Three Rs

We live in Sale, South Manchester. Sale is part of the Metropolitan Borough of Trafford, one of the few boroughs in the country where at age 11 children are divided into those deemed fit to go to Grammar School and those who can go elsewhere. This kind of education system is archaic, divisive and unhealthy. However many of the people round here love it. After all, it didn’t do them any harm. The local MP, Graham Brady (Con, obviously) is a loud advocate for grammar schools and they are worryingly on the rise. Moving house isn’t really an option for us- coincidentally Trafford has excellent special needs schools, which are perfect for our disabled son. This leaves us a bit stuck in the system.

I have always been against the whole idea of grammar schools. In my mind it’s morally wrong to divide 10 year olds into two groups based on some spurious test of intelligence. Working in education since 1993 has done nothing to change my mind. We have a daughter, aged 8 and currently in Year 4. There are children in her class who are having privately paid for mentoring from anxious parents, to ensure their children pass the entrance exam and go to one of Trafford’s grammar schools. These parents are paying tutors to mentor children through an exam they won’t sit for another eighteen months. Children aged 8 are spending their Saturday mornings and weekday evenings practicing for a test that is supposed to define natural intelligence and ability. This is dressed up in all sorts of ways justifying splitting children into those good enough and those not good enough- ‘we just want to give them the best opportunity’ is one of the most common I hear.  Local snobbery and attitudes die hard- the other (non-grammar) schools clearly couldn’t provide an appropriate education in these peoples’ eyes; they didn’t in the mid 80s when the parents were at school themselves, therefore they can’t possibly now.

I have no intention of putting ET in for a selective school exam- the problem will arise I suppose if all her friends sit it and she asks why she isn’t and then wants to. The second problem is that the local secondary school (in effect a secondary modern, though they don’t use that phrase publically) is heavily over-subscribed, due mainly to being an excellent school surrounded by grammar schools.What’s also funny is that there is a pecking order of grammar schools, roughly starting north at Stretford Grammar and becoming more desirable the further south down Chester Road you go- Sale Grammar (local choice), Altrincham Grammar (ooh, lovely, very good) and so on. The decisions of most parents round here are also clearly selfish- it’s all about what’s best for them with no thought for any wider picture. We all want what’s best for our kids but it doesn’t have to be at the expense of others. The desperation of the parents is unhealthy and unpleasant- ‘Are you tutoring? Really? Why not? Which ones are you applying for? This one’s the best. That one’s the worst’.

Grammar schools will always be able to claim they offer the best education- they get 100% results. But then they should do; they’ve already selected the ‘best’ kids and if they don’t behave they kick them out. Bingo- first class school, proven by statistics. The fact is that grammar schools concentrate social inequality and actively work against social mobility. The well off stay well off, safe and comfortable in their cosy 1950s grammar school world. These schools are patently anti-democratic, exclusive and divisive. Any of the Labour governments since 1945 should have abolished them (and all private, fee paying schools as well) but they’ve all bottled it, particularly Harold Wilson who could have finished them when he had the chance. All these kids who go to grammar schools, with their clearly aspirational parents (and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with aspirations), could go to reorganised Trafford secondary schools based on  locality. A one-tier education system, fair, open and honest, rather than what we have- a three tier education system (tier one- privately tutored grammar school children, tier two- those who go to grammar without private tutoring, tier three- the rest at secondary moderns), tilted towards the well off. It’s just plain wrong but it’s difficult to find people who agree with this view. Hence Graham Brady MP will always be able to say ‘the parents of Trafford want grammar schools’. The parents the system benefits anyway.

So, I’ll say it again- archaic, divisive and unhealthy. What a lovely environment to put your children into.

The Headmaster Ritual (live on Spanish TV)