As the new Prime Minister, Theresa May, floats the idea of a return to grammar schools, the debate about social mobility rages. And I tweeted I went to grammar school, that I left at 15 with one O Level.
I suppose I'm the ultimate grammar school failure, passed my 11+ then left at 15 with one O Level
— Steve Watson (@SteveWatson10) August 8, 2016
But my story is not so straightforward. It is a story about me, grammar schools, comprehensives, teaching approaches, policy and the implementation of that policy.
In 1976 I got the news that I passed the 11+ examination and that I would be going to King Edward VI Grammar School in East Retford, Nottinghamshire. I remember sitting the exam, the first formal exam I had ever taken, in the dining hall at Thrumpton County Primary School. There was no exam preparation, as there would be now for SATs, I just sat the exam. The result meant that I would not be going to the secondary modern, Sir Frederick Milner (which my father attended), nor would I be going to the town’s comprehensive, Ordsall Hall.
King Edward VI Grammar School was small, about 400 boys, with a sixth form. It was a gateway for the middle class and the aspirant middle class to university and on to the professions and to senior management. My parents were beginning to do well with the furniture and carpet shops they had in Retford, New Ollerton and Gainsborough. The 1970s were the start of deregulated credit, expanded consumerism and house purchase. The good folk of Retford were furnishing their homes individually and colourfully: fitted axminster carpets, Dralon three-piece suites, teak dining-room sets and made-to-measure curtains. My father was able to buy a new car every couple of years and we were able to have the occasional summer holiday abroad.
But when I think back to the kids who passed their 11+ and got a place at the grammar school, the split seemed to be more about social class; the middle class and aspiring middle class went to the grammar schools (the girls went to the high school). The others went to the secondary modern or the comprehensive. I have no evidence, but I believe the decision on places was not solely based on the outcome of the 11+.
I enjoyed the first two years at the grammar school. It was small, it felt safe and I enjoyed the lessons. I did very well in annual examinations. I talked about science with friends out of school. I read and was interested.
Interestingly, teaching approaches were both traditional and progressive. The traditional teachers were experienced grammar school masters: austere and teacher-centred. My favourite was my Latin teacher Bernard ‘Boris’ McNeil-Watson. In spite of traditional formality, Boris was warm, witty and well-liked. I loved how he would send us out during a double lesson so he could have a smoke and how he became animated as he recited passages of Latin from the textbook Latin for Today.
In contrast there was a new cohort of teachers with new ideas about teaching and learning, they were attempting to introduce more progressive student-centred approaches. Phil Blinston was one of these teachers. His first post was at King Edwards and in his first year he was my form teacher, English teacher and Religious Education Teacher. I specifically recall how Phil had us debating fox hunting in RE. I remember being passionate, but not particularly articulate in my speech against fox hunting. I felt a sense of liberation and subversion, as I was given opportunity to express myself and hold a view in a school setting that was principally traditional and austere.
The mixture of traditional and progressive teaching made for a rich experience and left a lasting impression on me.
There were big changes by the end of my third year. Retford had held out against Labour’s educational reforms and had retained its grammar schools. But in 1978 pressure was mounting to end the selective tripartite system. My mother opposed it with other parents and became active in the Parent Teacher Association, they wrote to Shirley Williams. Their campaign was dismissed with a postcard from the Labour Secretary of State. Resistance was futile. I went into the fourth year as it merged with the secondary modern and there was an intake of girls into the first year.
I found the transition to a comprehensive extremely destabilizing, the school went from being small and well-ordered with compliant students to being larger and more chaotic. The change in population meant a change in culture but that would need time to establish. While a grammar school stream was retained the changes were too fast and not well planned. Some time in the fourth year I stopped going to school, I worked in the furniture shop or stayed at home. In the fifth form I just stopped going altogether and missed most of my examinations.
Of course I felt cheated by this, by the disturbance, and I felt angry that my stable selective school had been disturbed and my education disrupted. I felt sympathetic to grammar schools through my twenties. Although I began to reflect on the issues of selection and socioeconomic segregation.
When I trained to be a teacher at Sheffield University in 20o1, my first placement was in a large comprehensive, Meadowhead School, in the south of the city. The effect of this made me regress, and I felt the same way as I did as my school became a comprehensive in 1979, it felt large and chaotic and I felt ill-equipped to work and teach there. I felt confused, isolated and anxious. It was no surprise then that I failed my first placement. I did however go on to successfully complete my second placement at Valley Comprehensive in Worksop. I subsequently worked as a mathematics teacher in challenging comprehensive schools in Cleethorpes and Mablethorpe in Lincolnshire.
My view of grammar schools and selective education has changed. From being supportive, to ambivalent, to now, where I am strongly opposed to selective education. Selection creates segregation, increases inequality and does not encourage social mobility. There is an abundance of evidence to support this (see for example Sutton Trust).
I have heard it said that the argument should be that all schools should be as good as grammars: they should have an academic curriculum, behaviour should be of a high standard and they should observe some of the traditions. What they overlook is that teaching in many comprehensive schools is so different, it requires different kinds of skills from teachers. They need to have extensive understanding of the sociocultural context and an understanding of the psychosocial aspects of pupils’ learning. Teachers need to employ more advanced and ambitious pedagogy to meet the needs of pupils in a comprehensive setting.
Future education policy, therefore, should be focussed on teachers as professionals, highly trained, with excellent pay and conditions, as champions of education and democracy in their community and as experts in their subject areas as well as in the practical and theoretical aspects of teaching and learning.
Perhaps grammar school dropouts like me have the experience and perspective to contribute to this.