It was Heather Fearn’s (@HeatherBellaF) post on grammar schools that made me pause. She has written an interesting piece here on reasons why one could be in favour of grammar schools. I thought I would be persuaded.
I was not.
So I started to wonder why.
I’m not against selection per se. Neither am I outraged by the idea of splitting children up at the age of 11. I tweeted a lot yesterday asking teachers questions like, ‘What if we had a fantasy test that didn’t test cultural literacy and background (as all tests inevitably do, so penalising the poorer child), would we teachers then be pro-grammar? My own answer was, I’m still not sure I would be. What if we really could guarantee that a certain percent (80%? 90%?) of all grammar school children came from families earning under X amount, would we teachers be happy with the policy then?
What I wanted to know is whether teachers dislike grammars because of the inevitable exclusion of the poor, or whether they just instinctively hate the idea of selecting children.
For those of us who believe there are pros and cons to both sides of the grammar debate (although clearly we fall down on one side in the end), I think the crux comes down to this (from Heather’s article):
“…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.”
Roger Scruton – who I once told that having him visit our school was like having Brad Pitt visit – I like him that much – says the same thing: Education’s primary purpose is not to enable social mobility. It is to pass on our history, culture and knowledge to the next generation.
And there we have it. That’s where I part ways with those who are perhaps truer conservatives than I am. I am not in the game of education just to pass on knowledge. I admit it. I’m in the game to change the stars of the children we teach, to give them the chance to be just like Boris Johnson (i.e. be articulate and knowledgeable and have all doors open to them in life). And to do that, we give them knowledge, thereby doing what Scruton and Fearn believe should be the primary reason for education. But for me, it is secondary.
So the idea of reserving all the clever teachers for the brightest seems wrong. Fearn spends some time explaining why having all your intellectuals in one place is important. And I agree with her that comprehensives (or indeed the whole school system) fails in numerous ways to give our children the education they deserve.
But cleverness is a trait that every employer craves in all staff: teachers, office staff, kitchen staff, caretakers. And that’s because it means systems are more likely to work well, staff are more likely to work seamlessly, and one’s school is more likely to succeed. To reserve the cleverest staff for the brightest children because they will want to discuss more Shakespeare is both unfair in my opinion, and simply not true. At Michaela, we take children who were years behind their chronological reading age on entry and have them writing glorious essays on Macbeth within 2 years.
If we didn’t have super bright staff (and I don’t just mean teachers), we wouldn’t be able to do that.
But if what matters to you is passing knowledge to the next generation, then it doesn’t matter who exactly gets that knowledge. All that matters is that it has been passed on.
However, if what matters to you is everyone having an equal shot at the pie, then in end, the arguments in favour of grammar schools will always fall short.
I don’t care for the current policy on grammar schools but am not incensed because 50 or 100 extra grammar schools will make little difference to anyone. If the current government is obsessed by grammar schools, then let them have their fun. I am baffled by the decision to use up so much of their political capital on such a contentious issue, while sidelining the far more important issue – our 23 thousand schools that require the government’s interest, time and energy.
But the simple fact is that if we had many thousands of grammar schools, Michaela would not and could not exist. I wouldn’t be able to find the staff to make it happen. And that would mean that all those children either at the bottom, or simply in the middle who are more than capable of doing intellectual work, might never do it. And social mobility for anyone but the brightest would no longer be a possibility. Schools like Michaela make social mobility a possibility for anyone who chooses to work hard. Grammars make social mobility possible only for the brightest.
So that is why, on Easter weekend 2017, I’m wondering whether or not I’m a conservative after all…
*** Heather Fearn’s response to this blog post, is here. And I have to say, it has me thinking once more! I can’t really disagree with anything she is saying…