Do you ever watch “The Daily Politics” on BBC2? You probably don’t. It’s on every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday around midday, and so is mainly the preserve of shift-workers, the workshy, and those people at home looking after their 15 month old son.
I am lucky enough to belong to all 3 groups! As a result I regularly watch the programme. Believe me it is a welcome relief from wondering whether or not they have changed the actress who does Bella’s voice on the Tweenies, or the “will they/won’t they” antics of Miss Hooley and PC Plum on Balamory!
Anyway, the other week the presenter Andrew Neil was talking to the former BBC political commentator John Cole. The subject was Shirley Williams, and they were talking about her legacy now that she has stepped down as Liberal Democrat’s leader in the Lords. They covered the obvious aspects of her being one of the first prominent female MP’s, her leaving the Labour Party to form the SDP, and then her part in merging the SDP with the Liberal Party. But eventually they covered her role as Education secretary in the Wilson Labour Government, and the closure of many Grammar Schools on her watch. Andrew Neil mentioned the fact that Northern Ireland had been spared this policy, and still had many excellent Grammar schools. “Yes,” said John Cole, and although I am paraphrasing wildly, he then stated “but we still have a lot of very poor Secondary Moderns we really need to work on.”
What is remarkable about that statement is that it is the only occasion in recent years that I can remember Secondary Moderns even being mentioned in the debate on Grammar Schools. It is almost as if they don’t exist. Perhaps the proponents of the Grammar system are ashamed of them, as if they were a rather embarrassing Aunt. But if you have the grammar school system then you must have secondary moderns; or something like them with a different name.
I attended a Comprehensive school, and I don’t have any complaints. I got my O levels (showing my age there), I got my A levels, I scraped a 2:2 in Economics at Bradford University, and they don’t just give them away, you know. I even got a Post-graduate Diploma in Marketing, although I am sure that is because my exam paper got mixed up with one belonging to someone who knew what they were talking about. So I think my Comprehensive education did me alright, and I suppose as a result I feel some loyalty to the system. Could I have achieved more if I had been educated in a Grammar school. Possibly; we will never know. But what if I had failed my 11-plus? What then. Just taking the, admittedly, narrow field of academic success, how would I have fared? Would my sights have been set on attending university at all? Would I have even sat my O levels, marked out instead for CSEs and vocational qualifications?
I am not closed to the possibility that there is an alternative. I certainly don’t discount the fact that there is a role for setting and streaming within Comprehesives; the Grammar school versus Comprehensive argument often gets confused with the argument for or against mixed-ability schooling, but it shouldn’t. The problem is that whenever the issue is discussed, Grammar school supporters talk of the greater success rates at Grammar school, which is probably not surprising if they have a greater proportion of the more intelligent pupils in the first place. But what happens to the pupils in those areas who fail to get into Grammar schools? Do they similarly do better than they would do under a Comprehensive system. I don’t know, because they never get mentioned. Where are the glowing descriptions of Secondary Modern successes, to complement the Grammar school tales?
Perhaps if I analysed all the figures comparing Comprehesives, Grammar schools and Secondary Moderns, I would find the grammar system is better, although let’s face it, if I were given the figures, I probably wouldn’t understand them. And perhaps there is an argument for splitting people into Grammar schools and Secondary Moderns, so each group of pupils can get an education tailored to their ability range; except historically the Secondary Moderns were the dumping grounds, the sink schools, the schools for the forgotten. Why would that be different now? Where would the better Teachers prefer to teach?
Those who support the grammar system I am sure deeply believe it is better, and they may be right. But until they start talking about what happens to those who fail the 11-plus, I will stay loyal to the Comprehensives.
PostScript: while I am talking about education, (tenuous link alert!) it seems an appropriate time to mention “rooblog“, a website I have been reading recently which appears to be written by a system support worker at a college in Salford. I am not usually a fan of personal type blogs – there is only so much I can read about a sophomore’s love life, and how she has just flunked a whole semester of math – but this is great. Funny, quirky, off-beat and very well written; if you love “Walking Like Giant Cranes” you will love this.