Facing academic snobbery;Talkback;Opinion

15th January 1999 at 00:00
Dennis Richards describes last term's star turns and reflects on just one of the advantages of a comprehensive education

It was an extraordinary end of term. Nothing much happened for weeks, then out of the blue I found myself name-dropping along with the best.

It started with a visit to the school from The Rt Hon David Willetts MP, Shadow Secretary for Education and Employment. The visit was a consolation prize delivered to us five years late. During her time as Education Secretary, Gillian Shephard had failed to turn up - twice.

We'd been warned that Mr Willetts was known as "two brains" and that he possessed a formidable intellect. This will no doubt prove particularly useful, since he will inevitably be saddled with the policy of defending the status of the remaining grammar schools. We were told his visit was part of Opposition leader William Hague's "Listening to Britain" initiative.

Perhaps it was unfair that the students who met him had had to face the 11-plus. Poor Mr Willetts fell straight into the trap they had set for him. Being aware that these young people were being educated in an out-of-area comprehensive, Mr Willetts confidently assumed they must all have failed the exam.

Great was his bemusement when the penny finally dropped that several had passed it and had actually chosen to go to a comprehensive. Extraordinary, quoth Mr Willetts.

And then he met Emma Rhodes. Perhaps that was unfair as well. Emma, selected as Britain's GCSE student of the year by the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance after she achieved 10 A* and one A grade in her exams, did not have to take the 11-plus but she has now had to come face to face with academic snobbery - a new experience for her. During the past few weeks I have had to field numerous calls from all parts of the country on her behalf. Few have been congratulatory. Most have come from irate parents of similarly gifted children miffed that their offspring have not achieved a similar accolade.

From our conversations - most of them rather short - I gleaned that many of the parents had paid large sums of money for a supposedly superior academic education for their children.

Emma, fortunately, will survive the snobbery. She works hard, has a Yorkshire resilience about her and, above all, is modest to a fault, recognising that scores of other young people no doubt had an equally good claim to the award.

But in the end neither Emma nor Mr Willetts was the star of the show last term. Mr Willetts did not have time to meet Lynda, 12, who suffers from a form of cerebral palsy - and had a heart transplant four years ago. She, understandably, has significant learning support needs.

But Lynda skips along the same corridors as Emma, goes to the same loos, eats in the same dining rooms and is taught by the same teachers. The well-worn mantra that academically gifted children like Emma will be held back if educated in the same establishment as children like Lynda is demonstrable nonsense. Seeing others struggle on a daily basis against great odds to make faltering progress in learning, fosters in able children a generosity of spirit and a level of understanding that leave no room for arrogance.

Grammar schools may pride themselves on their Latin lessons and make a virtue of the homogeneous nature of their intakes, but they are profoundly weakened by the absence of children with learning difficulties. It is an aspect of the question all too rarely considered. Emma and Lynda - same uniform, same school. Extraordinary, said Mr Willetts, extraordinary. Or is it?

Dennis Richards is head of St Aidan's C of E High School, Harrogate, North Yorkshire

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