Friday, 12 December 2014

Last night, on BBCs 'Question Time' some panel members, audience members and certainly Nigel Farage bemoaned the loss of grammar schools and wanted them back. Those who spoke and proclaimed that social mobility was better in the 1960s were not old enough to have any sensible recollection of that decade or the one before it, when grammar schools covered the land. Now, although I did indeed feel cheated of an education I'm not going to rant about grammar schools. A grammar education was indeed a fine thing and those bright enough to get places in them were lucky indeed. But the system itself was grossly unfair in a number of ways:-

When I was attending primary school and working towards the 11+ my (typical) local grammar had places for around 10 percent of the pupils taking the exam. So let us say that 12% or 15% or even 20% of my schoolfriends were actually bright enough to benefit from a grammar school education. What happened to those children who were not selected in this limited numbers, rigid, uncompromising method of sending one lot to grammar and the dross to secondary modern school? Why, the 90% (many of them quite capable of keeping up with the other 10%) received an education that terminated at 15 years of age with no examinations - none were offered or taken at secondary school - and therefore had no qualifications whatsoever to present to an employer.

You will have guessed by now that I was one of the 90%, a service child, and therefore very rarely selected for grammar even had I done well in the exam, because service children move every two or three years to a different location and the school would rather have pupils who were going to fill their places until they reached leaving age. If the unfairness of the system so far has not impressed the reader, consider also the fact that girls are brighter than boys at 11 years of age and were discriminated against at the selection stage, otherwise the grammar schools would be full of girls and very few boys. Thus many more bright girls (who it was thought only had to get married and darn socks) were also pushed aside and sent to secondary schools where indeed they learned to cook, while the boys did their woodwork.

Happily for me, I went to night school soon after leaving secondary modern, got my Os and As and then went on to do two separate degrees at university. I don't know what happened to my classmates who were successful in the 11+, but I'm pretty sure most of them didn't do any better. I repeat, I have nothing against a grammar education per se, but if people like Farage (who went to a private school) want to bring them back, they should ensure that there are places for all those who are capable of such an education and it is fluid enough to allow late learners to pass between schools.

As for social mobility being better in the 50s and 60s. In those decades 5% of schoolchildren went on to university, no doubt the offspring of middle and upper class parents. Now it is 43%. All my 5 grandchildren have degrees or are in the process of doing so, while I was unique in having a university education amongst my ancestors, parents, brothers and cousins, my family coming from farm working stock. No one related to me had even dreamed of getting such an education. Oh, they were just as bright as I am, but the system prevented them from progression. The measure of social mobility, it seemed, to those on Question Time last night (Russell Brand excepted) was who went to Oxbridge. They bemoaned the fact that Oxbridge was full of private school students. Well hell, those two universities are not holy ground my friend. There are others which turn out just as able and brilliant minds.