Warning! The BBC, for reasons best known to itself, is, from tomorrow night, re-showing a controversial 2012 two part documentar
y on The Grammar School: A Secret History.
Nothing very secret about this particular piece of film making, I'm afraid. This is a one-sided love letter ( but then love letters are
one sided) to selective education, complete with romantic piano music and emotive personal interviews with, among others, Sir David Attenborough and Edwina Currie.
As the TES reported
at the time, a group of leading academics and educationalists complained to the BBC in 2012 that the programme used "emotive and value-laden language’ and was "also largely uncritical, factually careless and reliant upon unrepresentative personal testimony."
The BBC not only rejected the lengthy and well argued complaint but have now chosen to re-show the offending documentary. Interesting timing - as this repeat will surely delight the pro grammar ( possibly BBC bashing?) Tory right. The programme might also play into behind- the- scenes discussions about whether to give the go-ahead to a new ‘satellite’ grammar school in Sevenoaks
in Kent - one of 15 local authorities which still use the 11 plus to decide who goes to what school and so fail the vast majority of working class children before they reach puberty, exactly as our national system did in the post 1944 period.
Certainly, this awful documentary gives no real explanation of the significant popular and political support that existed for comprehensive education in the 60s and 70s and the substantive research that underpinned the movement for reform. This ( not so terribly) subtle bias applies to most current affairs programming ( and not just in the BBC but across the broadcasting world.)
For instance, we never get to learn or explore more complex truths, such as the fact that many in the modern Tory Party have embraced the comprehensive argument. Unlike the pro selection diehards, they recognise that academic selection favours those from more affluent homes, blights the chances of poorer children and exaggerates the attainment gap between better off and poorer children, often for life. As Christopher Cook argued in the FT
in 2013, it's a myth that grammar schools promote the interests of working class children. Cook is now at BBC's Newsnight - so perhaps it's about time for a different take on grammars from the flagship BBC programme?
Of course, contradictions abound in the Tory position, which is why its all so complex and, frankly, so interesting. Only this morning Nicky Morgan, in her speech to the Sutton Trust, on the impact of the pupil premium, claimed to be leading the charge against ‘educational inequality’ and ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations’. But private schools apart, nothing reinforces educational inequality and low expectations (for those who fail to get into them) more than grammar schools. So how do Morgan, Gove and co really get round that blatant contradiction?
Time, then, for an intelligent and discriminating TV study of both the history of comprehensive reform and its many achievements and challenges in the modern context - with lots of follow up items on various flagship programmes. Comprehensive Future
, of which I am currently Chair, will this autumn be hosting a major conference on the reality of the 11 plus across England, in 2015, and how selection continues to have an effect on the admissions policies of so many other schools and why we need to build on broad cross party support for non selective education.
I can also suggest all sorts of wonderful, and possibly unusual, interviewees on this subject, beginning with Sir Peter Housden, Permanent Secretary of the Scottish Government, whose slim but fascinating historical study of the educational story of one small town in Shropshire has landed on my desk. Housden tells the story of how just one comprehensive school was created ( so replacing a grammar) in the town Market Drayton in 1965, a move which, in Houseden's view ‘ triggered the most extraordinary leap in attainment…’
( my emphasis..)
Just remember that key phrase - should you watch the BBC documentary tomorrow....