I am a grammar school dropout

8 min read

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.


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.

Steve King Edward VI Grammar School 1976In 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.

The now empty site of King Edward VI Grammar School, East Retford, Nottinghamshire

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.

King Edwards 1X
Form 1X 1976, I’m back left!

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.






  1. Interesting read and observation regarding the transition from a Grammar School… I loved the first two years and hated the last 3.. I couldn’t wait to leave… I was in 1z… but can’t remember you, although I remember the shop!

  2. Steve, This is a very fair review of the culture at Retford Grammar during our time there. Your comments on the teachers from the two different generations is in line with my experience. I also remember teachers from both of those generations who were completely in-effective as well. The old ones who never got our respect probably because they still believed that sparing the rod, spoiled the child – so we spent more time learning how to provoke them than learning the lesson – and the new generation who didn’t have the vision or tools to communicate reasons to learn to love learning nor, reasonably, the inclination to try to beat it into us. Since I did stay on into the sixth form, I must say that in the end the system worked very well for me and many others, possibly due to the mix of teachers and greater stability as the merger with Sir Frederick Milner’s had time to become established. Indeed, a few from the secondary modern side got a chance that would never have come to them if the merger hadn’t happened. I know that most of us got better A levels than the mock exams had predicted and a few who had not expected to attend college got in on clearing. Perhaps it was who we were but my sister’s experience at the High School, 2 years later, was quite the opposite so I suspect that the staff and their teaching philosophy at King Edward’s had some part. My other sister’s experience at Ordsall Hall was even worse – although she, like you did go into education. I am now the father of an 18 year old who has been educated in the very comprehensive US state system. Our experience of this is that diverse, well funded, mixed ability schools can have a culture of respect towards learning, the staff and the student’s peers. The level of student behaviour is saintly compared to what we got up to. But I live in a rich community with a very high level of parental involvement. And there are certainly major limitations of the system here. OK – so I have rambled on without actually saying much. I should conclude… and my conclusion is that the Grammar School system probably helped and failed as many as the current system does and it depends on the staff and their leaders in any given school rather than the system itself. However the issues to me are that the Grammar School system is in the past, reviving something that was no better than the current one is an example of naive wishful thinking. Furthermore, the Grammar School system was fundamentally unfair and fairness should be the primary decider here. You made the point that winning the 11+ might not have been based only on the scores. I don’t know about that but I do know that some Primary Schools in the more prosperous parts of N. Notts coached the pupils for the test – they were highly represented at KEGS. It was an innovation in my year at Misterton to receive coaching and there was a record success rate in my year. My bolshie, middle class, grammar-educated parents from working class families pushed for it, for all. So that tells me that smart children from passive, immigrant or un-educated parents will lose out in a Grammar School system – and that is wrong.
    Oh… and finally… many, like your parents got a good enough education from a secondary modern to do very well in life. There were some excellent secondary modern schools in those days – some better than certain Grammar Schools. But that is probably another story about whether society is less open than it was 35 or more years ago.

  3. A very interesting perspective on “the old days” at the Grammar School. I also remember your fathers shop.

    I recall the teachers you mention well, plus have fairly strong memory of others and events at the school too.

    In my days there, it went from a traditional old school to something far less formal and I recall Phil Blinstone having a debate with us in the sixth form about what was going wrong and universely the response was “lack of discipline and respect”.

    You are correct regards ‘entry’. I know who actually passed the eleven plus and then there was a small cohort added presumably by county council pressure to give those who didnt qualify “a chance”. Clearly that didnt work however, many not having the academic outlook or encouragement at home.

    Long gone days.

    I could debate the education system for days, having lectured at University subsequently.

  4. I went to this school and I to is a drop out. Had a great time there from 1992-1997. Worst educator there waz a Barry Upton, he used to drive Ruth Walker home as much as he could, creepy man. Best waz Chris Hilton, Stephen Walker, Ms Bethol. The hall would leak every time it rained and the playing field waz at Oaklands playing fields about 1 mile walk from the school. The school waz falling down around us, winter waz biter in that place. I got shagged in the English block by my first girlfriend, smoked my first fag and joint there aaahhhhh GREAT memories.

    LOVE EDDYS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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