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.

Continue reading “Teachers vs Government: Seventy Years of Education Policy”

The History Boys

This week’s screening in Film and Education was The History Boys (2006) directed by Nicholas Hytner, and based on Alan Bennett’s stage play of the same name.

At Cutlers’ Grammar School a group of boys have just obtained the school’s highest ever A Level Grades. Returning for one more term they are coached for Oxbridge entrance by ‘General Studies’ teacher Hector (Richard Griffiths), history teacher Mrs Lintott (Frances de la Tour) and the newly appointed Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore).

The opening scene tells us the film is set in ‘Yorkshire’.  The non specificness of ‘Yorkshire’ reflects, for me at least, a sense of  placelessness; Posner refers to living in Sheffield yet Irwin lives in Horsforth (Leeds) which, we are informed is on Hector’s route home and so presumably we are in the environs of Leeds, not Sheffield.  The city scape we see is a shot of Elland, near Halifax, again suggesting we are located in West Yorkshire. Hector, Irwin, Lintott and the boys go on a day trip to Fountains Abbey (Ripon), while Roche Abbey (Rotherham) the other Cistercian monastery on Irwin’s agenda, might have been a more convenient location for the outing. Perhaps this geographic licence is deliberate? Ostensibly we are in Sheffield, yet at times were are in Leeds where Bennett is from. So, while The History Boys is drama, fiction, there is a hint of a Bennett autobiography.

Unlike the location, the year (1983) is specified in the opening scene.  The soundtrack features ‘Blue Monday’ and ‘Mustapha Dance’, the inclusion of these reaffirms the events as occurring in the early 1980s.  This film could not be set any later however, as shortly afterwards the seventh term Oxbridge exams ceased to exist. Not only are Hector, Irwin, Lintott and the boys spending one final term together, the final term is itself coming to an end.

Other themes explored in the film could easily fit into later decades.  Hector’s humanist teaching contrasts with Irwin’s technocratic approach (Talburt, 2010) and is reflected in the mise-en-scène. Hector’s classroom follows a ‘traditional’ liberal arts theme furnished with wooden desks with pictures and photographs covering the walls.  There is one of Orwell which appears in some scenes to be looking over Hector’s shoulder, a signal that Hector is being observed, his teaching style giving rise to suspicion.  It is a sign that his days are numbered.  As the headmaster says:

“Hector produces results but unpredictable and unquantifiable…There’s inspiration, certainly, but how do I quantify that?”

In contrast, Irwin’s classroom looks functional and modern with bare walls; it is suited for a different purpose (Jays, 2006).  Irwin is there to get results in a competition with the best, even though the headmaster is confused over who the ‘best’ are:

“We’re low in the league. I want to see us up there with Manchester Grammar, Haberdasher Askes, Leighton Park… or is that an open prison?”

There is a more difficult theme played out during the course of the film which revolves around Hector’s relationship with his pupils.  Hector rides a motorbike and routinely offers a boy (with the exception of Posner) a lift home.  On the first occasion that we witness this offering each boy in turn quickly gives a reason for declining leaving Scripps who, seemingly out of a sense of duty agrees to ride pillion.  As they ride home Hector gropes Scripps and this scenario is repeated each time one of the boys becomes a passenger. It is clearly a sexual assault, yet the boys do not consider themselves victims, with Dakin even intervening to save Hector’s career after his behaviour is reported to the headmaster.

It is not clear what message the film gives about Hector’s behaviour.  The boys, in other words his ‘victims’ remain supportive and the film clearly invites us to share the affection they have for Hector. Should we follow the boys’ lead and turn a blind eye to Hector’s behaviour?  Should we feel guilty for mourning Hector’s demise?

Hector, of course tries to minimise his actions, to which the only sensible response comes from Mrs. Lintott:

 “A grope is a grope. It is not the Annunciation”

Continue reading “The History Boys”

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.

Continue reading “Widespread Coaching for Kent’s 11+”

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.

Continue reading “The Grammar School: A Secret History”

‘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?

Strictly Grammar Schools

Ann Widdecombe likes Grammar schools.  She is calling for the ban on Grammar schools to end, and wants new ones to be set up.    Her statement on this issue was reported in this week’s Guardian, and comes prior to her speech at the North of England Education Conference.

Her rationale?

Widdecombe believes, or wants to believe that Grammar schools offer the opportunity of social mobility to bright working class children.

This is an appealing claim.  Who would want to deny a child from a poor background from fulfilling their potential, by receiving the best possible education?  The notion that Grammar schools offer a rigorous academic education support this claim.

However, it is problematic, for several reasons.

Firstly, there is the construction of the bright working class child as something special, or unusual.  Following on from this is the notion that working class children only deserve a good quality education if they are bright.  Politicians would never suggest creating a sub standard type of school in which dim middle class children could be educated, and separated from their fellow middle class, but cleverer peers.

Widdecombe expresses the belief that Grammar schools are a route out of poverty for working class children.  This is a belief that is often heard in defence of Grammar schools.   However, those getting places in Grammar schools are more likely to be middle class.  With parents employing class strategies, such as private tutoring in preparation for the 11+ in an attempt to secure a place for their child, working class children are likely to stand less of a chance at getting into Grammar school in the first place.

The notion that Grammar schools are unique in providing a good quality academic education is, I argue, a veiled attack on Comprehensive schools.  It is a case of Grammar = good, Comprehensive = bad, despite the evidence to the contrary  (I’m not going to list sources here right now, but it is there).

But Ann Widdecombe did say some Comprehensive schools were “pure gold”?

She did, but again she said others were “very large, incompetent and seriously disruptive” which suggests that she recognises that Comprehensive schools are not necessarily comprehensive.  A report from the  Sutton Trust, entitled: Worlds Apart: social variation among schools highlights the difference between Comprehensive schools, including their social variation.  For “pure gold” read a Comprehensive school colonised by the middle class, or , at least located in a middle class community.  A “very large” and “disruptive” Comprehensive school points to a school located in an urban area, tackling the social problems associated with poverty.

What about the ban?

The so-called ban is not so much a ban as a statement by the Conservative Party in 2007 to the effect that it would not support the reintroduction of Grammar Schools if it won the election.  This didn’t signal a commitment  to Comprehensive Schools.  Certainly, with the growth in Academies, and Free schools selection is likely to increase, so there will be more segregation, not less.

Finally, for this post at least, her request that the Government does not stand in the way of Town Halls (which, surely, are Local Authorities) wanting to reintroduce selection and create Grammar schools is interesting.  Is she not aware that the current Government is pledge to free schools from Local Authority control?

Nick Gibb, Minister for Schools

Nick Gibb is the new Minister for Schools.  This is not surprising, given that previously he has shadowed this position.

He thinks traditional forms of teaching and discipline are good, so, along with his colleague Michael Gove we might expect to see not only more uniforms, but rote learning, and on the spot detentions. However, Gibb is also anti bureaucracy and wants to leave headteachers to get on with the job.  Which, presumably means they are free not to implement traditional forms of teaching and discipline.  We shall see.

Since taking up his new position, he is reported, according to the Guardian to have said:

“I would rather have a physics graduate from Oxbridge without a PGCE teaching in a school than a physics graduate from one of the rubbish universities with a PGCE.”

So, apparently he believes that some Universities are ‘rubbish’ , though which ones is not clear, though it seems Oxbridge does not come under the rubbish category.  Neither does Durham, one might assume, given that Gibb studied Law there.   Presumably he also believes that a graduate with excellent knowledge of physics will make a better teacher than  someone with, say, a third class degree and a PGCE.  However, there has been no announcement yet from the Government that teaching qualifications are to be dispensed with. We’ll wait and see.

Back in 2006, Steve Richards interviewed him, about his school days, for Teachers TV.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

It is clear from this what kind of school he prefers: Maidstone Grammar good, Thornes House Wakefield bad.  However, he might disagree with the Minister for Education, Michael Gove on the issue of uniforms if his experience of Canadian schools is anything to go by.  No uniform there, but they did start the day by singing ‘O Canada’

If you watch the video, then listen for this quote from Gibb when Richards asks him about the different intakes of the schools he attended:

“I never knew what the intake was, as a kid I never, you never sort of assess that, but I did notice very much the differing quality of teaching and the ethos of the school”

So,while he was oblivious to the backgrounds of his fellow pupils in the numerous schools he attended, he was able to discern what good teaching is, and he stands by the validity of this selective, partial judgement. 

Continue reading “Nick Gibb, Minister for Schools”

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.

Comprehensive Schools are not comprehensive

This week, the Sutton Trust published a report: Worlds Apart: social variation among schools.  It reports on the social segregation within schools.  It found that many of the country’s ‘leading Comprehensive schools’ are more socially exclusive and less ethnically diverse than some Grammar schools. 

Many factors contribute to this, such as parental choice, and the selection by the schools themselves.  It is not solely because a Comprehensive School is located in, for example, a middle class neighbourhood.

These findings should be cause for concern. The Guardian picks up on the report and suggests that a ballot to allocate places at secondary school would be fairer.  it certainly would, as it would not enable middle class parents to use their cultural capital, or any other capital to ensure their child was offered a place at their preferred school.

The Daily Mail however, also expresses concern at the report.  Though their claim to be concerned about the social exclusivity of Comprehensives isn’t really credible.  They go on to use the findings of the report to suggest that a solution is an end to Comprehensives and a return to Grammar Schools.  So, in other words they are so concerned with this divisive state in Comprehensive Schools that they want to replace it with more divisiveness.  They still cling to this notion that Grammar Schools enabled social mobility, but only for ‘bright’ working class children.   Again, the evidence for this claim is pretty thin.  One has to question therefore the Daily Mail’s motive in running this story in the way that they did.  The article appears, on the face of it to be concerned with equality, but their enthusiasm for Grammar Schools reveals their real lack of concern.

Also interesting is the claim by the Daily Mail that this report is “groundbreaking”.  This is as good as saying that these findings are something that we were, hitherto, unaware of.

While the results from the Sutton Trust report are interesting, and significant in that they provide new data and add to the debate over school admissions (which have supposedly being tightened), the key fact that middle classes are able to ‘colonise’ some Comprehensive Schools is not  newly discovered. 

Middle class ‘colonisation’ of some Comprehensive Schools has been researched by sociologists and educational researchers for around 20 years.    Following the 1988 Education Act (which, amongst other things enshrined the rights of parents to choose a school for their child) studies have looked at the impact of the ‘educational market place’. 

Researchers have looked at ‘class strategies’ of parents and their behaviour when choosing a school.  The Daily Mail’s headline, for example was Selection by Mortgage, referring to the ability of middle class parents to secure a place at their preferred school by moving there, forcing up house prices, and therefore excluding children from poorer families.  Other reported strategies include attending church to secure a place at a church school.  Middle class parents are also better able to access and interpret a range of official and unofficial information about a school and use this to make an ‘informed’ choice about schools in their area.  And selection by the school itself, again not surprising given that schools will themselves want to maintain their position in the education market place. 

The result is, Comprehensive schools which aren’t comprehensive, and the reproduction of social class inequalities.  The solution is not more Grammar Schools.  The problem is the education market place. Continue reading “Comprehensive Schools are not comprehensive”