Education Matters: Grammar schools should stay in the past

Geoff Barton, headteacher at King Edward VI Upper School in Bury.

Geoff Barton, headteacher at King Edward VI Upper School in Bury. - Credit: Archant

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

Almost twenty years ago, in a speech to the Conservatives for Europe Group, Prime Minister John Major conjured up some nostalgic images to paint a memorable picture of the way he saw Britain. He described our country as it was in the past and – in Major’s view – as it would remain in the future.

Here is what he said: “Fifty years from now Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and – as George Orwell said – ‘old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist”’.

Sir John might have included another item on his roll-call of misty-eyed patriotism: grammar schools. Rarely in our language has there been a pair of words that can prompt such strong emotions.

To some, the concept of the grammar school conjures up a bastion of elitism which pigeonholes young people too early, brands those who flunk the entry test as failures for life, and represents much of the snobby class-riven society we should be trying to leave behind.


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For others, the grammar school is the engine-house of social equality, with kids from feral council estates liberated by a heady mix of a bookishness, hearty sport and firm discipline.

All of which shows just how easy it is to caricature the grammar school concept, to view in it all the social virtues or ailments that shape our own outlook. We see, in other words, what we want to see.

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There’s no doubt that in their original form many grammar schools were the stepping stone out of either actual poverty or a poverty of ambition that gave many young people a chance to make something of themselves.

My father-in-law was one of the beneficiaries of such a system. Growing up in working class West Yorkshire before the last war, in a household of affection but little money and little educational traction, he was spotted for the grammar school that then gave him his passport to university and a profession.

His life was changed by that school.

But in truth grammar schools like that are long gone. I have friends who live in areas that are hotbeds of selective education – Kent and Buckinghamshire. Their tales are grim. Childhood is too often angst-ridden way before the 11+ tests hove into view. An obsessive network of private tutors prevails, after-school and weekend coaching of children, followed by a flight to independent schools if a child fails the test.

The school at which I’m proud to be headteacher was one of the original grammar schools opened in the 1550s by the young, sickly King Edward. Whereas some of those schools have retained selection and others have become fee-paying grammar schools, ours is feistily comprehensive.

We wouldn’t want to select. Instead we want to do something simpler and braver. We want to provide grammar school aspirations for everyone – an academic curriculum at the heart of learning, high aspirations, a culture of respect, all supported by great music, sport, debating and all those other activities that enrich our lives and build character.

This recent misplaced yearning for grammar schools does us few favours.

It’s a form of nostalgia that deserves to stay firmly consigned to the past.

By Geoff Barton

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