“Reading To Some Purpose” was the unimaginatively titled lesson we had every Wednesday afternoon at my primary school. It wasn’t the most inspiring part of the week but we just got on with it because as a 9 or 10 year old you didn’t question the curriculum a great deal. It was question after question of puzzles, problems and generally working things out intuitively. Only now do I realise this was probably one of the most important hour of the week.
I went to school in Grantham which was one of the few areas in the UK to retain the grammar school system and although 13th January 1981 started as a normal unremarkable day there was a rumour going round that something was afoot. The headmaster walked into our class, we all stood up as was the rule and he announced that we were about to take the eleven plus. After a practice paper we took the real thing and it was all about “reading to some purpose”. I recognised the style and format of the questions as I’d been doing them every Wednesday afternoon for almost a year. These days we’d call that coaching but every primary school did it as preparation for the eleven plus as every child had an opportunity to try for a grammar education. There may have been some parents who paid for extra coaching but, with a year of coaching week after week during school time this would have made, at most, a marginal difference.
Today’s argument that grammar schools only benefit the well off who can afford coaching is defunct in the Prime Minister’s plan for good school places for every child regardless of background. If Free Schools are able to be selective grammar schools the feeder primary schools will almost certainly be offering classes like the ones I had (but perhaps with a catchier title!). If they don’t I would encourage any parent to make sure they did either as part of the curriculum, enrichment or as an after school club.
It is surprising and bordering inconceivable that the most vocal opponents of grammars are the ones who purport to be the most dedicated to social mobility not least Her Majesty’s Opposition. Grammar schools are the very examplar of social mobility and diversity. My grammar school, King’s School in Grantham, boasted illustrious past pupils like Sir Isaac Newton but during my time there I rubbed shoulders with children of service men and women, some from council estates, some from very well heeled areas and, myself, the son of an office clerk and wallpaper factory worker. Instead of dogmatically searching high and low for an excuse to loathe grammar schools a true champion of social justice and cohesion would welcome an opportunity for the brightest to excel in a school so well suited to a child’s talent. Incredibly opening such a school became banned under the Labour Government, a ban which cannot be lifted too soon.
As someone who has attended both grammar and comprehensive schools I can say from personal experience that it is right to look at lifting this ban. The grammar school is where academically minded pupils can excel in academic subjects, be proud about it and not, as I was in both the comprehensives I attended, bullied for it. As a grammar school pupil you are much more likely to be with others who want to learn in a similar way. Like it or not the comprehensive system fails those pupils who want to excel at academic subjects. At comprehensive school the pool of talent is so broad and the desires for children to learn so varied and inconsistent it is difficult to give children of different abilities the differing attention they need to either excel or to get on at all.
There is a problem with the grammar system, though, that exists to this day. The grammar was seen as the school the whole catchment area aspired to. Attending the secondary modern was seen as a failure when it should have been seen as an equal alternative to grammar for vocational as opposed to academic excellence. It is right, therefore, that alongside the move to allow new grammar schools there is just as much energy in raising the profile of vocational education with the announcement of T levels as the vocational equivalent to A levels. Along with Rob Halfon’s relentless drive on apprenticeships, all routes of learning are being promoted and improved like never before.
Quite rightly the Prime Minister is not looking to dogmatically force every town to have a grammar. This is a matter of choice for the parents and children. This is about not preventing the opening of a new grammar if there is a demand for one. This is about allowing choice and not stifling it. Growing up in the Blair era, my children had no chance to aspire to a grammar education but perhaps if I’m blessed with grandchildren they will be among the first to be educated in a brand new modern grammar school. It can’t happen soon enough.
Richard Short is the National Co-ordinator for Conservative Workers & Trade Unionists. This article contains his personal views.