‘In the past, when poor kids succeeded people thought it was “because of grammar school”; now it is “despite the local comp”. Why?’

6th September 2016 at 17:39
The comprehensive education system is a tarnished brand among much of the chattering classes, despite its huge successes, writes TES’s head of content

Sometimes you need a stark reminder of the degree to which the education sector doesn’t control the story when it comes to itself.

The government plans, leaked last month, to reintroduce grammar schools across the country was just such a reminder.

The micro-thesis that follows came to me in the middle of the night last week (I have a small baby). It is an empirical, unscientific statement but I would argue that it holds true anecdotally in many, and possibly the majority of, cases:

In the 1950s and 1960s, if you were a working-class kid who gained a place at Oxbridge you were perceived to have done so because of the splendid education you received at grammar school. These days, if you are a kid in similar circumstances you are perceived to have triumphed through your own hard work – despite the comprehensive you probably attended. 

The narrative around the dining table or pub bar that too often goes unchallenged goes a bit like this: “She did very well, didn’t she? Especially since she went to the local comp.”

Similarly, it’s worth reminding yourself that it was only a few years ago that the official spokesman of a Labour prime minister (remember them?) issued a statement about “bog-standard comprehensives”. It is that easy to casually slag off the work of schools and teachers.

When do you ever hear about bog-standard grammar schools (of which, in fact, there is growing evidence, especially when it comes to poor kids)? Or, for that matter, a bog-standard NHS hospital?

'Most are happy with their local school'

This is because most people think the comprehensive education system is, at best, average: bog-standard, if you will. Ironically, this is despite the fact that research shows that the vast majority are happy with their local school and the education it provides for their children.

Likewise, I am often surprised how shocked many non-teachers are when I have an opportunity to tell them about the astonishing progress made in London’s schools in the past decade or two.

One person who appears to get both these points is the outgoing Ofsted chief inspector. Speaking to The Times on Saturday, Sir Michael Wilshaw, who ran two successful east London comprehensives before his current role, attacked the idea of more grammar schools. And while he did deploy data as part of his argument, he pointedly told a story of six of his former pupils who had gone on to successful careers, whom, he believed, would not have climbed to such heights had they grown up in an 11-plus area.

Without knowing it, Sir Michael had reversed my thesis with a powerful, personal anecdote.

Only once the negative perception about comprehensives is reversed – and this is a brand that needs serious decontamination among large swathes of the general public – will the education system begin to take ownership of its own story, and to challenge those who want to impose more selection upon it.

Ed Dorrell is head of content at the TES. He tweets as @ed_dorrell

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