Echo, gambling, 11-plus

I should first explain what the Echo, gambling and the 11-plus all have in common. For a number of years now, the Southend Echo has been the one newspaper I get delivered daily to my house. While often I just about manage to skim through its contents, I have long felt that as a community activist this is a must read publication in order to find out what is happening in my town, even if much of it doesn’t especially interest and not all its reporting is as balanced as it could be. One of my weekly rituals is to pay at the door my community minded septuagenarian lady who collects my money, who says she will continue to perform this service while she has the strength, for this is one of the few ways housebound, lonely, elderly folk get to meet others – a nicety I feel and one that is more reminiscent of a more genteel bygone age.

In the April 2nd edition of the paper, there were two features that particularly caught my eye: “Southend is Essex gambling capitalandHow we’ll get more kids into grammar schools – plans to steer Southend primary schools to encourage more 11-plus applications”. In times past, gambling and the 11-plus were two of my community activist interests. I have written about these in “Outside the Camp” and “Onward and Upward”, available as free downloads via the “Writings” tab of this website. While I have moved on and taken the view that I needed to focus on issues that I can change rather than those that I can’t, the subjects of gambling and the 11-plus, to my knowledge unrelated, have periodically cropped up in local news reporting and still interest me.

Some years ago, considerable momentum gathered in the town when our local council, encouraged by a government agenda at the time that linked urban regeneration to the building of super-casinos, strongly considered the possibility of Southend going down that route. I achieved my 15 minutes of fame when my picture appeared on the front page of the Echo; it was me posting letters to each of our councilors explaining why I thought this was a bad idea – arguing in essence that this would be a disastrous way of building the local economy. In the end it didn’t happen and, while I like to think the opposition of people who thought like me had an effect, a more significant reason was that some of the anticipated government incentives didn’t materialize as some had hoped. It is not my task now to regurgitate the arguments I made then, but two of them are pertinent to the Echo article: feeding on human misery and greed is a dubious way to stimulate the town’s economy and there have been studies showing that the socioeconomic costs of increasing gambling provision outweighs by 2:1 the supposed economic benefits by way of jobs and tax revenues etc.

As often happens, where there is a will there is a way, and if the will is for more gambling provision, even though it is often driven by commercial interests that see the money making possibilities, then a way will invariably be found. I suspect that while the full extent is yet to be revealed, some of the current ideas of redevelopment around the town have a gambling element and this needs to be watched. In recent years, the number of betting shops, including what has become known as the crack cocaine of gambling: fixed odds betting terminals (FOBT), have significantly increased, despite proprietors insisting they only encourage responsible gambling. I have no doubt that some would justify this as simply the implementation of the law of supply and demand, it is better than having units being left empty and jobs are created in the process etc.

When earlier today I stood in Victoria Circus, I could see five betting shops less than a hundred yards away that have sprung up in recent years, some now occupying what had once been landmark buildings. If I had taken the short walk down the High Street and left along the sea front I would have seen the depressing sight of many more. Other than when for a short time as a young teenager I frittered away my pocket money on the one armed bandits at the sea front arcades, such things have not attracted me but I could well see how these could entice some looking for some means of escape from boredom or other miseries. I stood inside one betting shop in order to find out what goes on. I saw one man begin to fritter away £20 in one of these FOBT devices, obviously knowing all the things he could do but joylessly continuing until he would eventually lose all his money or, if he was lucky, win the jackpot. I took away a responsible gambling leaflet, unconvinced by this tokenism on the part of the shop owners to appear responsible and concerned.

The Echo article begins: “Southend has the most betting shops per person in Essex” and then by quoting various people, with a view, puts forward arguments for and against increased gambling provision, and discusses what might or might not happen in the future. Since this is my blog, I would want to offer my own view that we have too many betting shops in our town centre and our Council has been short-sighted in allowing so many. Just as I argued when the Council revealed its casino ideas, any advantage gained will be outweighed by the disadvantages. While we are unlikely to revert back to the situation of many years ago, when there were many shops, often small but with individual character and local connection, selling a variety of useful things, in and around our High Street, unlike nowadays (not just betting shops but parts of national chains so we don’t know whether we are in Southend or Sunderland, coffee houses, fast food restaurants, charity shops, mobile phone outlets, finance places and pawn brokers), I feel some imagination and a clearer sense of the common good is needed by those who have the say in how our High Street area is to be developed.

While the collateral damage caused by increasing gambling outlets, as well as that if online gambling and the likes of the National Lottery and scratch cards, does not match, in my experience at least, that caused by excessive alcohol consumption, I have seen plenty of evidence of lives that have been ruined through gambling. While disallowing what for many, maybe most, who gamble, see as entertainment and harmless fun is not the answer, the fact that gambling has added to some of the problems around poverty and other social issues, sometimes leading to family breakdowns, ought to concern us and compel us to try to find solutions. While I concede reducing or restricting gambling outlets may not strike at the heart of the problem, my instinct is that doing so will help.

I don’t have firm realistic solutions as to how to revitalize our High Streets, other than express a desire to see local, community minded businesses thrive and to reverse trends that I see as less than desirable, including large away from the High Street stores squeezing small local businesses. I also see there needs to be a change in national life. While I won’t dismiss notions that society’s malaise is a result of poverty, despair, dis-empowerment etc., I believe the biggest need is for a move back to God (see my “Gospel” tab), such that, among other things, there will be a change in a cultural climate that seems to encourage gambling by those who have the most to lose and things that are less than wholesome.

As for the 11-plus story, it was about changes being proposed and implemented on how the exam ought to be and is being approached and viewed by the Southend primary schools, with the Council taking a lead in ensuring they give more emphasis on 11-plus preparation, whilst advising parents earlier about the exam, its significance and how to prepare, resulting in more of the town’s children taking and passing the exam. One of the issues the Echo had raised going back a year or so was that more children gained places in the four town grammar schools that lived outside the town than inside, despite out of town children needing to score higher in the 11-plus than in town children, and the percentage of Southend children getting places in grammar schools had been steadily falling in recent years. Moreover, children from certain primary schools, typically those serving children of more affluent parents, were more likely to secure a grammar school place than other primary schools, typically those serving children of less affluent parents, although the picture was a lot more complex and convoluted than this.

Before turning to the changes the Echo was reporting or alluding to, I should firstly declare a personal interest. Right now, my just turned 16 year old son is about to sit his GCSEs at one of the town grammar schools, Southend High School for Boys (SHSB), a school that many years earlier I had also attended. I have strong views on the education he has received there and of the exam system that determines a good deal of what goes on, but that will wait for another time. Some eighteen months prior to leaving his primary school, he expressed an interest in going to SHSB. Up to then, this was not something I had given a great deal of thought. I took his education seriously and encouraged him as I felt a good parent should but tended to leave the question of preparation for secondary school and the issue of educational content with his primary school.

When I looked into the matter more deeply, I realized to my dismay that preparing children to take the 11-plus, the exam I discovered at the same time he needed to pass in order to secure a grammar school place, was not high on its agenda. Instead, the emphasis was on getting pupils to do well in the government initiated Standard Assessment Tests (SATs), which I found to my surprise was not the 11-plus. I also came to realise that some children had an advantage in being better prepared for the exam as a result of attending a more geared up to pass the 11-plus primary school or through having been individually coached. I have sat umpteen exams in my life, but very few where in order to do well preparation was not needed. As much as preparing children for the 11-plus at so tender an age irks me and goes against my education philosophy: a child’s creative juices should be allowed full, unrestricted chances to flow, and despite pundits saying the 11-plus is about testing ability rather than being taught how to answer the exam questions, I knew that I needed to act if my son was not to miss out on gaining a grammar school place.

My book, “A Parents Guide to the 11-plus”, available as a free download via the “Writings” tab of this website, tells the story of what we did as a family to address the situation and contains helpful advice to parents who find themselves in a similar position. While the exam content and the timing of the exam have changed since that time, much of the book remains relevant. To find more about the current system, visit the helpful website of the Consortium of Selective Schools in Essex (CSSE) that administer the 11-plus in Essex. With the benefit of hindsight, I do not regret taking the extra measures needed to help my bright son prepare for the 11-plus in order to realize his ambition to get to SHSB. Of course, I will never know for sure if he would have fared worse if he had failed, but in the back of my mind there remains the thought that education wise he gained overall compared with what might have been.

Back to the Echo story, it relates to changes made since I was a parent 5 years ago. In essence, the changes being proposed with some already being implemented amounts to the Council encouraging Southend primary schools and the parents of more academically able children to better prepare children to take the exam. The exam is now more in line with SATs, with it being harder to pass just on the basis of having received exam focused, intensive coaching rather than having tested a child’s ability to handle a grammar school education, with its emphasis on academic rigour, disciplined approach and innate ability. The Council seven point pledge contains proposals of what is being intended and, while the devil is in the detail, do appear reasonable, although the question that is begged as far as I’m concerned is how to ensure children are as prepared as best they can be when they take the 11-plus, now held at the beginning of their last year at primary school.

The rights and wrongs of the 11-plus system is a big question and one my book discusses in passing, along with its practical emphasis on to how best, parents in particular, can prepare a child with the necessary ability and attitude for the exam, giving all sorts of practical advice I picked up on the way or wish I knew at the time. Five years on, I am still ambivalent as to whether the system of selective education, as seen in Southend, is the right one or if the academically inclined children of less affluent parents may be losing out. However, as a parent I saw it as my responsibility to ensure that my child had the best education possible and is why I acted as I did.

While I am not a great fan of Ofsted, the fact they rated the grammar schools as excellent and the non-grammar schools as ordinary at best, must have some bearing. Many of the grammar school values are ones I share as is the importance attached to such things as discipline and manners. A lot has happened since suggesting he might have had a better overall learning experience than if he had gone to one of the non-selective schools (as disagreeable as such a notion is although we will never know for sure). To give the Council their due, they appear to be taking steps to make the system fairer and more inclined to selection on the basis of a child’s academic ability rather than social selection or what primary school a child attended. The proof of course as to how successful have been the changes will be when we see the results (compared to previous years), according to individual primary school. The bigger challenge though is ensuring children at all our schools get a good education.

But I must return to the big question: what is education and the schools tasked with educating our children all about or should be all about? This is a far more important question than how best to tinker with the system of education that is currently in operation, which seems to me has shifted the balance toward rigid curricula adherence and exam attainment rather than trying to instil a wonder and understanding of the world and a love for learning. Those who have read some of my writings will know that it is a subject on which I have strong views, which often do not align with the status quo or the views of those who formulate educational policy.

The age in which children can leave the education system has steadily increased over the past 100 years. It was until recently 16, the age my son is now, but I understand it has risen yet again. Even so, the general education he receives finishes then, culminating, in my son’s case, him taking GCSE exams in June and then specializing at A-level in those subjects he is most interested in after that. I hope to use that occasion to reflect on the system that operates and the all important, yet often overlooked, role of parents as their child’s main educators and concerning their need to take responsibility.