I visited my MP's surgery to discuss problems with the grammar school system in Kent, but he told me he supports the government’s plan to build new grammar schools. So the conversation wasn't going to go the way I planned...
My daughter failed the eleven-plus and she had a difficult time in two secondary modern schools (one closed down.) Her schools did their best, but they were troubled by teacher shortages. She would regularly get home from school and I'd ask, "How many supply teachers did you have today?" I was disappointed she was rarely set homework, because supply teachers don't bother with that. In a couple of subjects it was clear that there were no specialist teachers. So one of my questions for my MP was, "What is the government doing about evidence that non-selective schools in grammar school areas recruit less experienced teachers?" He didn't accept this point, and although he made a few scribbled notes through our discussion that one didn't make the notebook.
My daughter worked hard in school, and out of school too, and she taught me that YouTube is great for computer science and maths lessons and not just funny cat videos. She proved the eleven-plus test was wrong by getting straight As in her GCSEs. So I asked my MP why he supported expanding the use of a test that is so regularly wrong? He accepted that the eleven-plus wasn't very accurate, but said a new wave of grammar schools might involve head teachers nominating pupils too.
He did suggest the eleven-plus would still be a part of any new grammar school expansion plan. This disappointed me. It seems tricky to judge a ten year old's ability in a two hour multiple-choice quiz, but impossible to do this fairly when some children have years of tutoring, while some have no preparation at all. It also bothers me that the eleven-plus doesn't measure hard work or attitude. My daughter worked for her GCSE grades with a revision plan that began in year 10, and with a dedication to work that made me much prouder than her eventual grades did. I am convinced her attitude to work matters immensely, but it is irrelevant to grammar school entry because it can't be measured in a computer-marked check-box.
Grammar school selection tests judge cognitive ability, genetic cleverness, or some special-sauce of natural smartness no one properly defines. We exclude children from schools based on this test, which doesn't seem a very scientific measure at all. All tests have confidence limits, but try looking at that with the eleven plus and you'll find thousands of children are impossible to define accurately as 'grammar school ability' or 'not grammar school ability.' I get hugely frustrated by badly designed systems, and the logic of grammar school selection is clearly flawed.
Of course it was impossible to convince my MP that building more grammar schools was a bad idea. Instead I decided to ask exactly why he wanted more selective schools.
He pointed out the record of one Kent grammar school which produces 1% of all Physics graduates in the country. He stressed the need to challenge academically able children. His focus was to ensure our country produced the best graduates in the world, particularly in science and maths.
So the problem he wanted to fix was a simple one, he wanted to be sure that high ability children were challenged and reaching the top universities.
That was a fine goal and no one could disagree with the importance of it, but are grammar schools really the best way to achieve this aim? I was also confused because the MPs supporting new grammar schools are so muddled with their suggestions for the new schools.
If the goal of these new grammar schools is to challenge the very cleverest children then they would need to be a certain sort of grammar school. In Kent we have regular grammar schools (entry based on an eleven-plus pass) and we have super-selective grammar schools (the highest eleven-plus scores win a place.) The school with the Physics record is a super-selective school. The grammar schools with the highest score requirements always produce the best results, as you'd expect. So if the goal is to challenge the brightest pupils then surely this should be the plan..? But the problem is that these schools are hated by parents. Super-selective grammar schools cause a frenzy of tutoring because every point counts. Many children travel miles to be educated in these schools, and some Kent super-selectives offer a third of places to independent school pupils. This is far from helping with the other supposed purpose of the new grammar schools, which is all about social mobility.
The alternative sort of grammar schools, the parent-pleasing ones, only need a test pass to gain entry. Realistically these schools educate the vast majority of middle class children who've paid for tutoring for a year. These are popular schools that are quite likely to produce happy children who end up with average Sociology degrees. This is all quite lovely and parents are thrilled they exist, the problem is that most children can achieve an average degree by going to a regular comprehensive school and taking A levels. The parents that tutor to get their children to these schools are already cheerleading their kids to be teachers, doctors or lawyers. They would make sure their children achieved these goals whichever school they went to.
If the new grammar school's goal is to produce world class scientists and top mathematicians then the plan should be to create a system selecting the very smartest children. If you create a system like Kent's average grammar schools then it might please voters and get quite nice results, but it won't actually change education very much. These schools teach a regular GCSE curriculum, the one you find everywhere else. There is no extra bonus-special-learning plan with these schools, they do exactly what a good comprehensive school does, so what's the actual need for them?
There seems to be a muddle of ideas from the new grammar school campaigners, with a clear goal but a flawed route to achieving it. If the problem is 'high ability children are underachieving in our schools' then why not attempt to fix that problem using the education system we have now? No one seems to have made any effort to do this. There is not one answer to this problem involving segregated schools at eleven, there are numerous solutions, there are ideas that no one has tried before, there are ideas that really will make a difference.
My idea is below. There is no one right plan and it's a half thought-through suggestion, but I think we do need to talk about this, and we need to talk about it now if we hope to find an answer that doesn't involve an eleven plus. My suggestion involves additional classes out of school for high achieving-pupils. I like this idea because the brightest children need application to get anywherre so extra work should not deter them, and a love of learning matters so many will stretch themselves this way. I know my daughter would have headed to an out-of school centre to get extra Computer Science lessons. She just loves the subject and wants to excel in it, it would beat watching a whole lot of computer stuff on YouTube.
It's ironic that my MP spoke of cutting edge smartness, innovation, and fostering genius, yet his grand plan for education is neither cutting edge nor innovative. I'm sure any maths whizz-kid could calculate exactly how many holes there are in the new grammar school plan. It must waste the potential of thousands of bright children by simply failing to spot them at each step of its tortuous selection process.
If our government bring back grammar schools they are effectively giving up on mixed-ability schools as a way to educate bright children. Clearly many comprehensive schools do get great results for their high achievers, but many could certainly do better. So what to do? Can't we talk about this, debate, think a while..? Or will our parliamentary representatives, all opinion and no expertise, simply rush to propose a return to the olden-days and bring back the eleven-plus? They have no vision if they let such a plan go ahead. Isn't it better to let education experts look at this problem and find a new, forward thinking, solution?
My daughter will go to a grammar school sixth form and plans to study Computer Science at university. Two years of solid GCSE work showed her potential when a short test at ten years old could not. I think we need to keep school options flexible before sixteen, it encourages all children to work hard to try to reach the top set. When you take highly able children out of schools it changes them in so many ways. The comprehensive school I went to worked so much better than the secondary moderns my daughter attended.
The achievement of highly able children is of course one small part of it all. I challenged my MP with valuing academically able children more highly than eleven-plus failures. He said it was all about the economy and our country being the best. Yet it feels so wrong to base our entire school system on academic success alone. It is clear that creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship are nothing to do with reasoning tests at ten, or grades at GCSE, yet are obviously just as vital for our economy. A narrow view of success will only waste our children's talents.
I came away from the meeting feeling sad about the future. How can we be ever be the best in the world when our government has such a narrow, backwards-thinking, plan for education?