There’s been a lot of discussion of the proposed new grammar school (or rather “grammar school extension”) in Sevenoaks being approved (eg here).

Not impressed with the weasel words claiming that it’s not a new school. In practice, it is. If Nicky Morgan wants to support the opening of new grammars, she should have the guts to say so.

As to what I think about it – well, as often, I have rather mixed feelings.  I grew up in a system which was based on grammars and secondary moderns. Everyone took the 11-plus, unless they deliberately opted out of it. The grammars did, undoubtedly, promote the achievement of the academically able who were not from a middle-class background – people like me, in fact.  They acted as an agent of social mixing. I am also pretty convinced of the benefits of academically able kids having plenty of opportunities to work with others who are similar – think of the analogy in sport, and I’m sure you’d appreciate the benefits to a top-end sportsperson in training with their peers.

But…. I hate to find myself quoting Sir Michael Wilshaw, of all people, but I think he has it right on the nail here with two comments: such schools must “make sure they admit children from all backgrounds and particularly poor backgrounds.”
And: “for every grammar school you create, you create three secondary moderns and I can’t see parents queuing up to send their children to more secondary moderns,”

The first is a real problem when the 11-plus is opt-in. Although various measures can be adopted to help address it – grammar schools doing lots of outreach work, prioritising kids in care, or on free school meals – you will never totally overcome the fact that many aspirational parents will move heaven and earth to register their kids for the exams and get them through somehow, but many others won’t see the benefit or may be opposed to the very idea.

The second was a major problem where I grew up. Some of the secondary moderns were perfectly decent schools, but some were most definitely not. There was a boys’ secondary modern that was an absolute hell-hole – bullying was rife, it took the boys chucked out of every other school in town, and “everyone knew” no boy from there would amount to anything. There was a girls’ secondary modern that may not have had quite the same abysmal reputation, but was surrounded by an aura of hopelessness; it was right next to a girls’ grammar, and I think there was a real feeling of sheep being divided from goats.  The poverty of aspiration for children at those schools was horrendous – and bear in mind that since the grammars just took the top quarter, about one third of the kids at the secondary moderns would have tested as “above average”.

There are also, of course, the issues involved in accuracy of testing at 11, and how feasible it was for children to transfer between schools where appropriate (in my area, this did happen – I saw a couple of transfers each way – and when my mother was growing up in London, the three-tier system of “elementary”, “technical” and “grammar” schools set up the curriculum to allow transfers in the first couple of years).

I am not sure how far these problems can be overcome. But they are part and parcel of grammar school expansion  – moving the most academically able out of a “comprehensive” school will have an impact, and we cannot pretend it won’t – so it’s vital to look at them  I know not everyone will share my views on the positive attributes grammars can (note not automatically “will”) have, but no-one would countenance things being made worse for the majority.

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