To my twelve year old self, the terms “school”, “education”, and the “Church of England” evoked instinctual obedience, abhorrence and then, finally, through a desperate struggle, a veneer of supreme indifference. Following Justine Greening’s declaration on grammar schools, and Theresa May’s Easter epistle on Anglican archaism, I am again experiencing a similar reaction, ranging from slight exasperation to untempered, fully-fledged repulsion.
Oh Jesus, you think. Here she comes, the latest millennial warrior; an avenging Amazon, emblazoned with righteous anger, determined to knock traditionalism back into the body bag of the twentieth century. The return of the grammar school: a 1960s relic, dragged into a twenty-first century environment. Perfect! Adulation for Anglicanism, dragging us further back into the antiquated realms of the nineteenth century. Why not?
So, grammar schools. What do we know? How do we win the right to besmirch their gold-paved corridors with our plebeian soles? Apparently, your eleven-year old sprog has to pass the elusive “11-plus”: a scintillating combo of words, numbers and symbols, which supposedly affirm their “IQ” levels. Be prepared to surrender a good chunk of your salary, working-class parents: your darling Tommy, unless he’s a born genius, will have to be grilled through six months’ worth of tuition, costing on average £35 an hour. Is your wallet smarting yet? I’m not done. Then, you’ve got to factor in the cost of workbooks: an average of £8 each. Be prepared to buy up an unlimited number – they’re pumping out new editions every week (marketing. Yes, it always works).
According to Greening, and those backbenchers she hopes to impress, grammar schools will improve “social mobility”. Welcome to the havens of the secondary school system: clean, quiet, strongholds of learning. The “diamonds in the rough” or rather, the “diamonds of the classroom, twinkling IQ points”, cannot be tainted by rubbing shoulders with their inferior, low-IQ classmates – otherwise known as “the Great Unintelligence”. Never mind sticking them at the back of a classroom – let’s just chuck them out on the rubbish heap. You passed an “exam”, consisting largely of circling numbers and symbols, at the age of eleven. Congrats! Welcome aboard – you’re definitely going to succeed in life. My inner oracle confirms it.
But here’s the thing: you’re not judging kids based on their intelligence levels. You’re judging them on their ability to tick boxes and circle letters in a so-called “IQ test”, in which success usually depends upon a sizeable chunk of tutoring. Here, you’re clearly limiting yourselves to a marginalised portion of society: they’ve already got off to a good start. Average “working class” parents, who may already find it difficult to supply their children with necessary revision materials, are obviously unable to meet these terms. Those who score well in the “11 plus” are more likely to come from a privileged background: wealthier parents are clearly able to supply their tuition needs.
“Social mobility.” What’s that when it’s at home? According to Dictionary.com: “the movement of individuals, families and households from one (lower) social strata to the other”. And grammar schools will achieve this – how? Yes, you may get the odd pupil who isn’t trailing familial wealth and support behind them, but these are four-leafed clovers in a sea of un-plucked, disregarded dock leaves. The rest are discarded, flattened out before they’ve even begun. (You need to pop that bubblewrap, drag these molluscs out of their shells, and throw them in a frying pan full of East Indian, culturally diverse spices. Ding! The oven vomits up freshly-browned class warfare. That’ll soon sort them out. Social mobility: achieved.)
I am in no way discrediting the principle of examinations, at any age. Better to have a few hard whacks at eleven, than to trundle through early puberty, without any true academic axe to grind against. I’m no protective mother-bird, anxious to cushion my little sprog against failure: but as soon as high school is reached, there is no shortage of academic tomahawks, trust me. At my secondary school, the multi-cultural, St Trinian’s-esque prototype, we were stuffed into pidgeon holes as soon as we hit twelve. Streamlined teaching is a facet of secondary education; it is a common practice within our loathed comprehensives – that is, if there are any teachers available to impart this coveted knowledge.
Through the implementation of the grammar school policy, Greening is ostensibly pouring money down a sinkhole. Propping up a few more pearl-encrusted citadels of learning will not rectify a broken education system, smarting beneath a chronic lack of funds. The “academic wasteland” of the local comprehensive will remain, looming in the shadows, chock full of forlorn, lost souls, who will go to their graves with the epitaph: “here lies Fiona, the one who failed her eleven plus”. Why not divert the splurge into our existing comprehensives? Greening is pouring an avalanche onto already crisp, fresh spring-grass, whilst parched scholastic deserts across the United Kingdom cry out for relief.
Picking grammar schools is akin to choosing a crystallised glass of Cabernet Sauvignon over a bottle of good old Pinot Grigio. It comes down to personal preference – a parent’s irrational, self-indulgent desire to retain some semblance of “choice”. Greening’s latest axiom – “ordinary working families” – is contrived in order to garner the support of the lower middle class. It is an example non-specific, generalised terminology with which the majority of the populace will identify, mistakenly believing that the state is addressing their intimate concerns – a classic vote-winner.
Is it ideologically sound? Yes. Is it realism? No.
Otherwise known as “hypnotic language”, this technique has, alas, been used with great success by certain politicians and charismatic leaders (thinking here particularly of that man with the badly-dyed cranial appendage, currently wreaking havoc in the United States). This is the nature of abuse within our misshapen political relationship – falsehoods delivered beneath the guise of love. Perfume sprinkled over garbage.
The idea of the “grammar school” is the manifestation of a desire to propagate a sequestered generation, cushioned within the insular world of “like-minded” individuals. Their success is purely case-study based and therefore, supremely reductionist: it incites instinctual trust, whilst founded upon an entirely anecdotal premise. When leafing through the obituary section of the Telegraph, you will observe the many notable, British-born individuals of the “baby-boomer” generation, many of whom are either: privileged disciples of Eton, or indigent grammar school attendees. Clearly, an entire demographic has been eclipsed: the working classes who were cast off this intermittent social-aspiration ship, now left to drown in obscurity. 5% were allowed to trickle through those hallowed halls, and soar to the heights – leaving 95% stuck on the ground, unmentioned.
Having attended four different schools throughout my childhood, each of varying positions within the hallowed league tables of the Telegraph, I consider myself a wrung-out dishcloth as far as the education system is concerned. I’ve experienced polar opposites: the good, the bad and the beastly. Private, failing, secular, non-secular. One aspect, however, has remained clear: educational attainment is not affected by institutional prestige. Whilst attending what many viewed as the worst institution in my local area, second only to Borstal, I met a variety of individuals, each of varying degrees of intelligence, each possessed with a fierce desire to learn. We were perpetually underfunded, when compared to the numerous non-secular schools in the area. Parents were constantly yanking their kids out of the school throughout Year Seven; the most common response to the frequent “Where have they gone?” apart from the obligatory “Arrested/JDC/deportation” came the oft-repeated adage: “x has gone to the Christian school/the grammar”. Teachers sucked their teeth, remarking to themselves: “She dodged a bullet, that one.”
Nevertheless, we thrived, defying societal expectations. We engaged in scholarly discourse surrounding the prevalence of domestic violence, mitosis, and how to put a condom on a banana (trust me, it’s harder than it looks). We dabbed concealer on our adolescent acne (one of the least-esteemed rites of passage), and engaged in numerous debates whilst stuck in interminable lunch queues. We shed blood, sweat and consecrated tears over Islam v. Christianity (my answer: neither), I befriended individuals who were – oh, shock horror! – different from me; I joined the debating club, the science club, the Young Chamber of Commerce. We were the guinea pigs, injected with every ejaculation sprayed from our famed, reputable teaching profession: each erratic discharge infusing us with heightened academic vigour.
Agonising? Exasperating? Hell, yes. Did I occasionally want to chuck a chair out of the window, and run screaming for the hills? You bet I did. Take the good with the bad; an inexorable firing in the comprehensive kiln can create an individual of iron-clad resilience.