Matthew vs Melissa: Should we have a grammar school system?

Matthew and Melissa

Last week Matthew and Melissa debated whether drugs should be legalised. Melissa, who was in favour, won our poll with a huge 75% of the vote. This week the pair go head to head on the grammar school system.

Melissa says:

My son had barely turned ten when he passed the Kent test. I’m not from Kent, so I didn’t understand what the big deal was. I wanted him to go to the Marlowe, with its awesome performing arts department, and handy, walking distance location. He preferred the look of the climbing wall at Dane Court. Fine, whatever. Catch a bus every day, learn two languages, see if I care.

He was perfectly happy there, and did well enough, and brought home a selection of polite, identikit, violin-scraping friends, all tousled hair and gleaming smiles.  He was always clever, confident, self-sufficient, eloquent – obnoxiously cocky, some might say – and Dane Court did nothing to diminish those qualities.

If he’d gone to the Marlowe, he’d have done perfectly well too. He’d have done well anywhere.

When we did a practise test together, one question from a verbal reasoning paper struck me as perfectly encapsulating the nonsensical nature of the whole business. It went: “Kitten is to cat as cygnet is to…” How many nine year olds would know the answer to that? How many working class nine year olds, off the Newington estate, say, would know that? To suggest that knowing the name of a baby swan denotes baseline, innate intelligence is offensively ludicrous.

They might as well skip the tests and just listen to the parents’ accents. “Ah yes, lovely rounded vowels you’ve got, Mrs Cholmondeley, little Jilly should fit in here nicely.” It would save time, money, heartache, and be a hell of a lot more honest.

Grammar schools are meant to improve social mobility, which I would applaud; in fact, they do the exact opposite. Their pupils are overwhelmingly middle class at the start and middle class at the finish. In Kent, around 3% of grammar school pupils are entitled to free school meals, compared with 30% at other schools. Private schools, shamefully, are allowed to tutor their pupils through the Kent test, while state schools are not, so the grammars are stuffed with children whose parents can afford private tuition, either at school or after school.

Rich kids, who’d do well anywhere, in other words, who nonetheless then enjoy access to quality, established, permanent teaching staff,  endless trips abroad, unparalleled after-school clubs, prestigious speakers, a broad choice of A-levels or the Baccalaureate, links to quality local employers, greater levels of funding, as well as the priceless joy of feeling themselves superior.

So much for the rich kids’ school experience. Who cares about them anyway? Let’s turn to the others, who failed the stupid test, or perhaps were deemed unworthy even to take it. Who are dyslexic, perhaps. Did you know dyslexic children are almost never allowed extra time to tackle the Kent test, unlike every other exam? I didn’t. That’s because the grammars don’t want dyslexics. Runs the risk of wrecking their near perfect A-C pass rate.

I deplore the lack of social mobility in Britain, but grammar schools have never helped. They merely entrench existing divisions. By the age of five, children from poorer backgrounds have a vocabulary eighteen months behind those from richer ones. Those children haven’t got a hope of getting a grammar school education. It’s already too late. Those children need to be valued differently.

Otherwise, when they turn ten, they’ll find they’ve been marked as failures before they’ve so much as lost all their baby teeth. Deemed less than former friends, they’re put into schools which are less well-funded, often with unfairly bad reputations, every covert message screaming: “You. Yes, you! You’re worth no more than this. You’ll never amount to anything. Start learning that. It’s the only education you can expect here.”

It can take years to stop hearing those messages, if, indeed, you ever do. Children who are practical, or creative, or emotionally intelligent, or kind, or brilliant, but hadn’t learnt the word cygnet by the age of nine, are written off as collateral damage, factory fodder, unworthy of time or investment.

What colossal, wicked waste.

Scrap the divisive, obscenely unfair grammar school system, and instead invest the money in early education, where it can truly make a difference.

Matthew says:

Education is one of those topics – like the NHS and tax evasion – that excites a lot of passion. As well it should; having an effective education system is one of the cornerstones of a civilised society. And, of course, living in a diverse society such as ours, there are a lot of different ways to educate our children. Should we test them every year? Avoid tests wherever possible? Predominately outdoors or indoors? Academic or practical?

But we’re a plural society, capable of accepting multiple ideas as being perfectly valid and able to provide good outcomes. We might not like each one of these multiple ideas, but that doesn’t automatically make them less valid.

Grammar schools are one such example; there’s a body of opinion which is against this kind of selective education. I’m proud to live in a country that looks at making education fit different styles of learning. The fact that we continue to discuss what’s best tells me that we’re still learning.

A big argument against grammar schools is that it’s a classist system – that they’re the “elite” type of state education, and that people going to these schools are more likely to be better off and more likely to go to university. I must tackle this.

Selective education happens in all types of schools. Ask young people you know what stream they’re in for English, Maths, or Science. The majority of schools “select” even internally, to put young people in classes that are tailored to their abilities, and there shouldn’t be any shame in that.

The fact that there is – and the fact that people in top sets are often seen are “higher up” the pecking order – is a nonsense that should be struck from the hearts and minds of our society. We’ve got the argument all wrong; we shouldn’t be arguing against selective education, we should be arguing that there’s nothing wrong with being in any set as long as it’s the right one for you and that you’re being pushed and stretched. Whether you’re in set 1 or set 4 for Maths shouldn’t set your social class or status – we should be challenging those cruel, outmoded assumptions, not the fact that we’re intelligent human beings who can create an education system that’s tailored to individuals.

The same goes more widely, of course; the cachet of going to a grammar school over a high school genuinely amazes me. We shouldn’t set about destroying grammar schools, but transforming the attitudes telling us that high schools aren’t as good as grammars, and that technical courses and working with your hands is somehow less than using your brain.

Of course they’re all as good – and where they’re not, they should be invested in heavily. Whether you’re academic or practical, your talents and expertise should be respected and exalted; we shouldn’t be dumbing down and reducing the number of options open to our children but broadening them – and get over this crazy idea that only grammar schools serve the elite.

 All of our children are the elite, and they have the right to a school that is high quality and serving their best qualities, irrespective of what that school is called; grammar, high, or technical.

Melissa references: