Grammar schools and the price of privilege
In my final year of primary school, I passed my 11-plus. To be more accurate, I scraped through after my mother made me do some practice tests and showed me how to tick the boxes correctly. And so, while my friends headed off in large sociable groups, I found myself alone, travelling on four buses a day to an institution that, after my cosy primary, was like landing on a different planet.
It wasn’t just the sudden absence of boys, it was the entire place: Victorian desks with inkwells, a school hall that resembled a stately home, and a gowned headmistress on a dais. She reminded us on a weekly basis that we were the top 10 per cent of the country; the elite saved from the comprehensive system who would go on to be prime ministers.
Even at 11, I remember thinking this was a pretty obnoxious thing to say. It was also inaccurate – from where I stood, the privileged ones were those who got an extra hour in bed before walking to school with their mates instead of traipsing across town.
And yet there I was, destined for greatness. Only it didn’t happen. From sailing high at my primary school, I was now bottom of the heap: tested, found wanting and duly despatched to the lowest sets where, if truth be told, a lot of the teaching was pretty lousy. Many of our teachers were Oxbridge-educated, long-serving and as set in their ways as concrete. A lot of them had spent their entire career at the school and their delivery was as inspiring as a ginless tonic.
At parents’ evening, my father asked what the procedure was when a pupil didn’t understand something: the teacher admitted there wasn’t one
Maths (never my strong point) might as well have been taught in double Dutch. At parents’ evening, my father asked what the procedure was when a pupil didn’t understand something: the teacher admitted there wasn’t one.
Looking back, it seems such a missed opportunity. Staff commanded classes of students who were not only able but also faced the right way and listened, and yet a large proportion of their teaching was devoted to dictating grammar rules and writing “C – you did not understand this” in exercise books. Maybe they felt that was enough: naturally, the school still got results.
A good friend attended one of the worst-performing schools in the country. “You could never really hear the teacher because there was so much noise in lessons,” she tells me.
She survived by keeping her head down and making no eye contact. “I got as much as I could out of lessons then went to the library at weekends,” she says. And it worked. In a school where only a tiny minority achieved five GCSEs, she came out with A grades across the board and went on to receive a first-class degree from a top university.
Although her achievement is immense, that kind of effort simply shouldn’t have been needed. I mostly enjoyed school and it was clearly a picnic compared with my friend’s experience, but we would both have benefited from some solidly good teaching: preferably delivered in a solidly good local comprehensive.
Jo Brighouse is a primary school teacher in the Midlands