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Different hoops for different jumpers

TWO weeks ago, in common with thousands of other parents at this time of year, I sat, brimming with pride, and watched my capped and gowned daughter step on to the platform to receive her degree. For her, it was an overflowing fulfilment of a dream cherished since childhood: first-class honours in archaeology at the University of York.

Ten years ago, I had done my best to comfort her on the news that, like the majority of Buckinghamshire children, she had failed the 12-plus tests and would follow her brother to the local secondary modern. Her marks were well below the borderline, we were told. Absolutely no point in appealing. She was not academic, she was being sent to the right school. We believed them.

Six months on, however, her teachers were telling a different story. Much as they loved having such a bright and responsive child in the classroom, she needed more than they could give. We should apply for transfer to a grammar school. She sat the entrance exam and was admitted. In spite of the haunting feeling that she had somehow less right to be there than the rest, she blossomed, emerging with three grade As and a place at York.

Of course, my daughter's history is not at all typical, although I could cite several others not dissimilar. The system makes a few major mistakes. No system is perfect. Indeed, in this case it proved self-righting. There may even be benefits.

My daughter is glad that, having experienced how the other half lives, she was saved from the smugness of some of her contemporaries. Almost certainly, the fear of failure spurred her on to greater effort.

My son, now also a graduate and settled in the career of his choice, is less positive. We were advised that he would be better off in the top sets of a secondary modern than struggling at the bottom of a grammar. It wasn't true.

Other educationally aware parents, better off and perhaps more worldly wise, sent their children to fee-paying schools or to comprehensives over the county boundary, leaving those mythical top sets a vacuum. Four unstimulated years later, our son moved on to a grammar-school sixth form. "It's different, Mum," he said. "They respect you there." I could have wept.

We all know that "unselected" children set out with a sense of failure. Forget official selection-speak. "Pass" and "fail" are the terms the children use, and league-table values reinforce their truth. What is said less often is that children on the other side of the great divide are not necessarily better off in the self-esteem stakes.

Our third child has always cleared academic hurdles without apparent problems, and continues to do so. Her preferences, however, are towards music and design. For her, we avoided the top-of-the-league school, preferring smaller numbers and a broader outlook.

Nevertheless, she tells me, being thrown from the top of a primary school class into the grammar school hothouse has undermined her confidence. Over and over, I hear of clever children intimidated and demoralised by the massed ranks of A-grades achieved by the "high-flyers" and brandished in statistical flourishes by those who care too much about results.

Grammar schools were set up to educate for the professions, in the old-fashioned sense to provide a narrow range of skills by which the elite could progress through a linear career. In the future, we are told - and the future is already upon us - our children will be required to build a portfolio life, selling their multiple skills flexibly and acquiring new ones as they go along.

Neither the security of a career structure nor the psychological support of a workplace identity will be available to them. The asset our children need now, more than even a first-class degree, is the confidence to be who they are and believe in what they can do.

Technology colleges and performing-arts schools may give some recognition that ability comes in many forms, but they still set up hoops for children to jump though.

In Italy, where my nephews and nieces were educated, 14-year-olds have a choice of specialist schools - scientific, classical, language-orientated, technical. Theoretically, they provide diversity but, in practice, the children with the highest middle-school grades still complete to enter the classics school, while the dregs end up at technical.

I know it is Utopian to dream of a world where the dustman is given as much respect for his contribution to society as the brain surgeon or the media star. I know, too, that the dustman will continue to dream of his son becoming a brain surgeon, whether or not the child has the capability or the inclination. Perhaps, when the grammar school ballot comes round, the children are the ones who should be given the vote?

Katherine Murray is a freelance translator and writer.

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