The return of the debate about grammar schools should be a wake up call for us all | @MikeBerkoff

IMG_20150721_173141Mike Berkoff began his career in 1974, teaching in a comprehensive for three years. He was a lecturer/course organiser in Further Education for twenty three years and a senior manager in Adult Education for nine years. His main teaching was in mathematics and computer science. He is now happily retired.

I come from a background in education that pre-disposes me against Grammar Schools but the point of this blog is not ideological but about evidence based arguments. The government is once again returning to suggesting an expansion of Grammar Schools. This is in fact a long standing ambition for many Conservatives. I specifically say ‘many’ rather than ‘all’ because there are those in that party who have a long standing familiarity with education and have some commitment to the comprehensive system.

Some history is valuable. The system of Grammars, Secondary Moderns and Technical schools came about in the post war period. Technical schools did not catch on though. The theories underpinning the split relied to some extent on early twentieth century educational psychology. Cyril Burt in particular was a theorist whose ideas were very influential. There is a great deal written about Burt and his methodology but that is for another time. It would be incorrect to characterise the introduction of the system as some kind of conspiracy as there were genuine beliefs in reform. That this system fitted well with Conservative ideas lead to its swift introduction. Many Labour people in education have and had then a radically different approach which we now call comprehensive education. Let us pay compliments to earlier generations of Labour education activists for the superb work carried out over decades to advance the life chances of generations via school, special, further, adult and higher education. We all benefit from their work to this day.

Be under no illusion the life chances of millions have been severely limited by the Grammar school system. If an area has grammar schools the other schools become de facto secondary moderns no matter what they are called. In my own school days my secondary modern was actively discouraged by the local Conservative authority from running O and A levels. They carried on regardless. A number of us somehow got qualifications (based unfortunately on a limited curriculum). Many I knew gave up and left education as soon as they could. I hope some of them got a second chance through Further Education as I did partly myself but others just walked into dead end jobs. Splitting people at eleven or thirteen in some cases is severely damaging to a person’s outlook. Others, who went to the local grammar, did not always get the best education either. Some found themselves in “forcing factories” and might not be deemed to be worthy of the attention that could have changed their lives. I remember being told how in at least one grammar school all examination results were posted to all students. However you did everyone was told about it.

No system will be beyond criticism. Our comprehensives and other schools must always be in the game of raising standards. Grammars will never address this. It is an organised way of promoting a small proportion of the population without facing the wider needs overall.

Can the government plans be defeated? I think yes. Despite what we are told the basic fairness of comprehensive school system is popular when it succeeds. Our education cannot be sacrificed on either the alter of right wing elitism or pseudo left wing social engineering. Labour politics at its best has always been practical and aimed at dealing with real world problems. Let us not be quiet in promoting the advances that have been achieved over the decades. Slogans are no substitute for well reasoned arguments and of course winning elections.

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