Monday, 19 September 2016

"Fail the 11+,Fail At Life...Yeah Right!": My Thoughts On Grammar Schools

I'm not a massive fan of selection. Yes I know selection processes happen throughout our lives, mostly instigated by the actions of our "well intentioned"/"folly ridden" parents. It starts when we are forced out of the comfort of Mama's womb into what can be an extremely unforgiving alien environment. For years we have our clothes chosen for us, have grubby food forced down our necks which we have to be "grateful" for or we "get no ice cream for dessert" and our thoughts and actions are  dictated to us inside and outside the home even if those thoughts and actions have an element of malicious intent around them. All of these instances are examples of selection and with it being so prevalent in our lives, I believe the less we select, the better. "Live and let live" is my motto du jour, respecting and promoting diversity is my raison-d'etre, being unique and authentic my MO. So it probably comes as no surprise to hear that I'm not the biggest fan of grammar schools. I've not entirely benefitted from an education provided by a comprehensive masquerading itself as a grammar school that's used the fetishistic desire for "ambitious improvement through self-defined academisation" to try and fashion itself into a parody of  Mr Red White and Blue's "Thoroughly British Public School", capped off by a supposed generous, sincere old chap (grasping, conniving porn addict more like) as it's bloated head. Confused identities aren't narrowly restricted to humanity after all.

Naturally any UK selective system is geared towards those who can afford to splash out on English and Maths tutors to ensure their "Little Lord Harrogate" can pass the test with as much ease as possible. Wanting the best for your kid isn't a crime by any stretch of the imagination but considering thousands of children pass their SATs at Levels 5 and 6 without much extra tutoring being necessary, it's a bit of an unfair advantage. Surely if we are to be truly fair as an education system, we should ensure tutors are available for all kids who need it, and not just those whose parents have deeper wallets than the cavity of the Grand Canyon.

I've never been a fan of "pushy parenting"; my own parents let me make my own mistakes and achievements, mainly because my achievements came in subjects they'd not been good at whilst at secondary school. My Mum didn't know anything about Jane Austen's use of satirical devices in Pride and Prejudice or what happens when potassium reacts with lithium, oxygen or water and she went to a girls private school in South Africa!  If you tried to get me Da to name the number of verbs that use ĂȘtre in the French perfect tense he'd be truly lost for words (and that doesn't happen particularly often!) I was glad that I had to put the time and effort in to research, write and revise for myself; hard grafting made my educational experience more fulfilling. Instilling academic rigour and forbearance in all students has to be a central tenet for all educational establishments, not just selective ones!

To cap it all off, I was one of those kids who was written off at 11 as a "low achiever", a "slow developer" that'd never truly gain the qualifications needed to be anything more than a cog in a well-oiled working class gig economy machine. I was never given the chance to sit an 11+ exam paper. My junior school teachers and my parents fought hard to convince the school I got into (The Priory LSST) that I was worth taking a chance on. My SATs and their testimonies were the only way I managed to get into even a decent comprehensive school. Whilst I was at the Priory LSST, I was told not to expect academic miracles; that it was miracle enough I got into that good school and I should be grateful. I was subject to the set streaming system that wrote some students off as hopeless at source.
Comprehensive schools with set streaming - Sets 1 to 4:
  1. Projected to achieve A*-B grades at GCSE
  2. Projected to achieve A-C grades at GCSE
  3. Projected to achieve B-E grades at GCSE
  4. Projected to achieve C-G grades at GCSE
Movement amongst the set groups was achievable - either upwards (as happened for me in English Literature and Modern Foreign Languages) or downwards (as in Maths). So there was a level of hope instilled in some students and luckily I did have some subjects where I was considered good or "satisfactory" (which meant I'd achieve a Grade C)  or enthusiastic about (below Grade C), so it wasn't all bad. Nobody expected me to pass all my GCSE's above Grade C, including Maths (where I'd been marked as a failure for near on a decade.) I was told my propensity to remember philosophical arguments by the likes of Aristotle, Kant and Iris Murdoch would be close enough to nought. And because I was crap at physical subjects such as PE and Woodwork I'd never be able to "support myself" without an academic brain. My "developmental dyspraxia" diagnosis was supposed to curse my physical and academic development at the same time. Nothing gave me greater pleasure than proving my doubters in that school wrong. Dead wrong. So you can see that taking an arbitrary test to determine your academic future that labels you straight off as "a mediocre achiever" is despicable and not allowing some to attempt the test in the first place is deplorable, especially if they have demonstrated glimpses of promise, no matter how "dim" they may be. It's just not cricket.

What I believe we should do instead of focussing on expanding grammar schools :

We need to be focussing our efforts on improving standards for all students regardless of social class, gender, geographical location and learning ability or lack thereof rather than wanting to expand a system of education because we "arbitrarily believe it to be better" just because you were a working class kid that happened to do well out of it back in the Swinging Sixties.

"Slow developers" can make great progress if they are given motivational teachers who have the ability to help students spark an interest in their chosen subject. That doesn't mean just hiring people who happen to have achieved the highest degree marks or have gone to postgraduate level. These teachers need to be able to connect. There is no point having a teacher attempting to deliver an RE lesson if they don't particularly like engaging in debate with their students, peer teachers or experts that may choose to visit the school to offer their perspective on an issue. If you can't bare to be challenged, how do you expect your students to take a broad, enlightened look at social and moral issues? My RE teacher sparked an interest in me in Philosophy because he dared to challenge our assumptions about the immutability of God even though he was a Christian himself. He spent time explaining arguments through the use a range of teaching materials including videos, brainstorms and online learning to reach as many students in the class as possible. He took the time to correct spelling and punctuation, to help students who had learning difficulties to come up with an essay style to suit them. He cared about every student in that class, irrespective of expected GCSE attainment levels. Guess the end of the 2005 GCSE teaching cycle, he had managed to get every student a grade C or higher in their GCSE RE exam. I managed to gain a high A*, a huge unexpected achievement considering my first RE teacher wrote me off as a "no hoper" and told my parents this face-to-face. And that was in a comprehensive! Albeit a comprehensive starting to dress itself up as academy.

What sorts of things could we do to solve educational standards crisis apart from opening more grammar schools:
  • Ensure comprehensive schools can attract the best talent- there should be incentives for all subject teachers and not just in STEM subjects.
  • Ensure teachers are equipped to deal with difficult issues in Humanities and Social Sciences or if they are hoping to become personal tutors.
  • Improve educational resources in comprehensive schools- encourage Heads to set money aside for technological aids and encourage teachers to become familiar with social media channels to engage with students on an daily basis, allowing them to ask questions before or after a specific lesson.
  • Get teachers to release a module by module/ term by term timetable for subject study, especially if they at GCSE Level/A Level. This allows students to research topics in advance and plan for the rigorous nature of the lesson.
  • Encourage peer-to-peer learning via social media platforms, including Twitter and Skype.
  • Set aside specific time to help SEN students and give guidance to their classroom assistants on a weekly basis.
  • Be more aware of signs of learning disability/differences, especially with male students.
  • Employ more teaching assistants with knowledge and experience of working with SEN students within the classroom.
  • Get careers advisors to come into schools at 14 to give impartial advice and support to students with a focus on their work/educational options post 16.
  • Improve extra-curricular activity provision, encouraging teaching assistants and parents to set up groups for all students to attend -  e.g. Debating society, Latin group, Theatre groups etc.
Grammar schools are not the enemy of the left. Conservatives and UKIPpers want to jump on the ideological bandwagon of grammar school expansion because they believe they can be a "cure all" for the problem of lacklustre social mobility levels being experienced by the working class at the moment. They forget that grammar schools are high-achieving because they attract high-quality teachers, have investment streams that can facilitate extra-curricular activities, extra tutoring and allow school leavers with access to the "Old Boys networks" currently prevalent in Oxbridge, Russell Group Unis (one of which I attended- University of York) and the professions. I want comprehensive school students to have the same level of access to resources, high quality teachers and not to be written off as "mediocre achievers" who cannot "grasp academic study" because of their socio-economic or learning ability status. It's time to help those at the bottom of the pile and raise their standards of education and their aspirations, to allow them to even dream of gaining a grade C at GCSE let alone the 5 (including English and Maths) they usually need to gain access to an entry level admin job. Compassionate, inclusive education is key. Selection can play a small part in this but shouldn't be the cornerstone of our educational system. Secondary moderns are not going to make the anticipated return some socially engineering alt-right Tories want. You can salivate all you like but Pavlov's ringing the dingy bell that only awakens the tiresome. I'm batting for the other side and make no apologies for it.