to middle-class dissatisfaction with the 11+ plus system, but said nothing of the economic rationale for comprehensivisation.  When Margaret Thatcher was Secretary of State for Education, Circular 10/70 attempted to stop plans for comprehensivisation, however LEAs continued submitting such plans, and more comprehensive schools were created. It was hardly a case of a Labour Government forcing comprehensive schooling on unwilling LEAs. None of this was mentioned.

The narration went on to describe

“enforced comprehensivisation”

which probably refers to the 1976 Education Act, which was repealed in 1979, meaning comprehensivisation wasn’t enforced.

The Grammar School: A Secret History was an interesting attempt at illuminating the history of secondary education, but it could do better.

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‘Unfair’ Medway 11-Plus

For a brief moment today I thought the parents of Medway, in Kent were revolting over the existence of the inequitable 11-plus and were demanding comprehensivisation.  I was mistaken, but my error was understandable given I had read the following headline:

“Medway MP is ‘inundated’ with complaints about 11-plus”

Alas, this BBC headline was not reporting on mass parental rejection of a biased method of educational selection which is weighted towards the reproduction of working class disadvantage.  Rather, it refers to delays at last Saturday’s 11-plus tests held at Rainham School for Girls and Chatham Grammar School for Boys.  According to BBC News, the local MP, Rehman Christi responded to his constituents’ concerns:

“I have asked Medway Council to fully investigate the matter and to ensure that no pupil was disadvantaged as a result.”

His concern that the 11-plus tests may have disadvantaged some pupils is intriguing.  On days when test centres run according to schedule, are we to assume the absence of disadvantage?  Or, are we merely to accept the disadvantage inherent in the 11-plus as inevitable and necessary?

“There’s nothing wrong with Borchester Green”

So says Jill Archer in BBC Radio 4’s The Archers. It comes in response to the extra tuition her grandchildren, twins Freddie and Lily Pargetter are receiving in an attempt to ensure they pass the entrance exam to the Cathedral School in Felpersham.  They currently attend the local state primary school in Loxley Barrett.

Nigel Pargetter, the twins’ father, being almost aristocratic and owning a country estate, always intended for his children to go to his old boarding school Clavisborne. Not quite as posh, more middle class, their mother, Elizabeth Pargetter (née Archer), was, at first, keen to allow them to follow in the Pargetter tradition.  In the summer she began expressing her doubts about boarding school, and so the Pargetters began exploring the possibility of the Cathedral School.  The twins’ cousin, Daniel Hebden Lloyd already attends this school.  His father, Alistair Lloyd wasn’t too happy about this, but conceded, partly because Daniel’s grandparents (the parents of his late biological father) stumped up the fees.

The Pargetters are self-excluding (Whitty, 2001)[1] themselves from state education, following an age-old tradition of the upper classes.  They still intend to self-exclude even though they have taken the decision to have the children attend a school close by.  Borchester Green has never been on their radar.

What is wrong with Borchester Green?

The short answer is, nothing.

Interestingly,  Borchester Green is likely to be seen as a ‘safe choice’ for many middle-class parents who cannot afford the fees for private education.  Granted, Borcetshire, Borchester Green, Ambridge, and The Archers are fictional, but it is reasonable to assume that this rural community has a large middle class population who have colonised the state education provision (ibid).  If they were to attend Borchester Green Freddie and Lily are at an advantage, they come from a wealthy, upper middle class family.  Social class remains the greatest predictor of education success.

Surely though, they would  do better at private school?

Not necessarily, private schools are not homogenous, they don’t all offer the same standard of education (whatever that might be).  In any case, why assume the quality of teaching is any better at a private school?  Importantly, private schools don’t equate to the long-established public schools such as Eton and Harrow for the boys, and Roedean for girls.  Here, social networks are likely to be as significant as academic credentials for a successful future life.  I’m not sure that the Cathedral School in Felpersham is quite in the same league.  Additionally, despite their obvious poshness, I’m not sure that the Pargetters are in the same elite social networks as those families who have sent their offspring to Eton and Harrow for generations.

The Pargetters could do no worse than save their money.  Jill Archer is right, the Pargetters have little to fear from Borchester Green.  It is almost as if she had read the recent report from the Sutton Trust which found that students from comprehensive schools outperformed at degree level, those students who went to either Independent or Grammar School.

However, someone should inform the Pargetters that they may have missed the deadline date for applying for a place at secondary school.

Continue reading ““There’s nothing wrong with Borchester Green””

Charley Junior’s Schooldays

This short film, Charley Junior’s Schooldays was made by John Halas and Joy Batchelor as a public information film in 1949.  It shows the story of Charley Junior, who, while he is not yet born, is keen to learn about the schools he will attend in the future.  The film is over 60 years old, and so, is clearly not news.  However it is a useful insight into the post war optimism surrounding the welfare state for anyone interested in the history of education in England and Wales.   The film can be seen as a response to the 1944, or ‘Butler Act’. It was this Act which introduced compulsory secondary education up to the age of 15, (the intention was to increase the school leaving age to 16).  The film describes the process of the 11+ exam determining whether a child went to a Grammar, Secondary Modern, or Technical School, though some LEAs chose not to follow this route.

It was, as this film suggests, much more than that.  While Butler, the Minister responsible for the Act was a Conservative, and the Act passed in 1944 prior to the Labour landslide victory of 1945, the Labour Government developed the provisions of the Act as part of its wider collectivist and comprehensive agenda of social welfare.

There are clear references to education being important to socialisation, Charley Junior is told that, for the first few years of his life, his parents will teach him everything he needs to know about the world.  This could have come straight from Emile Durkheim or Talcott Parsons!

The ‘tripartite’ system tends to dominate accounts of the 1944 Act (though the Act never legislated for this system), but here we can see that other educational provision was considered important.  Charley Junior is shown his nursery school and his junior school.  These schools didn’t just drop from the sky. As the film explains all this provisions required the training of teachers  (70, 000 new teachers needed to be trained to meet the needs of post war welfare reforms), the building of schools and supplies of equipment.  Another 600, 000 school places needed to be created, partly due to the raising of the school-leaving age, but also because of the increased birth rate following the end of the war.

The role of government is highlighted too. The Ministry of Education was shown to be of extreme importance, it wasn’t there just to make sure children were taught certain subjects, but it was there to ensure that children had access to health and social care, and that they were provided with a healthy meal.  Regulation and ‘bureaucracy’ were there for a reason.   As I’ve said in a previous post, when you deregulate, you get Turkey Twizzlers on school’s dinner menus.

There are some interesting gender stereotypes shown, with the girls in the Secondary Modern School ironing!  The tripartite (in reality, a bipartite) system presented as natural in this film soon became problematic. Despite these, the film presents a feeling of optimism, that, through collectivity, children will be well educated, that schools will take care of, and nurtue children, and, importantly, that children will have a better start in life than their parents did. In short, it is radical.

Teachers fears over technical schools

Last year, Michael Gove, the Conservative Party’s shadow secretary for children, schools and families announced that his party planned to introduce technical schools if they were in power.  These schools, with academy status would provide young people from 14 upwards with a vocational technical education.

Anyone who is aware of the history of the education system in England and Wales will have heard of technical schools.  Under the 1944 Education Act, or the Butler Act, free compulsory secondary education was introduced.  In many areas an 11+ exam determined whether a pupil went to a Grammar, Secondary Modern, or Technical School.  So, Technical Schools are hardly innovative.

While the three types of school were intended to have ‘parity of esteem’, in fact, they didn’t.  The 11+ was designed to select pupils into the most appropriate type of school, whereas, in reality pupils either passed or failed the 11+, with those passing it going to Grammar Schools, while those who failed went to Secondary Modern Schools.  And Technical Schools? Well, there were few of them built, and many closed in the 1950’s.   Not only were many children labelled as ‘failures’,  Grammar and Secondary Modern Schools differed in the social class characteristics of their pupils.  In short, middle class children were more likely to be selected for Grammar Schools, while working class children were likely to go to Secondary Modern Schools.

It is the potential that this class divide may be repeated if new Technical Schools are created that has prompted the NUT (National Union of Teachers) to voice their opposition to the Conservative Party’s proposal.

At their annual conference members of the NUT expressed concern about proposed changes to the curriculum for 14-19 year olds.  They fear selection at 14, claiming that this will force children to make decisions about their careers, and will find it difficult to change their minds.  Their concern is over the separation of vocational and academic education, which, they argue will result in a two tier education system.  There is, of course some justification for this fear, as this is precisely what happened following the 1944 Act.  Delegates also pointed to such a system reinforcing a class divide, again, evidence suggest these fears are justified, possibly more so now, due to changes in social mobility.

But, Michael Gove claims that these schools will be ‘high quality’  and that they will be ‘prestigious’.  Can we believe the Conservatives?  Well, the evidence from history suggests that it is the more academic schools which will be regarded as ‘prestigious’.  But, maybe we should give their plans a chance?  Perhaps those wealthy parents who have already put their children down for schools such as Eton and Harrow, might like to reconsider, and, instead decide to send their children to one of these new ‘Technical Schools’.

While we wait for that day, it might be interesting to see where Michael Gove’s two children end up at 14.