In the past few days, we have seen government announcements about introducing further grammar schools and faith schools, in order to give parents more choice and deliver education excellence.
In her speech today, Prime Minister, Theresa May spoke of “our plans” in order to make Britain “the great meritocracy of the world“. She argued that her reforms were designed to provide “a good school place for every child and one that caters for their individual needs” and was keen to particularly help children from disadvantaged families. There has been a lot of reaction to these announcements, ranging from very supportive to just the opposite. Those opposing her felt this would go against the move toward more social inclusion and that since this was not part of the government manifesto it would be wrong to proceed, at least without first having a wider debate. So here is my contribution to the debate.
As those who read my writings will know, education remains one of my great passions and I have offered my views on both grammar schools and faith schools, which essentially are the same then as they are now. Both I saw as having a place in the education system on the basis that parents should be able to choose how their children are educated and their views far outweigh those of any other. I believe in three important principles: high standards, not just academic but in all other areas, e.g. social, spiritual, aesthetic and practical; children should feel safe and be safeguarded, not just against bullying and anti-social behavior but against any unwanted influence including ideological indoctrination, and that children should be taught the importance of good manners and character. These are the criteria whereby I judge schools (and many fall short), and they form the basis for the type of schools I believe we need.
I confess at the outset that my own son, who has just left school and is about to go to university, went to a faith primary school and then onto a grammar secondary school. I don’t regret those decisions. I am grateful both those choices were available to us, knowing full well that for a good many parents such options are not available. In the faith school case we were faced with a decision whether to send our son to a good non-faith primary and a faith primary school that I was less sure about regarding academic standards. Opting for the faith school in the end did not turn out to be difficult decision. As one who subscribes to the notion that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, this became my guiding principle. In the end, the school part delivered in this regards but I sensed it could have done a lot more. Ironically, I later became good friends with the headmaster of the school my son did not go to and as for the headmistress of the school he did go to, she has never forgiven me for pointing out the school’s short comings when it came to the school’s preoccupation with getting good SATs results and its disregard when it came to helping their pupils to pass the 11+.
It seems to me that for many parents faith is important and I know a number who because of their fears that their faith inspired values are ignored and undermined at non faith school alternatives take a third decision to home school their children if a suitable faith school is unavailable. While I do not approve of faith schools indoctrinating their pupils, I fully support those that teach values that emanate from the faith ethos of the school. I also believe the Christian Bible is the most important book around, and should be taught. I would add that education should be about trying to understand the world we live in and making sense of the many contradictory perspectives to be found in it, and to learn to get along with and respect those who are “different”, however that is manifested. I fear the alternative is one based on a secular humanist ideology, accepting all and sundry notions except those based on dogma, unless it is approved by the liberal elite establishment. If we are to accept schools need to adopt values (and most of us do), they may as well be the right ones.
Even now, I feel a degree of ambivalence when it comes to whether I would want to expand grammar school provision or not. There are many reasons for this. While my experience is that grammar schools work for children from all social and cultural backgrounds, they still favour the children of better off and more educationally engaged parents and I am not convinced that it is the best way for bright children from poorer backgrounds to thrive and, just as pertinently, to be stretched academically, although the need to get all children to fulfill their full potential remains very important and is one area where schools often fail, especially non selective ones, although I question whether exam success should be the only yardstick for judging success. I also feel uncomfortable with the notion of separating children at the tender ages of 10 and 11 based on the outcome of a single exam, when there are so many anomalies when it comes to outcome, and where too often those who pass go to a good school and those who fail to a bad school. As I have remarked before, in my town all the grammar schools were rated by Ofsted as excellent and, at one point in the recent past, the three nearest non-selective secondary schools to where I live were deemed by Ofsted as failing. If my son had not passed the 11+ these would have been the only alternatives open to us. While I have some criticisms of the grammar school he did attend, and suspect grammar schools are not always all they are cracked up to be, but when it came to the three principles given above, the school passed with flying colours.
I am pretty sure the debate on the future of our school system will continue to run, with strongly held views expressed from all sides. I do not purport to have all the answers and am no more a fan of the May version of conservatism than the Cameron one. I do sense though that things are not altogether well with the system and there are many short comings to be found. While introducing more faith and grammar schools could be part of the answer, it is far from being the total answer. While I believe there is a lot to be said for empowering good parents who are educationally with it, and allowing parents to choose what is best for their child, not all children are blessed in this regards and their needs need to be met. I will watch the developments that no doubt will follow, with interest and concern, and expect to throw in my own two penneth worth.