The thing about grammar schools

Hello Mrs May,

I hope you don’t mind the informal opening. I have a feeling you won’t read this anyway so I decided it didn’t really matter.

Let me tell you a little bit about myself. I am not a teacher or a policy expert, although I do work in education and have done for over 10 years. My main interest, though, in your new grammar school proposals is as a mum of three little boys – all 6 and under and all in the state sector.

I’ll also tell you a bit about where I live – Watford. I suspect you’ve driven through it, but probably never stopped. It has a pretty ugly ring-road but otherwise is quite pleasant. Anyway, Watford is very relevant to my interest in this whole business because, as you may know, here in Watford we have something called the South West Herts Consortium – a group of seven schools which use the 11 plus test as part of their selection process. These schools are known as partially selective schools in that as well as the 11 plus, they also use other criteria such as distance from the school, siblings, excellence in music/sport and so on. These schools have excellent reputations (of course they do – they are partially selective), but are fiercely competitive to get into therefore placing huge pressure on local children.

I know mums whose children sat the 11 plus test just last Saturday, and I know mums whose children are preparing to take it in the next couple of years. I have seen the impact of a partially selective system in my local area and, with my own boys all due to go through it in a few years, I have some strong views on your latest proposals to overhaul the education system.

Let me tell you about a few things that happen in my local area as a result of the system that we have here. Firstly, a significant number of parents send their children to independent prep schools to give them a better chance of getting a place at Watford Boys’ or Watford Girls’ Grammar Schools, meaning that increasing numbers of bright, state-educated local children now see these schools as totally out of their reach. They are effectively private schools, but without the big fee.

Secondly, you’ll have heard about the private tutoring phenomenon I’m sure – it is big business; especially around here. Don’t think it just happens for a month or two before the test – oh no. Many children are being tutored for a whole year or two beforehand – that’s right, children of 8 and 9 are spending time after school and at weekends prepping for a test. Is the tutoring really necessary, you might wonder? Surely the test is designed to identify naturally bright children who will end up at the right school for them whether or not they’ve had tutoring. Isn’t that how it works?

HA! Have you seen these tests? Of course those children who have spent time getting used to how the test is structured, doing mock tests and answering questions under pressure have an advantage over those who have received no tutoring. And so yes, of course those children whose parents can’t afford or don’t want to pay for tutoring are at a huge disadvantage before they even sit down in the test room. Even those well-intentioned parents who wholeheartedly disagree with private tutoring in principle end up giving in if they can possibly afford it. It is easy to say, as I have in the past, that you would never get a tutor for your child when the whole process is a long way off; but when you start to see the rest of the year group being prepped for a test that your child will also be taking, of course it is natural to want your own child to have a fair chance too, of course you don’t want him to feel under-prepared compared to his friends.

I’ll tell you something else that happens as a result of this partially selective system, Mrs May – children frequently do not attend their local school. And really, what should a school be? Part of and representative of a community, is what I like to think. Surely every child should have the chance to attend their local secondary school if they want to, but that often doesn’t happen here because where you end up going to secondary school isn’t just based on where you live, it is also based on how you perform in a test when you’re 10 years old. And so children end up getting coaches all over South West Hertfordshire just to get to school, with bright children from further afield often gaining places at excellent schools at the expense of local children. Friends are frequently split up at a time when the very thing that matters to most children of that age is staying with their friends.

We all know that the whole idea behind grammar schools initially was that they helped social mobility by giving bright children from less privileged backgrounds the chance to have a good, academic education. These days, there is plenty of research telling us that grammar schools do very little for social mobility. The thing is, Mrs May, it’s all very well proposing that grammar schools take a proportion of children from lower-income households, or that they should establish new feeder primaries in low income areas; but these are all token gestures aren’t they? A bit like scholarships and bursaries for less privileged children at independent schools. A token few lucky ones, but let’s not worry about the vast majority. The tutoring phenomenon and the pressure on children will only increase.

Let’s also think about these children, who instead of developing a love of reading or dance or sports are spending time preparing for a test. They’re not developing in-depth or useful knowledge of anything, they are being taught how to pass a test. They are being told, at the age of 10 or 11, whether they are good enough to get into a particular school. They are being forced to compare themselves to their peers and being labelled at an age when learning should still be fun. And how they performed on that particular day when they were 10 years old will have an impact on the rest of their lives; when we all know that children develop at different rates. And what about the pressure to live up to parents’ hopes and expectations? Parents who have paid for extra tutoring sessions, who may have taken on a second job or extra shifts to be able to afford the private tutoring in the first place (and I have no doubt that this will happen). How would a child feel telling his or her parents that actually, the tutoring didn’t quite pay off this time? And if the child is successful, what about when she actually arrives at the school that she’s been tutored to get into? Because what many of these 10 year olds are demonstrating is that they’ve learnt how to achieve a certain score in a test. What about the child who has scraped her way into the grammar school, but then feels like she’s under-achieving because she’s getting Bs when the majority of her classmates are on As and A*s?

Every bit of me hopes that the system here in Herts will be changed in time for my boys, but somehow I doubt it; particularly considering the latest news. So I have a final question, which isn’t just for you Mrs May but for all of you in Westminster really. Why don’t we value children and young adults for who they are anymore? Why is it all about how you did in your Phonics test, or your SATs, or your 11+? What about the amazing little dancer, the sporty child, the boy who loves to sing, the talented gymnast, the child who can make things, the child who can fix things; or the caring, happy smiley little girl who might not ace all her tests but makes everyone feel better just by being there? Except she’s not feeling quite so happy at the moment is she, because she didn’t get into that school she wanted to go to.

Why don’t we value young people for anything other than the ability to pass tests anymore, Mrs May? That’s what I’d really like to know.