From the Editor - Bring back grammars? Don't be daft

15th June 2012 at 01:00

This country has done some really daft things. Of course, it has done some horrific things as well - colonisation, the odd spot of genocide, waging war to get foreigners hooked on opium - but on the whole it's far better at stupidity than terror. Inventing Crufts, for instance, televising snooker, binge-drinking, trainspotting, commissioning the first series of Miranda or letting Sir Paul McCartney believe he can still sing.

To this list of national nonsense should be added the recent drive to bring back grammars (pages 26-30). They have a great brand image: rigorous, academic and traditional. And, like all great brands, they have a mythology to go with it. Many people of a certain age from working-class backgrounds credit grammars with giving them an opportunity in life they would not otherwise have had.

Grammars' reputation for excellence is well deserved. The notion that they help disadvantaged kids is not. Grammars are home to some of the best teachers and teaching in the country. They top the league tables and are the destination of choice for many parents. But praising grammars for being academically good is like congratulating Chelsea for being in the Premier League. They cream off the brightest pupils. They should be good.

Over the years, these beacons of excellence have become magnets for the middle classes, who devote time and money to getting their children accepted. It's a perfectly natural parental stratagem but it has squeezed out the disadvantaged. Less than 2 per cent of grammar school pupils are on free school meals compared with a national average of 15 per cent. The inherent bias is so bad that earlier this year, Buckinghamshire, a selective local authority, admitted that the 11-plus was loaded not only against ethnic minorities but against the poor, too. Grammars entrench social immobility; they do not alleviate it.

And that is the really daft thing about grammars - they don't work. Or more precisely, they work very well for those pupils lucky enough to be in them. But they have a deleterious effect on our socially divided country and on the majority who are left out - the pupils branded as academically second-rate at the age of 11, who are disproportionately from less well-off backgrounds.

It is no coincidence that some of the biggest concentrations of weak schools are in or near highly selective areas - north Kent, Lincolnshire, mid-Bedfordshire. Why? Because selective systems not only pick winners but label the majority losers, too. They limit the ambitions of those not fortunate enough to be chosen as surely as they stretch those who are. This is why the highest-performing educational systems are comprehensive. Finland, everybody's latest educational wet dream, abolished grammars decades ago.

None of this is news. We've known for 50 years that if we want a better education for all - and not just for a few - then selection at 11 has to go. At some point those Tory and Labour politicians who demand that all state schools should be excellent must stop the best appropriating the easiest to teach. However good the teaching, however dedicated the staff, grammars are bad for the nation because they inevitably align good education with social privilege. Allowing them to expand is dumb.

gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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