Read comments about life in grammar schools and high schools in selective areas.
A wonderful, inclusive, school experience is being denied to my children
I was educated in Sussex, a fully comprehensive area. Many of my peers achieved outstanding results at O level, went on to the local sixth form (the old grammar school) and onto to top universities including Oxford and Cambridge. The school also supported the less able children really well. We even had a thriving school farm.
When I moved to Bucks it saddened me to know that my own wonderful, fully inclusive, school experience was being denied to my own children. All my Year Six peers came up with me from our primary school to the local comprehensive.
I now have two daughters at two different schools – one at a grammar school, one at an upper school – and I am already seeing the inequity of selection. Upper schools have to work hard at raising the confidence of their new year 7s. They don’t seem to have access to the deep pockets of parents, ex-parents and alumni of the grammar schools. They also have children joining throughout the year, and in the town of High Wycombe, many of these children have little or no English. This simply does not happen in the grammar schools.
To me, the selective education system embeds disadvantage throughout the process: up to and then beyond the 11-plus exam.
What is the point of all the stress, pressure and divisiveness imposed on our ten year olds if the outcomes are just as good at comprehensive schools?
The first I knew about children in Maidenhead attending selective schools in neighbouring Buckinghamshire was when an estate agent congratulated me for viewing a house in the “grammar school catchment”. I looked down at my three-year-old and one-year-old and thought that we had a long way to go until we had to worry about secondary education. I had attended my local comprehensive as had my husband and we were both quite satisfied with our schooling, progressing on to degree courses and professional careers. We had assumed our children would take the same route.
Sooner than I had anticipated, wherever there were mothers, there were conversations on the topic. At the school gate, whilst watching swimming lessons, at coffee mornings or Book Group the chat inevitably came round to ‘11-plus’, ‘grammar schools’, ‘tutoring’. My daughter was given a verbal reasoning test papers book for her seventh birthday by a well-meaning party guest’s parent!
There were rumours of who was trying for grammar school, who had passed, whether the catchment area had changed, which grammar was best-regarded. There were whisperings of who had been admitted, who was going to appeal or retry through the 12-plus.
When my eldest was in Year Five I received a phone-call from one classmate’s mother. She wanted to know if we were embarking on the 11-plus and was surprised when I said no. “But you’re bound to do the best for your child, you’ll be holding her back by denying her a grammar school opportunity.”
As mums talked so did the children. So, to be fair we took our eldest to the grammar school open evening. Her review was, “They’re rather stuck up and go on a lot about rowing”, so that was the end of our brief flirtation with the concept of selective education.
Meanwhile some went to private tutors, missed after-school clubs or declined invitations to tea. Family life was placed on hold in some households for the 11-plus. And then the results arrived – some happy families, some disappointments and one successful child said to another who had failed, “I’ll go to a better school and university and get a better job and drive a better car than you.” And there were still eight months of Year Six to enjoy together!
My daughter went to the local comprehensive and her friend went a Buckinghamshire grammar. Seven years elapsed at that comprehensive school during which time she went from child to being a young, confident woman, gained great GCSEs grades, took leadership and mentoring roles through the house system, participated in musicals and plays, sang at the Royal Albert Hall and to our local MP (soon to become the PM) at the inauguration of the new drama studio, played hockey on the astro-turf, mixed with a variety of ethnicities, abilities and backgrounds, went on visits to Oxford, Reading and Royal Holloway universities. I ended up wondering what more she could have possibly benefited from if she had gone to a grammar?
So, fast-forward to summer 2016: The grammar school girl got her predicted grades and went to her first choice Russell Group University, as did my daughter. And I am left questioning – what was the point of all that stress, pressure and divisiveness imposed on our ten year olds if the outcomes are just as good at our comprehensive schools?
No-one can say this is a fair system
Our first child came home from school one day asking when she was starting her tutoring… “Everyone else has started”. We hadn’t planned on tutoring – we don’t believe the selective system is right, and there are better things for our kids to be doing at the age of 10, and surely the school is doing the formal educating?
Family assumed she would ‘pass’ (we both had), and friends said she will get into the school that is right for her. She did not ‘pass’, and we sent her to the secondary modern school of her choice. By day two she was bored and disenchanted. By month two we were in the school asking if she could be challenged more, to be met by the response that she was on course for the grades predicted by their computer system and as that was fine they had no further ideas.
We began exploring all options before caving into the inevitable, and putting her through the 12-plus. We made sure she knew she might not pass, and that even if she did there was no guarantee of a place at our nearest grammar school (five minutes walk from our house). She passed! But we then had to go through the quite extraordinarily complex appeals process.
I sat with 20 other desperate people in that County Hall room listening to the Council explaining why the inclusion of our girls in our preferred grammar school would mean an unsatisfactory education for the 1000+ others. One of the parents had his lawyer with him. Having been through it once before he had sworn never to do it again without legal representation! I would never have got to that stage without a circle of informed friends, the confidence to network, access to online forums, the ability to string a sentence together, a job which enabled me to flex off for meetings and the aspiration for better for my kids.
My daughter was one of three students to be accepted. She settled straight in at the grammar school. Two years on she is on track for great grades, but more importantly is engaged, interested and challenged in her education. We know how lucky we are.
Our second child has also been unsuccessful in getting into the grammar school within walking distance, and as we could not face a repeat experience, he attends a secondary modern much further from home, and away from friends. The school ethos is fantastic, with a clear strategy for stretching, encouraging and inspiring. The problem… as a secondary modern they are facing a dire recruitment challenge, with many lessons taught by supply teachers. So we are about to fill in the forms for the 13+ to try to get him into the school he can walk to.
This situation has not been about choice for us. We knew the system was flawed but cannot move out of the area. We know the system is not about intelligence, but it has designated our kids as being better suited to one style of education than another – it is totally untrue but as a result it consigned them both, for different reasons, to flawed experiences.
It is totally naive to think that the system does not impact on the self-esteem of entire families, or that secondary modern schools can provide the same level of experience as grammar schools where alumni and parents are ploughing thousands of pounds a year into the PTAs.
Our young people continue to be categorised into haves and have-nots by means of a test at a point in time, which makes no allowance for the benefits of learning and the natural development of maturity and ability to learn. No-one can say that this is a fair system, or a system that encourages social advancement for all. Shame on a society that allows this to happen.
Grammar schools are not better schools
For my career sake I have to watch what I say but I am a strong advocate for the abolition of the 11+. I came to a grammar seeing complacency, poor teaching, leadership and pastoral care for students. I hoped to change the schools into genuinely outstanding ones by shaking up the system and moving away from the old ‘chalk and talk’. In some regards I feel I have had success with my own team but I have learned that grammar schools are an institution built on social elitism and me asking the hard questions prevents me from being able to have a position higher in the organisation.
I just read some parent comments on this site and had to say I agree whole heartedly that grammar schools are not better schools. Im fact they are worse institutions than almost every comp I have encountered.
I just had to air my frustrations and sadness that leadership teams and many staff go unchallenged delivering mediocrity in abundance.
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