How do we ensure that all children get the best start in life? One way must include ending the segregation of 'ability' and offering true equality of opportunity to all.
It may seem strange that an undergraduate in Modern Languages at QUB has such strong views on the use of grammar schools in society. Despite not being a teacher, I come from an informed opinion as I have seen the full harmful effects of grammar schools in society, both in England and Northern Ireland. I believe it is time to transition to a fully comprehensive school system whilst ensuring every child is offered an outstanding standard of education.
Grammar schools were introduced in the UK as a means of encouraging children from moderate income families to have a private school style of education, without having to pay private school fees. In the regions of the UK with grammar schools still in place (such as Kent, the Wirral and many areas across Northern Ireland), typically 25% of pupils are identified as being ‘suitable’ for a grammar school education by taking the Eleven Plus or a transfer test. Despite it seeming a good idea that 25% of children in grammar school areas receive this described 'more academic style of education', we must also focus on the 75% of those who don’t make it. The 75% of pupils who are told that they are not up to the academic standards of grammar school education are labelled as 'failures' due to falling at the first hurdle of their academic journey. As Year Six classrooms are segregated into those who pass and those who don’t, it creates an environment of intellectual inferiority for those who 'aren’t clever enough' to study at a grammar school.
The truth however isn’t that the children who have failed these exams are by any means inferior, instead they were often unlucky. As we know, all children develop differently with some pupils reaching their academic potential sooner than others. For example, I struggled in primary school and was told by my Year Five teacher that I probably shouldn’t take the Eleven Plus as I wouldn’t be able to handle the pressures of a grammar school style of education. Of course, I took his word as the gospel and didn’t sit the exam, instead selecting a rare outstanding Catholic comprehensive school in my local area. Despite not being Catholic myself, my brother already attended this school, so I was guaranteed a place. However, some of my other classmates who failed the Eleven Plus or didn’t sit it, weren’t quite as lucky. Most of my friends went to average comprehensive schools, and therefore did not receive as high a level of education as I was fortunate to have. My point is that despite my school being comprehensive by accepting children from any background, they still demanded high levels of academic work and ensured I worked my absolute hardest. Due to my school making it the norm of students to try their hardest, I succeeded in having my lowest grade at GCSE a grade A, whilst eventually landing a place at Queen’s University Belfast to study languages. Despite not being considered 'suitable' for a grammar school education at the age of ten by a primary school teacher, I realised my academic potential a little later. My secondary school teachers ensured a culture where there wasn’t a ceiling to my capabilities. My postcode or the fact that my parents didn’t attend a university didn’t matter as I was told firmly that I could achieve what I wanted in life, if I worked hard.
This realisation that children at comprehensive schools also had a right to dream big made me want to work more with children from lower income backgrounds. During my first year at QUB I took part in the Homework Clubs volunteering scheme where students could go to work at local schools and youth centres. I took part in the program and at the inaugural training session I was told that the work we were doing was brilliant as “we could help children pass transfer tests so they could get into grammar schools and have better lives.” If I went back time, I probably would have interrupted the session and asked the person giving the talk about what happens to those who don’t pass these exams, are they condemned to worse lives? Will they even see their 18th Birthday?? I was a shy first year student, so I rebelled with my feet by choosing to volunteer for a local youth club in an economically disadvantaged area. When Eleven Plus and transfer test tutors charge up to £30 an hour for help to pass the exam, I knew the children I worked at the youth club with probably wouldn’t be going to the local grammar school because of the families they were born into.
When reading this, it would be reasonable to assume that I sound like a communist who wears t-shirts saying, “Eat the Rich”. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I actually voted for the Conservatives at the last General Election and I believe that moderately controlled capitalism is the best way to give opportunity to all. It is due to my belief in equality of opportunity that I think grammar schools must go. Why should we waste human potential by offering some children better head starts than others? I understand that it would be naïve to say that making education selection illegal would solve all of the problems in the education system - it wouldn’t. It’s right that we shouldn’t just focus on what others have, but on what we lack. Instead, all comprehensive schools should have to offer every student a highly academic style of education, so that no child could be disadvantaged. Take the work of Michaela Free School in Brent, London. This school does not use selection, yet all students, from every background, are given a highly academic education. This school has broken the mould of the traditional grammar school vs comprehensive school system by ensuring incredibly high standards of academic achievement. The school has now achieved some of the top GCSE grades in the UK and is placed in the top ten of the UK for Progress 8 scores. Michaela and others similar (including my previous secondary school of St John Plessington Catholic College, Wirral) do not discriminate about who receives a top-class education by accepting children of all walks of life whilst still giving an incredibly high standard of academic education.
What does this all mean for the future of education in the UK? It clearly won’t be easy to persuade many parents and teachers who support selective education. I imagine it will also take a long time. Persuasion of our cause must start by touting the successes of the correct style of comprehensive education. This should be accompanied by respectfully educating parents about the unfairness of grammar schools. Equality and opportunity for all has to start early. We must dream big and make it our mission that a child’s background is no longer a barrier for them to achieve their unlimited potential.
Jon Nield is a third-year student at Queen’s University Belfast. Originally from England, he attended St John Plessington Catholic College. He is interested in languages, politics and working with young people.