HEADS AND TEACHERS
Comments on life in grammar school areas from heads, teachers, teaching assistants and other education professionals.
Thoughts of a Kent non-selective school head moving from the selective sector
When I trained as a teacher I initially took a job in a super-selective grammar school teaching economics. I stayed in that school for a decade, progressing into senior leadership during a time that the school secured an Outstanding grade. Here is what I learned…
Selective schools are lovely places to work. Committed and long-serving staff along with generally highly supportive parents. Teachers recognise their privilege and that their school is not representative of wider society. They do the very best to help and support students.
Despite people moaning about the grammar school sector, I think that it is often forgotten how poorly funded selective schools are. The difference in funding in a county like Kent between two schools of similar size (selective vs non-selective) can be huge. Embarrassingly so.
Recruitment is relatively easy. I’ve known situations where up to 20 applications were received for a role with tight shortlisting procedures applied. That contrasts starkly with non-selectives in the same area that might advertise for six months for a role with no interest. The knock-on implication of this in selective counties is that national challenges in teacher recruitment are magnified in non-selective schools meaning that those children most in need of good teachers often don’t get them. This issue has existed for decades.
Often, staff in grammar schools are exceptionally well qualified subject experts. When I joined my selective school, there were already 13 staff with PhDs. I ended up completing one myself, to support my leadership progression. This was not unusual, and and yes lots of work. Teachers in selective schools don’t have it completely easy. It is a challenging job in different ways to non-selective. The amount of marking can be immense as can be the level of extra-curricular involvement of staff.
Many teachers in selective schools know that they could be in leadership roles earning much more in other schools but instead choose to work in selective communities where they are highly supported and valued by all. I can’t help feeling that this is a loss of skill.
In selective counties, if you want to teach A Level in many facilitating subjects with good class sizes and outcomes, you must work in a grammar school. It comes with considerable pressure, however, to help students secure Russell Group and Oxbridge places. It’s hard work!
In grammar schools, there is a self assuredness. Often far less bureaucracy and naval gazing. No worry about being put in category. Almost guaranteed strong progress. Parents that tend to support come what may and children that arrive with a strong learning habits. So, the secret of success of selective schools is their very exclusivity, strong values, academic rigor, and confidence to ignore the viccistudes of the inspection system or teaching fashions. Tradition is their friend.
Does that mean I support grammar schools? As a father, yes, but as a headteacher of a non-selective, no. If I were creating a system from scratch, I think comprehensive education is ideal. Yet, if you want your child to do well, grammars can also offer huge opportunities.
This story, at first glance, makes me sound like a hypocrite. Why? Because my older child scraped a pass in the 11+ and went on to get a first in Maths from a very competitive entry university. Despite the fact that her village primary school consistently produces just 10-15% 11+ successes. (And that’s a high result for a primary in this county!)
However, my older daughter spent the next seven years driving herself to prove she was as good as her peers – which wasn’t good for her mental health. Her amazing Grades at GCSE and A level don’t tell the whole truth about her experience of selective education. She says she “hated” most of her school experience especially the sixth form, which she had hoped would be an improvement. All teachers were interested in, she believed, were high grades. Now 24, and into a career, she is still working out how to create a liveable work-life balance.
Another part of this story concerns my other child – the 11+ refuser. She told us, aged 9, that she wouldn’t be taking the test. She encouraged several of her friends to refuse also.
As we live near a county which is non-selective and her year had fewer students in it, she went to a comprehensive (not her catchment secondary modern). Like her sister, she worked hard, and got an excellent degree from a competitive entry university. However, she was surrounded at her university by people from selective schools, either private or state grammars. Her close friends refused to believe she had been to a comprehensive; but she didn’t tell most people because there were judgemental remarks about comprehensive schools.
Why didn’t I consider our local secondary modern school? Because the opportunities are much better at the comprehensive in the next door county – a better range of subjects, lower staff turnover, better extra-curricular offer, more consistent homework policy, and yes, better exam results. Everyone is at a true comprehensive: students aiming for Oxbridge and students aiming for apprenticeships. It’s not a perfect school by any means, but staff showed they cared about my younger daughter, no teacher ever set limits on her achievements and she had until she was 18 to prove herself (better than taking a test at age 10 – the true age of most 11+ takers)
I used to be a secondary school teacher, mostly in comprehensives, but more recently, supply teaching in secondaries and grammars in the selective county where I live. I taught English, a subject everyone takes. And this is the truth: there are bright, academically able students in every type of school and there are hard workers too. The biggest differences? Grammar school parents pay for more private tuition (GCSE and A level) and expectations are generally higher at grammars from staff, from parents and from students themselves. In other words, there is a lot of social manipulation and paying towards higher grades. If a child is perceived as “one of the brighter ones”, they’ll often achieve more on average. Then there are the more generous grammar school teacher assessments – included in coursework for various subjects at A level. Add the fact that grammars have a lower staff turnover and don’t forget that grammars are “pickier” about who gets to take certain A levels (skewing their statistics).
If I hadn’t learned all this from teaching, I could have simply observed it in my own daughters’ experiences.
The 11+ does damage even to many who pass it – because it leaves a legacy of handling any challenge through hyper-conscientiousness. It does damage to those who fail or who are too terrified to take it, because they carry with them a feeling of exclusion from an elite within their peer group.
Anxiety about the 11+ starts very early. 5 or 6 year olds hear parents say “Blue table children are seen as 11+ passes” etc
My younger daughter was never on “blue table” and she worried about that like hell. At the age of 5.
My daughters were relatively lucky but I’ve seen too many children in tears in this village and I’ve heard too many parents uphold the myth that grammars are “where they want to work hard”.
It’s a system that doesn’t select the most able children and doesn’t indicate achievement at 16,18 or beyond. It isn’t helping lower income families because too many grammar places go to children from private preps. It favours boys over girls because they score lower but there is an even number of places for boys and girls.
It’s damaging nonsense.
The eleven plus is a damaging and divisive process
John Prescott in his biography “Fighting Talk” outlines how failing the eleven-plus “gave him a great sense of failure”. Like John Prescott I also failed my eleven-plus. For many of us who did so that early judgement that we were not bright enough to have academic aspirations was immensely damaging. Self-expectations were lowered and self-esteem battered. Reading his biography it is very easy to empathise with the recurring theme that the “scarring experience” of being labelled an educational failure at eleven sticks with you for life. It certainly took me several decades to rid myself of the belief I was not bright enough to succeed in my chosen career. I could be in a room of fellow professionals and never feel I fully belonged. I had failed the selection criterion at eleven and therefore must have had a lesser intellect than others in the room.
I still remember from my school days those pupils in my class brighter than me whose parents could not afford to fund them in further education, as mine could. They did not have the second chance I had – they had to suffer the provision on offer as their only chance in education. That some fifty years on still strikes me as ability stifled by the flaws of selection.
I also recall that in the top set of my secondary modern the girls seemed so much brighter than the boys. Why was that? There were two single sex grammar schools in the area and it was rumoured to ensure balance of numbers that the pass mark for girls was set higher than the pass mark for boys. I cannot prove or disprove this, this was vey much the era of Jim Callaghan’s “educational secret garden.” However, my personal observations would suggest some credibility to this belief. If so how fair a system was it on those girls who had a secondary modern education even though their eleven plus marks might have been better than boys who were selected?
On the issue of social mobility I genuinely wonder just how much time those grammar school advocates have spent trying to seek the viewpoint of those who could offer a first-hand insight into the adverse impact of selection and a secondary modern education? Do they, even momentarily, reflect that maybe the reason they do not hear many counter arguments to their viewpoint might be because most of those who had a secondary modern education never had the remotest hope of moving in their social circles because of the selective system they so eagerly advocate?
Frankly the myth of grammar schools and selection being a tool for social mobility needs to be quashed at every opportunity. The demise of grammar schools in the 1960’s and 1970’s stemmed from a public sense that the process was damaging to too many young people. Educators who strive for greater fairness for all students now need to do everything within our collective power to remind people that these very same arguments still hold strong today.
Failing the 11 Plus still hurts
I will never forget 55 years ago when I failed the 11 Plus. It was degrading and those that failed knew it was the end of their school life. Child abuse.
I made it. I worked and gained an Open University BA Degree. I taught for 40 Years, 4 years as Deputy Head and now in my second year as Head. My 46 year career finishes in Summer 2023. But failing the 11 Plus still hurts.
Getting 11+ results
I took my 11+ in a junior school in Canterbury (around 1975). Students who passed received their results in white envelopes with first class stamps. Students who failed received their results in a brown envelope with a second class stamp.
This has shaped my view of education and has been a driving force in my career which led me to be a Principal of a Sixth Form College and then CEO of a (small) Multi Academy Trust.
Retired Headteacher who failed the 11+
I am a newly retired headteacher of over seventeen years of headship in Hampshire. I have also served as a primary school educational consultant and an Ofsted Inspector. My wife is an ex-grammar school pupil whilst I, on the other hand, spectacularly failed the 11 plus. We have two daughters one would have passed the 11 plus and the other, like her father, would probably have not. Fortunately, Hampshire Education Authority does not run a selective secondary system so both daughters attended the same excellent comprehensive school and both did very well and now have successful careers. I am 64 years old now, yet I can still remember as a child, sitting alone on the stairs in the hall listening to my parents’ kitchen conversation and their heart-felt concerns after finding out that I had blotted my copy-book and failed the 11 plus.
Contrary to recognised research on children's development
I know now the grammar school I attended was elitist. The staff were mostly interested in the higher streams, I was in one of those streams and went on to further education. My friends in the lower streams were left to muddle through. It has had a profound effect on my family as my sister failed, and never got over it. My own children had to travel to the next town to attend a comprehensive school, as there was still an 11+ where we lived. I have been a teacher and head teacher. The practice of selecting children at 10 is contrary to recognised research on children’s development. Efforts should be put into ensuring each and every child has a wide and varied curriculum at a well run school with well paid staff.
Failed 11+ Took years to recover
I failed the 11+ in about 1972. We lived in Kent at the time, although that made little difference at that time it is interesting later. When I say I failed what I actually mean is that I did not get a place in the local grammar because of course there is no passing grade. There are a number, n, of places , and the top n students get to go. So at age 11 I went to a very well equipped secondary modern where it was made quite clear to us that we had failed, were not academic and would be manual workers. I left with 3 O levels. My sister went to the grammar and achieved 10 O and 3 A levels. I joined the forces rather than stay home and there I was taught to be a computer technician which involved being able to programme mainframe computers and repair them to component level. I was lucky that my practical aptitudes were spotted and used. I worked low level technician jobs for 15 years while also studying for my degree in computer science. I now teach computer science at A level while having not a single one myself. The grammar school system set me up for a failure at 11 and only my own efforts put me back where I should have been but of course 30 years behind my peers who passed. My sister gained a degree in English but has never had a job. The last time I looked at the results from my old school, alma mater maybe , I noted 2% of students gained 5 GCSEs at C and above. In the grammar it was 98%. We’ll done Kent, you managed an average of 50%. The failing inner city comprehensive I was working in at the time achieved 53% the same year. Grammar schools are an abomination that labels kids as a failure nice and early so we can push them into the crap jobs that the middle classes don’t want.
A Lincolnshire Town - two grammars and one comp
I was Exec Head of a comprehensive school in a town in Lincolnshire. The Town had large communities of Poles, Lithuanians and Latvians working in food processing industry. Our school was 40% EAL and had 20% FSM. The two grammar schools had almost 0 EAL and about 4% FSM. We had a teacher recruitment crisis and struggled to get any new teachers. Complete lack of fairness and equity.
The 11+ permanent chip on the shoulder
I’m 51 and still scarred by ‘failing’ the 11+. My family all went to grammar schools having ‘passed’ and the letter sent a deep shock wave through us all but it left me feeling a lifelong imposter in all that I do. One could argue that it was character building, that it drove me to prove the system wrong, that I developed later than others, however the fact remains that the label of failure at 11 is deeply wounding and limiting. I did get to university, one of 2 from my year group at a secondary modern school which, despite the terrible facilities and lack of funding, had some inspirational teachers who supported my ambition to become a teacher. I did, in fact, I became a headteacher of a comprehensive, singing the praises of all but my heart always lay with the underdogs, those children who arrived as deeply scarred from the negative experience of failing Kent selection tests. Our school saw children get to Oxford and Cambridge, achieve fame and riches, and best of all, secure employment in chosen careers where they are as at least successful as their ‘selected’ peers. Give it up, the grammar system is a class system and does not improve standards or make children more happy or successful. It is high time this was acknowledged and we move on, education is so much more than qualifications and grades, and there are many many routes to happiness.
Stress Capacity and objective thinking
After working as an independent educator for SEN kids for over 20 years, I have come to understand that grammar schools are a place for tough kids. Tough psychologically — these kids aren’t necessarily the brightest ones nor those who work hardest, but when they are forced into cruel competitions, into situations where their future can be significantly affected, they can calmly do what they can and come out doing better than others. They might not have very high EQ or really good socializing skills, but they don’t suddenly lose their ability to perform well and can still objectively think and react — these are good qualities that should be nurtured for the society — though whether grammar schools are the best way to realize the potentials of these young adults, that is something WE now have to decide. Rather than talking about the selectivity of grammar schools, I think we should discuss HOW to raise a future generation that will be seen as more reliable when they work with the future technologies, than AI expert systems alone.
I am now 69 but can still remember sitting in my grandmothers garden weeping on the day that I discovered I had been rejected by our local direct grant school. I had been borderline in the 11 plus test and had been invited for interview at the school where it was soon obvious I was not going to fit in. Questions included how high Glastonbury tor level was above sea level (I had no idea)! The local system meant that the choice for girls was secondary modern or a direct grant school that took a few ‘council pupils’ every year.
I went to the local secondary modern school and loved every minute of my time there. Teachers were aspirational and treated us with respect. I eventually went on to be a teacher and a headteacher and am passionate about educational opportunities for all. I am appalled at the latest idea that grammar schools will be promoted and just wish the government would base their decisions on facts and not ideology.
Although with supportive and ambitious parents, I did well out I the system, many of my contemporaries despite being extremely capable, never recovered from the feeling of failure and did not achieve what they were surely capable of.
Pupil, student and teacher
I sat the 11-plus in Somerset in 1958. I and my friend were the only two to pass from our village school. I had an advantage as my parents, by no means well off, had sent me for two years to prep school. After my first year at Yeovil Grammar, we moved to Bath. I was placed in the Y form. The City of Bath Boys’ School had four streamed classes: A, B, X and Y. The lettering speaks volumes. I performed modestly in most subjects, except in French, where I was consistently top. After some pressure from my parents, I was allowed (being born in September ) to repeat a year with promotion to the A stream. Lo and behold, I was at or near the top of the class in French, German, Geography, Chemistry and English. I passed Maths, French and English O levels a year early. I went to gain my A levels, a BA, a graduate teaching certificate and later an MEd.
As a teacher, I spent most of my career in comprehensive schools, but spent two years in a Hampshire grammar, two years in a German ‘Gymnasium’ and several placements in the period 2005 to 2011 in a large Lincolnshire grammar.
In my experience, the teaching is of the same overall quality in grammars and comprehensives. Differences become apparent when you take school leadership into account. Selective education excludes and labels young people, when we should encourage them to believe they can change and develop (and have the right to do so). I came across many in the selective sector who had been coached to pass the entrance exam and were unhappy and, sometimes, rebellious in the grammar school.
From my own experience as a student (we used to be called pupils) and as a teacher, I am persuaded that selection and streaming create labels which cause suffering and often inhibit the development of talent.
Ideology over reality.
I attended a grammar school in the 1970’s having transferred from an area where nearly every child attended the local excellent comprehensive. One of the most unsettling discoveries on joining the grammar was that I was now expected to consider myself ‘above’ the local children who attended the secondary modern school. This faux elitism was profoundly unfair and in reality laughably tenuous. There was little discernible difference in the abilities of the children, since everyone was subjected to a grading anyway.
Any system which grades a child as a failure at the age of 11 is fundamentally flawed. It should have no place in a modern democracy.
I taught for 22 years and witnessed how the system is rigged to favour those children whose parents can afford extra tuition. If a child needs extra support to pass an exam, how can a place at an institution which is supposedly only for the ‘brightest’ be justified?
As to elitism, my family moved abroad and I then attended a public school. It was drummed into us at that particular school that we were never to consider ourselves ‘better’ than anyone else and the emphasis was on contributing to society and an awareness that good fortune is not evenly spread.
Grammar schools are deeply divisive and do nothing to improve the education of the vast majority of children. Funding should be concentrated on improving all schools, not some artificial construct parading as route to social mobility.
Detrimental effect on local education system
I worked closely with parents, pupils and school staff who had to manage failure due to the impact of having selective schools in their locality. Those who could pay subjected their children to excessive pressure through the tutoring process. They weren’t bad parents: they were victims of a system where non grammar schools appeared to do less well. But the reality was that 19% of the most able children in the city had been admitted to just three of 19 secondary schools.
Unknown numbers of these children were subsequently ‘moved’ to comprehensive schools when it became apparent that they couldn’t actually perform to expected levels.
Children whose parents couldn’t play the game went to comprehensive schools where from day one expectations were lower: they didn’t get into a grammar school after all…
Look at the facts: in the city I’m referencing around 2% of the children on roll at grammar schools are in receipt of Free School Meals. It doesn’t increase social mobility to have grammar schools. It suppresses aspiration amongst more disadvantaged families as they believe that their child can’t attend a grammar and consequently isn’t ‘ academic’.
Look too at the post 16 options: there’s little parity of esteem between vocational subjects & A level.
The rejection stays with them
I taught in an upper school in Bucks for 16 years so was constantly dealing with the fallout of the 11 plus. One year a primary contacted us to help some of their high achieving Year 6 students who were over achieving in Maths. At the time we had a couple of excellent Year 12 students, one of whom wanted to be a primary teacher, so we agreed to set up a weekly session where the two Year 12s would tutor these Year 6 kids. It worked really well but after a half term we decided that we needed to change it. The Year 6s were all going to grammar so we asked the primary if we could swap them out for a group of students who would be coming to us in September. They agreed, so it fell to me to tell the Year 12s of the swap.
Bearing in mind that these two were high achieving (both got A in Maths A Level and both were self studying AS Further Maths in their own time …. with a little bit of help from me). When I told them of the change of plan the instant reaction was that “they won’t be that clever if they’re coming to us”.
I was horrified, and reminded them of how amazingly well they were doing despite failing the 11 plus, but it was only at that point that I realised that this over achieving, straight A student was still holding on to the 11 plus rejection from 7 years earlier. It’s so damaging.
I now teach in Oxfordshire and am so glad we don’t have to contend with the handicap of this arbitrary test destroying young people’s self esteem at such a young age.
Selective education through the eyes of a Junior School headteacher
Working in a county which continues to perpetuate a system which is not only based on discredited science but is damaging and actually, unnecessary in the 21st Century has been quite an experience! It is also denying local children the chance to go to their local schools. I was a headteacher in Bucks for 11 years seeing the effects that the system had on young people.
1. Discredited science:
We all should be aware of the fact that modern teaching embraces a growth mindset attitude. That the brain should be treated like a muscle; the more you challenge it, stretch it. make it work; the better it gets. This of course is in complete contradiction to the fixed mind set attitude of the creators of selective education; that a young child’s intelligence is fixed and we can predict outcomes from the result of a test sat when some of them are barely ten years old.
Yes, most who ‘pass’ go on to do well academically but so do many who don’t. How this hasn’t been noticed is beyond me! One of my sons went to grammar school and one didn’t. The one who didn’t got far better exam results because he was a motivated self starter. He failed the 11 plus and went on to get a degree in civil engineering and is currently studying for a master’s.
For years I witnessed the frenzy that the 11 plus engenders. Many parents in Bucks believe that the only decent schools are grammar schools ( a huge insult to the hard working and successful others). They have their children coached FOR YEARS in order to get them in. These children are often denied the normal channels of socialising. I knew families where the children’s first sleep overs weren’t until the 11 plus exams were over. Families who sent their children to week long 11 plus summer camps. In some areas it is a mark of social success if your child gets into a grammar school.
The pressure on some pupils is relentless. I witnessed nine and ten year olds breaking down because they knew they were going to let their parents down if they ‘failed’.
Despite my annual meeting for Year 5 parents in which I urged them not to do things like promise new bicycles for passing , one family ACTUALLY told their son that they would love him even more if he passed. (He was never going pass, I could have saved them a lot of grief if they had asked my opinion first)
The children know if they are going to a grammar school in the second term of Year 6. Some then switch off as they know that the end of Year SATs tests aren’t going to affect their choice of secondary school. This in turn can damage the school if the SATs results don’t then show acceptable progress from KS1.
Parents too are traumatised by the process. I have had meetings with parents who almost threw themselves at my feet trying to persuade me to support an appeal for their child. They think that the world has ended because they had pinned all hopes on success, on an exam that is a tiny snapshot, on two sessions, of a particular type of ‘intelligence’.
When the 11 plus was introduced after the 1944 Education Act, Secondary Modern schools didn’t offer O levels so it mattered greatly, if you wanted to go on and do A levels then go to university, that you passed.
Today all schools do GCSE’s and university is accessible from all types of school. Therefore we don’t even need the selection process! Simples!
4. Local Schools for local children
In Bucks over a third of pupils at the grammar schools are from outside the county. A large proportion of them didn’t go to a state primary school but to independent schools where they are allowed to be coached for the 11 plus.
The fact that the out of county pupils are self selecting candidates, i.e. those with a possibility of passing, rather than those in the opt out system in Bucks. means that the pass mark is inflated and Bucks’ children are actually less likely to pass. This results in extra pressure on the remaining secondary schools.
I could go on…
The Kent Test
As a primary school teacher with more than 20 years experience in Upper Key Stage 2, I have witnessed numerous episodes of upset children cruelly perceiving themselves as failures having not ‘passed’ the Kent test. It is an appalling system in which only those who have the available cash to pay fot a tutor have the best chance of passing. Comprehensive education does an excellent job up until Year 6, why the need to change the system at 11?
The negative impact in Kent
Grammar schools mean the most able students are creamed off and this immediately gives an ‘us and them’ culture. The arrogance of those attending a grammar school as opposed to a non-selective school is staggering – students and teachers. It is much harder to recruit staff in a non-selective school as teachers want to work in what they consider to be an easier environment. This creates under performance in grammar schools – certainly non-selective schools can teach grammar school staff a thing or two about pushing students to achieve the best grades they can possibly get. I despair at the segregation caused by the whole system in Kent and the culture of some being better than others at the age of 11 is horrific. It damages the students and we spend the first 3 years building back up their self esteem. It damages communities with ‘us and them’ and it damages the profession – teachers want to work with all abilities – or at least great teachers do.
Selective education in Kent
I feel strongly that it is not the best thing for all of our children. It is completely against the growth mindset that we try to establish in primary that anyone can achieve anything. Children do reach academic maturity at different times and the comprehensive system allows for those developments without children feeling as though they have missed out if they don’t pass their 11+.
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