We don't need grammar school to do well

25th May 2007 at 01:00
I recently spent some time in Kent, south-east England, where pupils sit the 11-plus exam, although they euphemistically call it the Kent test. It was like being in a time warp - this was just like Wales in the 1950s and 60s.

It was a time when the parents of 10-year-old children had one thing on their mind: "Will they pass?"

In Kent, tutors are employed to increase a child's chances. Discussions are held on the "best" primary school. Pupils change schools depending on which teacher might take a class in Year 6.

Of course in England, unlike Wales, parents have league tables to help them. A local grammar school in Kent regularly has a 90 per cent pass rate at five A* to C grades at GCSE. Parents want their child to go there. The "budding genius" in their offspring needs the stimulation that only this school can offer. Not to get in would be calamitous, the end of the world.

This was the situation in Wales before the comprehensive system. Parents would wear it as a badge of pride if their child passed the 11-plus without tutoring, unlike their middle-class counterparts. My local school had few passes, whereas a nearby school had many. Even then, parents would send their little Einsteins to the school with the higher passes.

Would we want the 11-plus back in Wales? Clearly there are people who would - many of them grandparents. They would be the ones who benefited from a grammar school education themselves.

However, how many went to university from the grammar school? Would the successful Kent test pupils do better than if they attended a Welsh modern-day comprehensive school? The brightest would do just as well, I believe.

But there is a long history of underachievement and disruption in many Welsh comprehensives, making some want to see the return of the grammar school. To many they seemed a way out of the coal mines. Failure to pass the 11-plus meant that your child would work underground.

Would the work ethic be better in a Welsh grammar school? The problem is we would still need a discriminator, like the 11-plus, and many parents of would-be geniuses would still be thwarted.

In Kent, even at the age of five or six, parents are jockeying for position. They are convinced their child would benefit from a grammar school education but, in reality, their child is only average.

Parents should be made aware that, in the end, the percentage of students obtaining a top-class honours degree is very small. Maybe, after all, we would not want this unseemly scrabble - bringing the advantage clearly back to Wales.

Jim Goodall is a retired science teacher from Torfaen

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