There are a number of educational issues that will get me agitated and animated when being discussed and espousing views contrary to my entrenched own. There are many, but key ones are: testing in English Keys Stages 2 and 3; the damage done to GCSE English by Michael Gove; the academisation programme, and selection/privilege in education, either through grammar schools or public schools.
The current agitation-inducer is Theresa May’s political quest to reinstate grammar schools in this country and her truly unbelievable attempt to re-define them as agents for social mobility and a succour to the poor. My prejudices against this are primarily though my actual experience: having taught English for 30 years in an 11-18 comprehensive, and within this institution almost always teaching mixed-ability classes – certainly under my HOD control. I will also include my own secondary modern school education of two years [CSE and GCE].
As a student, I know I benefitted entirely from the quality of most teachers I experienced and the leadership of my secondary modern school Headmaster. It was a good, happy school where I always felt valued, and when challenged, was allowed to assert my independence to meet that. As a teacher, I always valued academic success and worked hard to encourage and support those who had the aptitude for it, and this was matched by my equal support and encouragement for those who excelled in other ways: neither trajectory taking precedence over the other. But I believe they and I had the greatest possible educational experiences by that very mix of trajectories and an ethos which did not give primacy to either [well, that is until a target culture corrupted that ethos by its insidious focus and demands]. And of course that teacher reflection is a snapshot summary of a far more complex and dynamic experience.
So I am bound to disagree with May’s proposals to re-establish grammar schools in this country. I would in whatever guise she attempts to frame their future existence and purpose because they are quite simply selective and therefore divisive. What I am genuinely finding impossible to understand and accept, over and above my clearly stated prejudices against in any shape or form, is her assertions that grammar and public schools can become a panacea for social mobility.
Because I am agitated and animated I don’t think I can proffer the most expansive and fully reasoned rationale against, but I do feel quite able to challenge and unpick a number of her quite random claims for a shake-up of our education system. In no particular order:
- May wants private schools to do more to help the state sector and therefore help to deliver a ‘great meritocracy’. How does she propose to instruct the sharing of what it is that makes private schools ‘successful’ when this is so irrefutably and inextricably linked to their privilege? The privilege of selection, the privilege of small class sizes [often ridiculously so], the privilege of resources paid by extravagant fees, the socio/economic privilege of most students, the privilege of examination ‘success’ that can only ever be relative to those many stated privileges? This is a sweeping aside from May which is totally bonkers.
- May wants independent schools to offer the same ‘support’ to state schools in order to earn their charitable status, but surely their apparent success is built on the same privileges as those of private schools [indeed, perhaps she is confusing the two and really thinking of a single entity]. The implication is she thinks that teaching and the curriculum are somehow superior in such schools. Well, it might be more wholly academic because of its many routes to being selective, but yet again, its successes in examination results [presumably the touchstone] are for those privileged reasons, not teaching and curriculum design.
- May wants private schools to sponsor and/or set up state schools and provide direct teaching support. I don’t understand the financial implications of this at all. Do private schools pay for this? Does the government finance this but private schools exert their private control? Can this be done with taxpayers’ money? Setting this nonsense aside, where is the proof that private school teachers/teaching is more effective than others? Surely, the privileged environment in which their teachers teach contributes hugely to any apparent overall successes?
- May wants new grammar schools to make places available to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. But will there still be academic selection? So we can have poorer children who are not the failures of some richer children? How do students from disadvantaged, low-income backgrounds compete/gel with/ feel inclusive within the social milieu of grammar schools? That’s a hard question to ask let alone answer. What does ‘disadvantaged’ really mean? What kind of disadvantages can be overcome by the experience and tradition of grammar schools and those who work in them? That’s a hard question to ask let alone answer.
- May wants grammar schools to open feeder primary schools in disadvantaged areas. Will the primary school students for these be selected? How does this address disadvantage?
- May claims her proposals will not establish a binary system of grammar schools and secondary moderns. But will it still establish a bifurcated system of those selected and those who are not? How can this not be the case? That’s an easy question to ask and a bugger for May and Greening [and others] to answer, surely?
- May wants to open up the education system to greater diversity. Why? Are a preponderance of faith schools, for example, the best way to help nurture a cohesive, inclusive society? Isn’t the core principle of comprehensive education that it is diverse? Diverse for all? Isn’t ‘diverse for all’ the definition of diversity?
I’m not sure I feel any less agitated but I am less animated because I am exhausted. All of the questions I have asked are genuinely born of my complete incredulity about May’s rhetoric of producing a ‘great meritocracy’ through her proposed ideological adjustments to the education system we have now. I’m sure I should be relieved and reassured when so many in her own party do not seem to agree with her vision, or that rhetoric, and even when Michael Wilshaw criticises it. And this will, I know, be open to debate before it ever becomes a reality. As I have been saying in previous posts and repeat this one last time [perhaps…], if May was being honest about wanting the privilege of grammar schools expanded and offered as a part of the education system, we could debate the issue more clearly and directly. My fear is that many people might be fooled by her rhetoric about the promise of offering social mobility and justice. It does seem that the electorate in this country, the majority who do not share in the prosperity and privileges of the very few for whom the Tory Party exists, are increasingly duped and deluded by the fancy talk about caring.