Jude Collins

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Getting mad about grammar schools

I lost my temper the other day. It’s something I used to do quite a bit when I was young but as  with many of my passions, it has dimmed with time. Mind you, once I’d cooled down I got angry all over again, this time with myself for having been annoyed. 

The source of my irritation was a man who - with some passion - corrected me for suggesting that secondary schools here are not as good as grammar schools. On mature reflection (as Brian Lenihan put it) I can see it was a crass and undiplomatic thing to say, given that my listener had taught for many years in a secondary school. What had catapulted me into making the statement was the question of whether, if you disapproved of the grammar school/secondary school divide, you should send your children to a secondary school. 

I know there are people who believe that it’s only in your actions you show your true beliefs. However, I’m not wholly convinced that, if you don’t believe in selection by academic ability, you should display these beliefs by sending your children to a secondary school. I quite appreciate the demands made on teachers in secondary schools - having taught in one and having visited over a thirty-year period both grammar and secondary school classrooms, there’s little question that for the most part, secondary classrooms make more demands on the teacher than grammar schools. So it would be possible to argue that secondary schools are in fact better than grammar schools, in that they work with children who have less appetite for the curriculum offered and often have little hesitation in telling the teacher as much. 

But if secondary schools are in fact better, how to explain the insistence by middle-class parents that grammar schools are kept in place and that selection by academic ability remains post 11+? The man who triggered my passing wrath explained it in terms of social status: parents didn’t want their children mixing with the riff-raff of secondary schools. I think he’s right in that and it is a factor sometimes overlooked. 

But there’s also the fact that young people tend to do what their friends do. And if they’re in classrooms where the assumption is that the pupils will secure good grades and proceed to university, those assumptions tend to be accepted and chances are the individual child will, to a greater or lesser extent, do likewise. There are children who’ll be more successful as the top stream in a secondary school rather than the bottom stream in a grammar school, but they tend to be the exception rather than the rule. By and large, a child in a grammar school is more likely to go on to third level education than one in a secondary school. 

So given that situation, I don’t blame any parent who wants to send their child to a grammar school, any more than I blame bankers or politicians for picking up fat salaries or pensions. The finger of accusation should be pointed at those who set up this unjust system and work to maintain it, rather than at those who try to navigate their way through the system that confronts them. 

There. Having got that off my chest I feel in less of a tearing-at-the-walls-with-my-nails mood already. 

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