Kent system fails us all

20th July 2001 at 01:00
The mix of grammar and 'high' schools is a disaster for pupils and staff, says a teacher in the county.

Martin Whittaker's recent notes about working in Kent (TES, June 15,) are fair and accurate. But the section "Is the LEA worth moving for?" is perhaps just a little too general to give a realistic picture of teaching in the county.

The key problem, unrecognised by many parents and teachers, is the selective system Mr Whittaker refers to at the end of the section. He says there are 33 grammar schools in Kent. The urban authority within Kent, Medway, also has six grammar schools, five of which are single sex. One, a well-off boys' grammar, held until fairly recently an annual competition for the male member of staff who had made the most misogynistic comment.

This symbolises the nature of Kent's selective system. It is archaic and, far worse, educationally damaging for 70 per cent of Kent's children, who are told in the most unequivocal way at the age of 11 that they are demonstrably inferior to their peers who pass the Kent test. Correspondingly, grammar pupils and their parents, many of whom are fine people, are indoctrinated with the assumption that they are superior.

Parents, naturally, strive to get what they see as the best for their children, and private tuition, cramming, widespread anxiety, pre-examination bribes, tortuous appeals' procedures, dubious private schools for the more affluent and a deep, abiding sense of failure for most people all form part of the system's sad corollary.

For teachers, Kent and Medway offer a choice as stark as that faced by children and their parents. There are two options. If you work in a grammar it is impossible to maintain a sincere belief in equality of opportunity. You will have a relatively civilised life, working with generally able pupils, insulated to a fair extent from the wider realities of teaching, although there is no guarantee of academic excellence.

If you work in a secondary modern (euphemistically called "high" schools), the general lack of able pupils and the behavioural social problems often attached to lower achievement will present severe impediments to your own development.

Educational apartheid in Kent and Medway has bred an invidious culture over decades in which most pupils and their parents simply accept transfer at 11 to schools that inevitably suffer low achievement and poor behaviour. Many people see no difference between "high" schools and comprehensives and use the terms synonymously. Conversely, grammar pupils often become arrogant towards their less fortunate peers.

The great engine of self interest that drives the grammar system is fuelled by the pressure for results. My own children attended a local grammar, in the absence of any better choice, and I was told twice by separate teachers over the years that the school did not put on stage shows as it was "academic". This is a school with a purpose-built drama studio and a specialist drama teacher. Its new headteacher, thankfully, has a different attitude and school productions are starting to appear.

The feudal attitudes apparent in both camps of the selective system do no one any good. Kent's exam results across the board certainly do not vindicate its selective system, if "system" is the right word for the chaotic range of schools identified by Ofsted and referred to by Mr Whittaker. It shows powerfully that variety does not automatically give choice.

Of the many schools in our area, only one fitted the bill for us as it is coeducational and catered adequately for the academic ability of our able children. Competition, not co-operation, is built into the relationships between schools here. A 1999 Institute of Education review into selective education in Medway stated that "it is impossible... to avoid the conclusion that there is a long tail of pupil underachievement in Medway".

If people want to teach in Kent, they must recognise that the county has no truly comprehensive institution. There are some, often church-aided, that try hard to cater for all abilities, but with so many grammar schools, it is impossible to attract an intake that is truly comprehensive. If they work and settle here, their professional experience will almost certainly be limited and their own children's education will lack the social breadth and, often, the intellectual and cultural stimuli that are at the hearts of our best state schools.

The writer, who wishes to remain anonymous, teaches in north Kent

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