Heather Fearn: I’m not quite in favour of grammar schools BUT…

Heather Fearn is a History and Politics teacher. She tweets as @HeatherBellaF and blogs at https://heatherfblog.wordpress.com

Have you noticed that well-dressed individuals have wardrobes stuffed full of clothes they barely wear? They also use up much more of their income and time clothes shopping than the average bod. I think Trinny and Susannah used to tell us that there is no need to waste excess time and money on clothing if you want to look good (apparently a few classic, well-chosen and well-fitting items are all you need to be a well turned out) but they are wrong. Looking good seems to require a disproportionate, one could almost say (but not in a pejorative sense) an unbalanced preoccupation with appearance. Similarly great readers NEVER have just a limited pile of the books they are actually reading. The home of a great reader is always identifiable by the EXCESS of books crowding every corner!

What on earth has this to do with grammar schools? Well, I have also found that to create a strong, flourishing academic culture in a school or a subject department or a class requires a disproportionate, perhaps excessive number of persons of an ‘academic’ inclination. An intellectual environment seems to need a critical mass of staff and pupils who revel in intellectual pursuits to get an intellectual buzz. Oxford and Cambridge know this to be true and that is a reason why they are rigorously selective. True, such keenies are not necessarily the most academically successful but exam scores or IQ are your best discriminator if you wish to identify them from the general crowd.

In the past grammar schools provided that ‘excessively’ academic environment necessary for intellectual pursuits to flourish and in which the most able could excel. Many comprehensives do also create this culture but to be brutally honest your average comprehensive doesn’t come close. I was struck by a comment in another, excellent post I have read about grammar schools:

“When I became a teacher, I wholeheartedly endorsed the comprehensive ideal – but in thirty years, I have never encountered a comprehensive school that came near the academic ethos of a grammar school. As one who attended a grammar but worked for three decades in a comprehensive, I think I am perhaps more qualified to judge this than many.”

Many comprehensives fall at the very first hurdle because their SLT don’t appear to even see the value of having clever staff. If you don’t believe this assertion try suggesting on teacher twitter that appointing clever or well qualified teachers should be a priority.  Add to this the impact of mixed ability teaching on ‘critical intellectual mass’ in individual classrooms and it is no wonder that even in schools with a genuinely comprehensive intake and thus enough students to create that flourishing intellectual environment, it is missing.

I should pause here to make a clear distinction between an academic curriculum and a school’s ethos or environment. It is not the purpose of this post to present my reasons for believing that all children should be taught ‘the best that has been thought and said’ i.e. become truly educated individuals. Suffice to say I believe this is both possible and important. I’m sure that making a school curriculum more academic will make a flourishing intellectual environment more likely but curriculum and ethos are not one and the same thing.

IF we believe an intellectual environment to be essential for academic excellence and IF I am right that this requires a ‘critical mass’ of keenies, both staff and students…

…is it even possible to create this environment in every school? IF an intellectual environment is, by its nature, a limited resource we are faced with two options:

  1. Decide it is unfair to offer to the few a privilege that all cannot enjoy. Therefore we must accept that our most academic students will not be as intellectually stretched. To be blunt if you don’t think this is the current situation in the average comp you either have no experience of more academic school environments or you are seriously kidding yourself.
  1. Offer this limited resource to those most likely to benefit, accepting that this will have some degree of impact on the quality of education for the rest.

Either way please, please don’t try and pretend that only the second option (selective education) comes at a cost. That is what many quoting statistics to prove the failure of grammar schools are trying to suggest. It is surprising that educational traditionalists arguing for school reform, specifically the introduction of a more rigorous academic curriculum, are so keen to accept statistics which call into question the likely success of their goals.

Regarding those statistics. Aside from the enormous problems with extrapolating statistically from the current impact of limited numbers of grammars when they aren’t the norm AND the avoidance of stats that aren’t as helpful such as those for Northern Ireland, these arguments from research are anyway based on a highly debatable premise. They presume that the purpose of education is social mobility. The research then seems to focus on the chances of grammar schools raising the status of the most disadvantaged – a worthy endeavour but hardly all that should be understood by social mobility.

I am not a socialist and therefore I do not believe in the possibility of an egalitarian utopia in which all will flourish. This means I cannot view social mobility as the primary purpose of education. A stretching academic education is a good in and of itself, whatever utilitarian outcomes it might also offer society. On balance I would rather at least some children benefit from a limited resource (whatever their social background) than none.

I don’t blame those that look at the current educational landscape and think grammars are the only answer given the failure of comprehensive schooling, as a system, to give a genuinely academically stretching education to most academically able. I have no interest in trying to defend the status quo in English schools.

Despite all the arguments I have put forward I am not actually arguing for grammar schools. I am actually staking my career on the possibility that we CAN create that intellectual ethos that will stretch the most able in MORE schools than there will EVER be grammars. I think it should be possible to create that ‘critical mass’ within most schools if we prioritise it. I am hoping that changes in teacher recruitment, curriculum and a rejection of progressive pedagogy will be enough to create intellectually buzzing environments in many more schools across the country. I think we must try this solution first because many more pupils will benefit if we are successful.

It isn’t as if the grammar school policy is without negative consequences. I do wonder if the average comprehensive is so very different from the dreaded secondary modern of old but there would be some quite negative impact on some comprehensive schools if grammars were introduced.  We need government policies that try to address the weaknesses in the education of all pupils not just the education of the most able.

Creating grammar schools is also s risky policy. I know some current grammars get dreadful results given their intake. Imagine being a school lucky to have an abundance of the prerequisites for a flourishing intellectual environment and then still failing to make it happen! That seems to me like an unforgivable sin. I also know of grammars that have fallen hook line and sinker for anti-intellectual skills based agendas which stifle the pursuit of knowledge. Who is to say that the new grammar schools might not follow this path?

Like those arguing for more grammar schools I appreciate the importance of an academically stretching environment for the most able and like them I am not willing to stand by and accept the status quo. Only time may tell who had the better method of achieving this common goal.