The subject of grammar schools continues to be raised, ever since I wrote “A Parents Guide to the 11-plus” seven years ago, and long before that even.It is one I find myself frequently returning to. There have been three recent triggers to my writing on the subject this time: we have just seen the first new grammar school built since the then Labour government tried to abolish grammar schools in the 1960’s, this year’s 11-plus results as far as Essex goes have recently been announced and today the Echo published a story that relates.
Regarding the new grammar school (in Kent), technically it is an annex to an existing one, and this for legal reasons. At the time grammar schools were being closed, the then Education minister, Tony Crossland, was famously quoted as saying “I am going to destroy every ******* grammar school”. Given 90% of the grammar schools existing then no longer exists (often being changed into comprehensives), he almost succeeded. Southend is one of the pockets scattered around the country that have managed to retain their grammar schools and are widely popular, notably in the surrounding areas where grammar schools were abolished, with many wanting to go there but unable to given limited places. The arguments for and against grammar schools will continue to rage, and are covered in my book and elsewhere. In today’s Sun, one writer produced an article arguing “every bright working class kid deserves a chance in life; grammars gave it for me”. While social mobility is one of the “pro” arguments, there are many “anti” ones, notably that grammar schools attract disproportionately more middle class children than those from poorer backgrounds, as these are often able to access private education to counter the shortcomings of often disinterested state primary schools when it comes to preparing for the 11+, and those who don’t get to go to grammars, especially if academically able, often lose out.
Regarding the 11+ results just announced, inevitably given our wide circle of friends, we would become aware of those children who have taken the exam and passed and also those who failed. This time around, we are aware of one academically able child who passed and another child, just as able, who failed. There seems something pernicious that the outcome of a single exam, taken these days at the tender age of 10 (for most), should consign one of these children to five years of a Rolls Royce type of education and the other to an old banger type (if Ofsted results are anything to go by), although I have argued in the past: grammar schools are not necessarily all they are cracked up to be and, with the right sort of parental support, children can and do well in non grammar schools and outperform grammar school children. No-one has come up with a better means of determining who gets into grammar school, and we are left with an imperfect exam. And so the arguments continue, including concern for the children with non supportive parents. It should be noted that one of the gripes has been that given their popularity Southend grammar schools take more out of town children than in town. It is noted this time round Southend children have fared better than previously – with many seeing this as being a good thing.
This brings me to the third story, which features the headmaster of the school I attended (Southend High School for Boys), the one my son still attends. One of the articles in today’s Echo is titled: “Dr Robin Bevan from Southend High School for Boys says there are enough grammar school places” (and this in the light of them recently increasing the number of Year 7 and sixth form intake) and ends by inviting readers to give their views. About the school, my observation is the three things I looked for when my son started: education, manners and discipline, as well as a wide range of extra-curricula activities, the school has delivered on (I will never know if that would have been the case if he had failed his 11+ and gone to a non grammar school, but I have my doubts). If there is a criticism, the school is too exam orientated and could do more for the “misfits”. But I was left wondering if I agree with the “we have got the balance about right” argument of the headmaster, when it comes to the number of grammar school places offered in the town, given demand for grammar school places outstripts supply. One reason for this is what grammars offer is considered by some to be superior. The challenge, assuming as is almost certainly will be the case that Southend will continue to offer selective education, is to ensure its non grammar schools deliver in these areas of concern.