Who’d have thought that the political decisions of one small island of nearly 63,000 people – a Crown dependency, as it’s still quaintly called – could have such a powerful message for us here in England?
On 26 March, Year 6 children in Guernsey will for the last time receive the results of their 11-plus exam taken in January. From 2019, the island will run a non-selective secondary system; the age-old division between three high schools (Guernsey’s secondary moderns) and the island’s grammar school, established in 1883, will come to an end.
As anyone who has been involved in battles over selection will know, phasing out the 11-plus is no easy business. Looking back, it seems extraordinary that we in England and Wales managed to transform our education system from a wholly selective one to a largely comprehensive one back in the 1960s and 1970s.
Yet, as readers of Tes know only too well, the lure of selection still exercises a strong grip on the political imagination, particularly among those influential figures in our current government who want to expand the existing grammars and even bring back a nationally divided system.
Like our own tortured island story, the Guernsey campaign for abolition of the 11-plus goes back decades, recalls Peter Sherbourne, formerly a teacher and head of two of Guernsey’s high schools, as well as a deputy in the States of Deliberation (the wonderfully elegant name given to the Guernsey Parliament) that passed the historic motion in March 2016 to end selection. “In the late sixties and early seventies, only 30 to 35 per cent of young students accessed post-15 education in the secondary modern schools and the majority left school with no formal qualifications,” he says.
However, the introduction of GCSEs and the national curriculum raised expectations and improved results for those who had failed the 11-plus until half of those studying in the sixth-form centre, based at the island’s grammar, were from the high schools, further illuminating the illogic of the earlier divide.
Sherbourne continues: “Back in the late 1970s, a group of like-minded teachers and heads proposed a move to all ability 11-16 schools with a separate sixth-form college and college of FE. There was an extremely negative response from the vast majority of teachers at the island’s grammar school, who signed letters with their academic qualifications beside their names, and the then director of education, who described the proposals in the Guernsey Press as ‘a recipe for mediocrity’.” (Now there’s a term that never goes out of fashion.) Anti-selection campaigners later tried, and failed, to block the building of a new co-ed grammar school.
Crucial to the battle was the support of many teachers who bravely “put their heads above the parapet”, Sherbourne says.
Many grammar school teachers remained vociferously opposed to change, but in 2016, all the island’s primary heads signed a letter in support of comprehensive reform followed by Guernsey’s four secondary heads, including, crucially, the newly appointed head of the sole grammar.
According to Tim Langlois, from Working for Inclusive Secondary Education (WISE), which campaigned for the change, “Misinformation among the general public about the 11-plus exam was obvious. They still thought it worked and that ‘social mobility’ was a reality. We found plenty of evidence to dispel these myths. Generally, people had very little idea about the history of selection and few questioned it.
“We tried to show it was an outdated system and that private coaching distorted who passed and who failed. Few people think it’s fair if money influences school places.” (Guernsey also has three fee-paying schools, called colleges. The schools heavily subsidise largely better-off pupils to attend.)
Sherbourne also gives credit to the solid body of evidence demonstrating the success of comprehensive education, coming from such august bodies as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, as well as our own sterling all-party organisation Comprehensive Future for winning the battle and keeping up campaigners’ spirits.
The March 2016 debate was passionate, says Sherbourne, with deputies who had failed the 11-plus “coming out” and speaking about the impact it had on them.
One speaker memorably urged pro-grammar colleagues “to not allow your blue remembered hills of yesteryear and your backlit, soft-focus algebra moments to cast a cloud on the progress of learners today”.
The March 2016 decision looked as if it might be threatened by the election of a large number of pro-selection deputies in the general election of April 2016, but in December of that year, the States again voted to scrap selection. A later amendment to delay the transition was also defeated.
Talking to Guernsey campaigners, one senses their continuing delight and slightly nervous disbelief at this historic victory.
Following heated debate, the States has decided to set up two 11-18 schools (some fear these will be too large) with a separate FE college, but the school will be all-ability.
Langlois of WISE provides a clear-eyed assessment of the winning strategy: “Never give up. You know that the system does not work. Convince others by using evidence, by being reasonable, by taking the abuse, by checking facts, by arguing politely, and by not allowing yourselves to be railroaded or sidelined. Eventually, logic and fairness will prevail.”
And with perhaps a touch of tongue in cheek, he adds, “Oh yes, and vote out as many grey-haired old men who reminisce about their school days as possible, and vote in intelligent, articulate women, preferably with school-age children!”
Anti-selection campaigners here in England, please take note.
Melissa Benn is chair of Comprehensive Future. She tweets @Melissa_Benn