Read comments about life in grammar schools and high schools in selective areas.
Attending a grammar school
I hated preparing for the tests so much but I passed one out of four grammar school exams. Looking back, I think my mum had bragging rights that I was attending one of those schools. They cared about exam results a lot. One of my teachers crushed my spirit about a not so outlandish career aspiration and I lost most of my motivation and passion for anything school related from that point. I was 14. I don’t think attending a grammar school improved my life or prospects.
A loss for local schools
We live in a grammar school area. It is hugely destructive – each year a few of the more academically able (and more socially advantaged) kids from Year 6 in local primary schools go to the local grammar schools, which will mean little gain for them but is a great loss to the local comprehensives and the children who attend them.
Perception of schools being second-rate
I work in a ‘comprehensive’ school which has a grammar school across the road. Students at my school achieve excellent exam results and are overwhelmingly well behaved and socially adept. They follow the same curriculum as their peers at the grammar school and sit the same exams at the end of their schooling. However many parents are distraught when their child ‘misses out’ on a grammar school place and is ‘forced to’ attend what many see as a second-rate school. Adults in the area will still discuss their peers by sorting them into those who went to the grammar and those who didn’t.
My late mother was not political but she summed it up beautifully: “people support grammar schools because they assume their children will go to them”.
If grammars didn't exist parents would be much happier and less stressed
The reality of living in an area which maintains a girls’ and a boys’ grammar school is just starting to sink in. We are not from Salisbury and had no reason to understand its schooling system before we moved here but it is very different to what we were both exposed to as children. We were both comprehensive educated children who went to university and gained a lot from our mixed schooling. Salisbury is dominated by CofE schools which seems inexplicable. It leaves parents who care about these things with very little choice.
This junior school has a very good academic record and in the last year it has become apparent to us that this is clearly based on its perceived ‘success’ in getting children through the 11+ and into the two Grammars. This school streams from it’s first year intake at 7. It is considered to be a ‘crammer for the grammar’. Children are pushed hard and I feel that, consequently, this has a knock on effect even on the infant school, not least because it causes parents to start stressing out about their child’s progress even at Reception stage! I find the whole situation uncomfortable and deeply worrying.
For example, I have frequently heard parents discuss and agree with the streaming of 5 year olds at the infant school my son attends. They believe this will allow ‘the best to progress’ and get through the 11+. Parents also highlight on the children’s faults and abilities in relation to the 11+ e.g. ‘he’s good at reading but not problem solving and he needs to improve if he’s to get through the 11+’. The other high schools are considered to be lower than the low and parents are horrified at the thought their child should attend one – one told me ‘I don’t know what I’ll do if he fails the 11+’ and her child is 6! I also feel that it filters down to teachers who feel they are under pressure to demonstrate ‘progress’ above what is required even by the arbitrary targets they work to.
I feel we suffer the double whammy of faith schools and 11+ selection in this area and it alarms me that very few people seem concerned about it. Yet, if these grammars didn’t exist, parents would undoubtedly be much happier and less stressed. It’s an awful situation to be in.”
School differences in Kent
We all know that when exam results come out the grammar schools look great, and the other schools just can’t compete. There are other small things that happen at school that are reminders that all schools are not equal. My son’s been selected to represent his school in a maths event. He’s so negative about it, because he attends a non-selective school. He’s joking about the school coming last, but it’s not a funny joke to me. The grammar schools will obviously win this contest. Kent’s system means the other schools are designed to be second. In other areas there is no unhealthy divide, no reminders that a school is less good at key subjects, or that children are second best. Selective education is toxic, it’s an unhealthy way to brand and divide children.
Inclusiveness is the future
Northern Ireland still has an 11+ and it’s called the transfer test. Both selective and non-selective schools sit the same GCSEs and A levels. Let’s stop pretending otherwise. There is absolutely no need for the mental health crushing transfer test. Inclusiveness is the way forward.
Grammar school catchments prioritise white middle class people
I just found out that my postcode has been taken out of the catchment area for almost every local grammar school and that’s mad. I feel really bad for these kids to be honest. The 11+ should be for kids who don’t have mummy and daddy connections, not people who buy second homes in Kingston for an exam.
If your parents can’t afford to send you to private school without breaking themselves, and they can’t afford buying a second home, or moving into a grammar catchment area, and they can’t even afford 11+ tuition then they’re the families that need to be prioritised.
It’s actually sick how the system has been gamed over the last 10 years, and it’s so obviously a classist and racist attack. I know for a fact that so many white parents who sent their kids to grammar schools were shocked that their kids were the minority, they HATED it. They hate that these kids are coming from Hounslow and Croydon and mixing with their precious Tarquin, they hate that their special little boy is making friends with the “wrong sort” because the schools are full of kids who got in on smarts and aren’t white or middle class.
So what did the schools do? Well, first they stopped prioritising test scores, and sorted by catchment instead. Now, if you didn’t live in KT1-KT7, you had to be exceptional to get in, while local kids can be relatively mediocre and still make it. Then they tighten up their catchment area IMMENSELY
As in removed ~20 postcodes. Who can afford to live in KT1 to KT7? Which class and race of people tend to live there? Middle Britain has ruined grammar schools simply because they couldn’t stand poorer and browner kids doing well.
Now those kids who were exceptional, who might have still made it despite the odds being against them, just don’t get any chance. And I’m not really for grammar schools, but they exist and are a lifeline, so they should be used as such. I don’t think they’ll flourish as much as they have done in the past if they’re going to be filled with mediocre white kids rather than a huge range of kids from all sorts of backgrounds. It’s crazy that 4000 kids were fighting for about 100-200 spots, but this isn’t the solution
I’m just using Kingston because I’m familiar with it, but all the local grammars are doing the same thing. It’s very insidious that a system designed to help lesser privileged kids is now being manipulated to stay as a white middle class establishment. That’s just wrong.
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 school is left with the ones that couldn't afford tutoring and the ones who have failed
I live in Totnes and the 11+ is BIG round here. My son is about to start the local comprehensive secondary school, as we decided not to tutor him for the test. Yet all of his friends did the test and passed. It’s hugely sad and disappointing that the local community of schooling from 11 years and upwards is split up like this here. The grammar school is a half hour bus ride out of Totnes, so it’s not even local. The local school is left with the ones that couldn’t afford tutoring and the ones who have failed. Very very sad.
My two children were top of their class in the US. Upon arriving in the UK, they were not able to get in to a grammar school. Every school in our area had a several year long wait list. General education schools also all had wait lists. The kids were placed in schools 45 minute drive from each other and a minimum of 25 minute drive from our house. Also, they were denied education for 4 weeks as we fought with every school to get a slot and were denied at every turn. English schools do not care about children. They care about their antiquated rules. We switched to private and had to take out of our retirement savings. I can see now how England is the worst performing country of the top 7.
One thing that people never talk about is the subtle inequality between grammar schools and the schools that surround them. Grammar school selection is social selection. The kids that pass the Kent Test are mostly tutored and middle class, or have great parental support. This goes without saying because to try for a grammar school you need to care about education and have a certain confidence.
The schools surrounding grammars are not only lacking the bright kids, they contain more than typical SEND kids, more than typical disadvantaged kids, more than typical kids with parents who don’t prioritise education. It drives me mad that our new PM talks about creating new grammar schools, without seeing that she will be creating more schools that are placed in a tough spot with a harder than average balance of pupils.
I’m a governor in a Kent non-selective and I know that the most dedicated teachers and school leaders are in schools like mine. I send my own children to a non-selective, because the teachers and leaders work super hard to get great outcomes for the children. The grammar schools select pupils who will get top grades, they rest on their laurels, they can get away with being lazy. The non-selective schools work to sort great behaviour policies, the best safeguarding systems, the best learning structures, and do a fantastic job. There is a certain passion and commitment to the teachers in schools like mine, its more likely to be a vocation not a job. Our non-selective school in a deprived coastal town has sent kids to Oxbridge most years, proving that grammars are unnecessary.
Non-selective schools are regularly fantastic, but none of this excuses the councils and governments who let our children be divided at the tender age of ten. All for no real purpose, and in a manner that creates a horrendous social divide. The 11+ is a bad system that mostly seems to continue to give middle class parents an easy life.
Getting a place was more about income than ability
I was always absolutely average when it comes to academic achievement- not bottom of the class but definitely not gifted or brilliant. I was lucky enough to get into the local girls’ grammar school probably based on a mixture of luck and my parents being able to afford tuition for me when I asked for it. Everyone from our primary who got a place had a tutor (many for several years) and there were a few very able students- certainly more capable than I was- who did not pass. I remember being terrified of the local comprehensive, which was in special measures and had a reputation for being full of bullies. I don’t think the grammar school offered any kind of social mobility for working class kids at all. It just kept the ‘nice’ middle class kids away from the ‘riff-raff ‘.
Having worked as a teacher in a number of tough comprehensive schools over the years, I am so grateful for my education. I got to learn in a calm environment, I had teachers who expected me to get the best grades and taught me exactly how to do that without having to waste time dealing with poor behaviour, I did not have to worry much about bullying or attend alongside peers whose challenging and resulting mental health challenges had a serious impact on their behaviour at school. There was a good atmosphere because the students I attended with valued their education and wanted to succeed. We very rarely had teachers leave or were taught by supply teachers.
In the comprehensive school where I used to work, I often saw students of a similar profile as me- shy, anxious, middle ability, parents who do not necessarily push them- disengaging with their education or dropping out of school entirely out of anxiety. I think the most able tend to find a way to succeed anyway, it’s the middle and lower ability that need the best teachers, the extra academic support and opportunities on offer at a grammar school.
"Failure' best thing that ever happened
My son was expected to walk through the 11+ and get entry to the local King Edward school. In the end he didn’t do well enough but was offered a place as a fee paying pupil. Although he had been to a private school since infants, the fees were beyond my reach….so I had to tell him I couldn’t afford it . Luckily he had liked what he saw of the local comprehensive so he was not unhappy. Although that school then went through problems and ended in special measures, he got good results …the only ‘failure’ being that the school wanted him to try for Oxford…he was rejected at the first hurdle….Oxford don’t take pupils from schools like that! He ( and I) both feel what he lost in terms on academic rigor his time at the comprehensive gave him a much better education for life than a private school would have. ..something that I know will stand him in good stead as her pursues a possible career in politics. But that is only because I did not talk in terms of ‘success’ or ‘failure.’ Parents attitudes can cause many problems for the children. Although I am a successful product of the grammar school system, I feel it is too elitist, and adds division in an ordinary divided society.
Education should not be purely based on academic achievements.
My daughter went to a local all girls grammar school and after the first couple of years became extremely unhappy. Her confidence plummeted and all her teachers seemed to care about was how she would achieve an A!
Without going into details she left with very few GCSE’s but has over the years found her way and worked hard to achieve a 2:1 in her degree. She ironically now works in an educational child mental health setting and most of the referrals to her work place are from grammar schools.
My son, even though he got into a grammar school refused to go and is very happy and achieving well at the local comprehensive school.
As a teacher myself I believe that creating confidence in young people is paramount and the grammar system is divisive , creates even more inequalities in society not to mention the feelings of failure, the competition from both children and parents etc etc…..I could go on!!
A slice of living with a grammar school system
I am a single mum living in Kent who has 2 daughters and who has been a teacher at a grammar school. The 11+ system permeates everything. It starts when your children are around 7 and slowly builds so you can’t escape it. It’s crushing and intense. Constant conversation of tutoring; the best tutors; the costs; the thoughts about what are you going to do if your child doesn’t pass grow bigger and bigger and by the time year 5 arrives the conversation is everywhere.
Being a single mum meant I couldn’t afford tutoring. It meant I had to listen to constant chat, that I was excluded from. The stress it caused me was horrible and sometimes I found myself not socialising with friends, who were all paying for tutoring for their children. Some even from year 2. I couldn’t join this race. I knew my kids were bright and very able and more importantly loved learning. But, still no guarantee they would pass. Anything can happen on the day.
One of the biggest problems is the disparity between the behaviour at grammars and non selective schools. And the impact this has on learning. This for me was the biggest concern. The choices if they don’t pass were poor – really poor, and the thought of my quiet, kind and reserved children been eaten alive and not being able to access learning was a huge concern. Not just for me, but for them too. The conversation is on the playground too. The girls were very aware of what was coming and what their choices were. They were just 10 years old. The pressure on their shoulders is insane. Tears been shed about what would happen. Sleepless nights. It’s inhumane.
Living in Kent and listening to our young people it is apparent that there is segregation. There is an us and them culture. Tribes are formed and there are feelings of difference and a sense of being less than if you don’t pass. You feel a failure.
I didn’t pass. I am a 50 year old woman and it is still with me today. That feeling of having failed has never left me. I didn’t want my girls to carry that feeling.
I enjoyed being a teacher at a grammar school, but I do not agree with it. However, I chose to work in one because I wanted to teach and not spend the majority of my time managing behaviour. However, the elitism is palpable and unhealthy. Grammar schools breed inherent inequality, and non selective schools breed a strong sense of failure. It is backward thinking.
I remember, at the age of 10, being asked by a supply teacher whether I were sitting the 11+, meant as a compliment I think, but sounding rather snobby at the same time. That was the first time I’d heard of it.
I never did sit the 11+ nor study it’s material, and the only ‘pressures’ I faced at that age was sitting the advanced SAT paper for Maths. The headteacher suggested to me to approach the paper out of curiosity rather than expecting to attain a higher grade and I remember whilst sitting it being really stretched and figuring things out during the paper which led to me running out of time. The paper itself showed me there was much more to the subject, it wasn’t about the grade for the headmaster, nor the preparation for the paper, he knew I could have been trained to pass it, for him, and me it was about discovery, an experiment, which led to a persistent pursuit of mathematical concepts that remained with me into adulthood.
Coming from a working class background, my dad was of the belief that I go to the local school and if I do well, it’s mostly down to my own gifts of memory, creativity and logic, enhanced by teacher stimulating any desire to learn as most teachers tend to do.
So that’s exactly what happened, the school I attended was in the bottom percentiles in league tables for the area, but I did well in terms of grade attainment. I’m socially more aware of the difficulties that peers face, but those issues never hampered my own ability to learn. What I’ve found later in life though is that it is the middle classes’ attitudes to comprehensives that prejudice decisions about me and my abilities and there are simply ideological disagreements on these matters and I’m usually outnumbered. For me social mobility has come at a cost, it’s one of a certain kind of loneliness being surrounded by people who know nothing of the struggles and distractions that poorer people face.
There are some that wish to solve this by preventing people like me climb the social ladder, to retain a justification for why some ‘deserve’ things others do not.
This is just a mask for not wanting to accept that talents and skills permeate all social stratas and aren’t distributed just to the rich. What is siphoned off by the rich are the resources and this leads to a segregation that ultimately harms the collective shared capital of education.
I went to grammar it was great but our aspiration should be all pupils have a great education not just a few
I went to Grammar school in Sutton and thoroughly enjoyed it got a great education and went on to Oxford. But!!! My oldest friend failed the 11+ even though in primary school we were neck and neck in everything. He went to an local comp. We got nearly exactly the same GCSEs, A levels and were reunited at Oxford in the end.
If nothing else that proved to me grammar schools don’t enhance the education of bright kids and comprehensives don’t hold back bright kids either.
Also even at the time I could see those at the bottom end of attainment in my class suffering, the educational style didn’t always suit them and there were few vocational options for them, these were still very clever kids.. Just getting C’s and Bs not As .
Now a lot older with two kids of my own I can’t imagine putting them through the stress of the 11+ . We were looking at houses in Kent and then I realised doing so would subject my kids to testing at 11. I couldn’t do it and left for Sussex instead.
When I was leaving school the careers/uni advice was all engineering, law, medicine, accountancy, business. I unhappily explored all these options in my twenties and then somehow I fell into being a drugs worker. Now after two decades working in addiction, social care and prison healthcare I really regret not training to be a social worker or nurse. I love my job but I regret I couldn’t spend more of my career in front line work. Sadly these options were never even presented to me by my school.
Children thrive in a supportive environment where there are a range of options for them to develop in the direction that suits them.
I don’t want to do down my school, I had a great experience and my teachers were committed and supportive. I just think all kids need that from their education not just a lucky few.
Grammar school made my son feel that he was a failure
My son sat the 11plus 7 years ago after I was informed by other parents that I should encourage him to sit the test because the comprehensive schools in Bexley were ‘rubbish’ schools due to a higher rate of supply teachers and that all the best teachers gravitated towards teaching in grammar schools.
I had moved only recently to a selective area, and had never really heard of the 11plus having been educated in a comprehensive non-selective borough. It quickly became common knowledge that entrance into an ‘outstanding grammar school’ would be competitive, and that tutoring was the only way a child would stand a chance of passing, largely because there were parts of the test that are not taught in primary school, plus the high percentage of children being tutored.
I was lucky that I could put money aside for tutoring. He started his tutoring in yr5. Lots of children started in years 3 & 4. The tutor said that a child was only likely to pass if they were achieving 75% or more in their mock tests (a lot of pressure). Hence the ensuing months involved lots of scores, percentages which unbeknown to me was already severely affecting my sons confidence and esteem. Interestingly, a lot of the parents encouraging tutoring had been grammar educated themselves, or already had older children attending grammar schools.
My son sat the Bexley and Kent tests and passed both. He received his results and informed me that the other children had discussed their scores and my son had the lowest score. He told me he felt he hadn’t done well despite passing. On his first day at grammar school, again he told me that everyone was talking about the 11plus scores they had achieved. Again, this reinforced a sense of failure in my son. Yet he’d passed by 6 points. Hence this pattern continued and inevitably, he really believed he was stupid and struggled to apply himself in an environment where ‘failure’ isn’t an option. He was placed in the bottom set in maths and felt humiliated by his teacher when he asked him ‘Do you know what two plus two equals, because your results reflect otherwise!” The bottom set had four different maths teachers over a short space of time. The higher sets had the same consistent teaching.
My son was never included in activities that encouraged him to develop his confidence or esteem. It was all about high attainment and gaining a 6 or above. Even a 6 was frowned upon by some teachers, whilst I continually battled and encouraged my son to find his own path and to remind him that he was in an environment where high grades aren’t necessarily realistic. Rewards and invitations to celebratory events went largely to the high attaining academic students. My son ‘scraped’ his A-levels (in grammar school terms). Actually, he did really well, but not to grammar standards and expectations. His form teacher told him to only consider a Russell Group University because the ‘thickos’ go elsewhere despite the teacher knowing my son wasn’t predicted to achieve the grades required to get into a RG uni.
He is now taking a gap year having left grammar school this year, to reset his thinking, to recover and have some space from an institutionalised system that is, I believe, elitist, only offering opportunities to those families with money and time behind them. I’m hoping that his eventual experience at uni will be more rounded and he’ll be mixing with students from diverse educational backgrounds.
Hence, despite my second son passing the Kent test (he wanted to give it a try) I encouraged him to attend his local Bexley comprehensive which he loves. They encourage a growth mind-set and have a healthy approach to failure. Unsurprisingly, this has enhanced my sons confidence, and he is sitting comfortably in top sets because he has been supported by the school to believe in himself. He is given roles and responsibilities that again encourage him. And this is given to every child, not just those children ‘at the top’. This good school which I was told would be a hinderance to his education, has been really positive so far. Some parents were aghast that I’d sent him to a secondary school despite him passing his test.
In hindsight, I wish my eldest son had experienced the same, and I honestly feel that his level of confidence and self-belief would have been very different in a comprehensive school. The reason I know this is because he told me so. Plus a lot of his friends who didn’t pass went on to do well in their secondary schools. I also blame myself for not having done more research at the time, rather than being swayed by other people’s opinions. I wish I’d listened to the teachers at my sons primary school who didn’t support a selective education. They knew what they were talking about.
I believe it’s time to challenge what grammar schools represent in this country, because it has radically changed over time. It was devised to give every child a chance, but it’s now excluding families from lower-income households. They don’t necessarily encourage equality and inclusion or an opportunity for all, because it comes at a price both emotionally and financially! Plus Bexley Grammar schools take a percentage of privately educated students. Only a minority I feel truly benefit. We need to learn from our International Schools what an equal inclusive education system looks like. Finland is a great example.
The government need to focus on supporting a non selective education where every child matters, whatever their background or educational needs and where a Comprehensive school can be an ‘outstanding school’.
I moved from a comprehensive area to a selective area, and attended a non-selective school. I had a good education, although fewer subjects, and less diverse subjects, were available than those in the comprehensive area I had left (and than those of peers in grammar schools). Thankfully I had great teachers and did well at school, but it is not about the grades. When you tell children aged 11 that they are no good at education it is a destroyer of confidence and self esteem, and with years of education to go, demotivating.
It lasts too because the failure is associated with the individual and the school. We joked about being the thickos and failures. Years later I introduced myself as a former pupil to a teacher currently working in the school I had attended. The reply was ‘haven’t you done well for yourself!’ with a shocked/surprised expression (this teacher didn’t work at the school when I was there so it wasn’t about a remarkable personal turnaround!) Why wouldn’t someone educated in a secondary modern be able to lead a training session?! I felt cross for the pupils the teacher currently works with if she has such low aspirations for them.
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