A family's experience of selective education: the divisions and unrealistic expectations placed upon us

Secret Parent's picture

A father and daughter have written this piece for us about their experience of life in a selective local authority. I don’t want to denigrate my teachers in any way, but on a social and emotional level the stress of the selective school system in my area perpetuated unreasonable expectations on young people to fit into stereotypes associated with the “natural orders” within our community. With some small exceptions, demarcation existed between the haves and have-nots who were allotted to either the grammar school or to the secondary modern school at eleven plus exam. I went to both types of school, transferring to the grammar school at 16 years old to study at A-level. Although I do understand that my teachers at both schools were required to meet government targets, I know selection does not work and cannot understand why segregation is so readily accepted. As children, we were separated from our friends by a faceless system that did not care about our feelings, into schools that our parents believed were either good or bad. Hardly the best start to education. No parent was going to choose the “bad” school.Selective education seemed to mean there had to be more losers than winners. It was in our DNA to compare and contrast students in the “other school.” Students at our secondary modern school were sometimes compared to the grammar school kids with comments like, “you should have known that concept because those at the grammar school know it”. It was generally accepted that students at the grammar school had access to many more varied and wonderful opportunities, such as expensive trips abroad that were not available to students at our secondary modern school. Outings from our school appeared to be heavily subsidised, I guess due to higher numbers of low-income students. But our experiences were not lower quality, far from it, our teachers went the extra mile to ensure they added value and joy. Home-school transport was always an issue; students from our schools were segregated on the double-decker buses. Any damage to the buses was usually attributed to my peers, “to those at that other school”, and not to students from the grammar school. Consultations about bad behaviour echoed this fact; they were conducted at our school but not at the grammar school. Some of the bus drivers disliked us so much that they joked with teachers from the grammar school about us being from that other school. It appeared that they were expecting us to misbehave.The selective mindset of them and us was endemic within our community: “No matter what, some will never be academic”, “they come from troubled families” and “they are hard to reach, chaotic.” A particular zero-hours employer even expressed his preference for grammar school children. With regards to post -16 education, I had high expectations for myself. The problem was my secondary modern school had no sixth form, and with minimal careers advice, learning pathways were difficult to predict with any sense of security. It was highly unlikely my parents could have afforded bus fares to a college so far away that it meant getting up at 5am. Anyway, I achieved very good GCSEs - a big thank you to my teachers - and I now have first-hand experience of what it was like transferring to grammar school that provided the nearest sixth form setting for A-levels. Not everybody was as fortunate as me. Some had to get up at 5am to travel on the early morning bus to college and withdrew from their studies after just a few months. A friend of mine had to study at an adult education college with middle-aged men. I am not ageist or sexist, but for goodness sake they deserved to be among young people their own age, didn’t they? After at short time my friend dropped out of college and doesn’t do much these days. I think the experience of some of my friends has taken its toll. They too wanted to go to a local sixth form, to a grammar school, but they didn’t get the grades. This is why I chose to tell my story, for my friend. It’s not just about education; it’s about protecting the wellbeing of young people. It doesn’t feel fair that I gained the opportunities I dreamt of while my friend got none.The effects of selection at 11 years old continue for years to come in ways that don’t seem to be acknowledged. Following on from my daughter’s experience My daughter’s experience with the 11+ affected me quite badly. Having attended a 1970s secondary modern school within the same county, which provided an awful experience of learning by rote with no means for self-expression, I had vowed to help my daughter to do better. Not only that, her mum had been very ill and I had taken over the role of primary caregiver - so no apologies in advance to my critics for being protective. I hadn’t paid much attention to the structure of education, so at the time of my daughter’s transfer to secondary school I couldn’t understand why her primary school years, in a comprehensive all-ability setting, were soon to be transformed by a quiz at 11 years old into a make-or-break situation labelled as parental choice. Of course most parents opted for the grammar school as a way out of local poverty. The posh kids went to the grammar school, so what was good enough for them was good enough for my daughter. My daughter failed the 11+, but it was the way in which she received the news that left me feeling debased as a parent. It was as though she had not been regarded with the esteem of her peers and that she was now consigned to the secondary modern that was one of the worst performing schools in the country. I felt at that point that my own school experience was contagious. I now realise that I hadn’t caused this misery, that the very same ideology that had divided us in the 70s was still very much prevalent. I know from bitter experience of not being given a voice in these matters that traditionalists on both sides of the political fence are committed to defending grammar schools out of their own narrow experiences, but I won’t have it said that parents like me don’t have any expectations for our children’s learning.

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Michele -Lowe's picture
Tue, 17/11/2015 - 12:05

This is a story we so seldom hear. Thank you both for having the courage to voice it. In all my reading around the subject of grammar schools, watching TV programmes on the subject (I'm thinking of The Grammar School: A Secret History, which was a love letter to the system) I don't think the point about social divisiveness ever really comes across. I'd like to watch a programme entitled: Why We Got Rid of the Grammars. Except, we didn't entirely. The mantra of 'the grammar school which made me' is chanted so often and so loud it drowns out all debate. If you have the stomach for it, yours is a story which deserves a wider airing.

Sarah's picture
Tue, 17/11/2015 - 12:18

I find it so frustrating that people buy in to the idea that secondary modern schools are 'poor performing'. Of course if the local grammar school creams off a quarter of the children who perform well in tests at age 11 then of course that means that the other schools in the area have a much lower proportion of such children. And so nobody can be surprised in the slightest that the two schools will occupy quite different positions in any league table.

Clearly some non selective schools in selective areas perform better than others but it's the league tables of raw results that parents see and which influences their view of which school is the most attractive.

There's never a clamour for more secondary modern schools (which is what you get by default when you introduce more selection into an area). The whole campaign for more grammar schools is so unbalanced, blinkered and evidence-free.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 17/11/2015 - 12:35

I worked in non-selective schools in a selective area throughout my teaching career. Our school was heavily creamed. No surprise then that we were quite a way down local league tables. But no recognition was given to the fact that our intake was skewed to the bottom end. In fact it was very difficult to say this because the children in the school thought it meant we thought they were all 'thick'.

We were subjected to letters in the press about our 'poor' results. This reached a crescendo when a secondary free school was mooted (to provide a more 'academic' curriculum) - hardly a week went by without someone saying how the school where I had worked had 'failed' for decades.

The free school didn't get the go-ahead. But selection would have remained the elephant in the room even if it had. It, like the existing secondary school, would have been regarded as second best. Very few local parents would turn down the chance of sending their child to a nearby grammar if their child passed the 11+. The non-selective schools were (and are) regarded by many as being for those who 'failed'.

tested's picture
Tue, 17/11/2015 - 13:32

Thinking critically about education, secondary modern academy schools form part of the selective school system. Wouldn't it be better to campaign for an end to educational apartheid, for diverting money from being wasted on testing at 11 and on academies into local infrastructure? Many schools simply struggle because they are located in very deprived areas where there is selection.

Leah K Stewart's picture
Tue, 17/11/2015 - 12:40

Yep, thank you for your courage in expressing yourselves. Will you be at the Comprehensive Futures Conference? I went to grammar, my brother not and I know exactly what you mean about the home-school transport, though it wasn't directed at me but at my friends, my brother and his friends - it still hurt like hell and got me questioning many things. But the world seemed to say; this is fine, this is how it's meant to be, you can get ahead, you can get out, we've given you an opportunity, be grateful - in the end I was only questioning myself for being so stupid and confused about the meaning of the word education. As a society we'll grow out of external, enforced selection. We'll get there though more people like you expressing how it feels to be subject to it, regardless of which side of the knife we find ourselves. Thinking about it, once in school it was nearly "fine" because we were all treated the same, but outside the world treated us differently depending on our school - a choice that isn't ours and can't be changed. This makes no sense. It's probably why I had a go at uniforms in this piece quite a while ago; https://tackk.com/first-proposal My style has calmed down and evolved since then, but a teacher wrote to me on this a while ago calling it a good 'micro-analogy' for the macro-issues in our system. You might find something in there of interest.

Linda starkey's picture
Tue, 17/11/2015 - 12:55

Until Comprehensives arrived we all had stories of the selective system being unjust and socially decisive. But just to cheer your readers up a bit I have a short story. I was teaching in Brent in 71 when I got a phone call from the the. head of Haverstock Comprehensive. he informed me my eleven year old daughter was there to interview him. She had officially got into the local Camden Grammer School. He Informed me that she was insisting in being allowed to go to Haverstock on the basis that if children like her were not allowed in the Comprehensive system would not work .I signed the papers and she went , got the appropriate grades at o and a level, went to college , got a first, did an MA while teaching and having three children and has been producing for the Beeb ever since.Her friends reflect the whole of society.

Leah K Stewart's picture
Tue, 17/11/2015 - 13:03

Whey! What a gutsy thing for her to do - very cool. Something like that would have never crossed my mind as being 'allowed' as a student. Now I don't care what's allowed or not. Great story, thank you Linda.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 17/11/2015 - 13:02

Anyone nostalgic for grammars should read Mary Beard's review of 'So the New Could Be Born: The passing of a country grammar school'. She writes:

'...underneath the simple story of the book there is an important message. Market Drayton Grammar was not unusual in its mediocrity. Fifty or sixty years ago many such schools were equally bad or worse. We usually assume that the losers in the selective system were those who failed the 11-plus examination and were consigned to the secondary modern schools...But many of the pupils at the grammar schools were losers too. It was only a very few exceptional children – the Alan Bennetts of this world – who were the beneficiaries of the social and academic mobility that selection is often assumed to have offered. Most of those in the B or C streams of schools such as Market Drayton Grammar left formal education almost as unqualified and disgruntled as those from secondary moderns.'

That was then, of course. But it is to this era that those who support the grammar school/social mobility argument refer. They completely ignore not only the 75% who went to secondary moderns but the large number who left grammars with few qualifications.

The only possible justification for selection fifty odd years ago was that exams were aimed at the top 25%. It was, therefore, necessary to choose at age 11 which pupils would take exams at 16. I don't support this justification - it became increasingly obvious when secondary moderns started offering O levels that many 11+ 'failures' were capable of taking these exams. As soon as exams became universally available there was no need to divide children into academic and non-academic at 11.

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