Last week I watched a debate about grammar schools and the question I really wanted to ask was: why? This is 2018. There wasn't a navy duffle coat or a pair of olive green cords in sight. We were sitting in a pleasant, airy marquee, not some parquet-floored school hall smelling of last week’s lunch and too many assemblies. Yet the same dilapidated arguments were being trotted out by speakers, even while the shiny mobiles in their pockets were no doubt thrumming with indignation over the news that Nick Gibb was keen for grammar schools to take on more school improvement responsibilities.
I’m not even going to attempt to rerun any of the arguments I heard because, besides being utterly tedious, they’re utterly irrelevant in 2018.
And this is why.
Only a week earlier I’d been speaking at an event held at Rugby School, attended by almost 500 teachers from state, independent and grammar schools. The event was remarkable due to one key detail: the complete absence of overtly politicised thinking.
Anyone used to educational conferences will know just how remarkable that really is. The entire event was a model of cross-sector professionalism and collaboration, a gathering not of amateur politicians, but of professional teachers wholly focused on doing the job as effectively as they can, with the help and support of others, equally determined to define themselves by their profession, not their politics.
The contrast between the grammar school debate and the Rugby event made me reflect on why grammar schools continue to generate so much heat but little light.
Most of the population thinks about grammar schools in the only way that really matters, from the point of view of a child who might attend one. The only useful way to think about grammar schools in 2018 is to understand them as a school type, just as an academy, a comprehensive school, a sixth-form college or a pupil-referral unit is a school type. Equating them with draconian, local authority-wide selection aged 11 is nothing more than a debating tactic.
As soon as you do that, you will appreciate why, against such determined, sustained opposition over decades, they have survived. It is the type of educational experience, as Nick Gibb correctly recognises, their entire “ethos” that parents find so attractive. And don’t let your knees jerk you into the usual “white middle class” response, because even the most cursory ethnic scrutiny of any grammar school will detonate that myth.
Dubious research on grammar schools
People understand that a grammar school education means a focus on a fairly narrow but significant range of subjects that will include languages as well as sciences, that will balance maths and English with arts and sport. They know it will be a knowledge-rich experience for them. They value this focus as much as the ethos because, as I recently pointed out, schools have become literally the dumping ground for anything and everything politicians, celebrities and anyone with a really fat wallet wants them to do, in order to make them feel better about themselves.
We complain about and criticise education in the UK while many of the world’s wealthiest people look at the private sector here and pack their children’s bags. Not-so-wealthy and even poor parents know that, and what they see in a grammar school is a type of school that is as close to the world-class private sector as they can get.
Compare this with the way grammar school antagonists think of them. Their thinking stems from being steeped in research and policy-making, in the statistics and idealism of sociological practice. What they look at, they think, is the big picture. The data produced by research enables them to formulate valuable insights, which, in turn, should inform and drive policy. The parental, or the child’s view, is of no interest whatsoever. It is in a different reality.
At the Rugby event, I was speaking to delegates about educational research and how much of a challenge it presents to any ordinary teacher wishing to use it to support and improve what they do in their classrooms.
Just to give you a flavour of what’s really involved if you start to read educational research with a view to making effective use of it: it will take at least a full working day, and often more, to read one research paper. And you can never read a single paper. For you to fully understand what a researcher is arguing, you will inevitably need to read, in my experience, an absolute minimum of two or three other papers. You will need to understand fully the background of the research in question, who commissioned it and why. That often requires some serious detective work because the links and connections are rarely self-evident. You will have to learn how to spot when a researcher cites earlier research by their client or employer as evidence when what they are really doing is flattering their paymaster. Trust me: that is common.
These are just a few of the pitfalls. Hidden agendas and grey areas are the norm, and research on grammar schools is tainted beyond repair with these problems. Not something the faithful want to admit, because it is nothing more than faith they are exhibiting in the end.
When research throws so little unambiguously helpful light on a subject, as it does on grammar schools, then I react like many professional teachers have to the entire school performance and progress agendas, which is to say, 'Give me raw experience over raw data any day.'
Joe Nutt is an educational consultant and author. To read more of his columns, view his back catalogue