Across the country teachers are trapped in pedagogic samsara. They groan as politicians once more attempt to reinvent the wheel. The more mature members of the staffroom despair over their morning cup of tea as another ‘revolutionary’ idea for education dominates newspaper headlines, remembering strikingly similar reform forty years ago. Grey hairs multiply with the realisation that, before they reach the blissful state of nirvana (or retirement), they must endure yet another educational overhaul. Linear A levels and changing syllabuses under the dear Michael Gove; and now, with the rise of Justine Greening to the esteemed cabinet position of Education Secretary, the reintroduction of grammar schools.
The sceptics in the staffroom question the longevity of such reforms. Will the revival of grammar schools survive the next election? Will Justine Greening survive the next election? Will they, the teachers, survive in education until the next election? Disagreement is rife. The staffroom is divided, and erupts with shouts: shouts of elation, shouts of despair. “This is child cruelty!” you hear cried, as the mother-like teacher fears for the welfare of the next generation of children bruised and battered by the failure to pass the infamous 11+ exam.
“But think of the improved results!” bellows the teacher, himself the product of an academic hothouse. Even politicians do not seem to be able to agree on educational structures and systems. The parents sit gawping, in a quagmire of confusion. What is best for their beloved child?
And yet, it seems necessary to try to wade through the swathes of rhetoric surrounding educational reform. What is the best structure of secondary education for the young people of Great Britain? Trudging through the speeches and facts, opinions and proposals leads to a gloomy and pessimistic realisation. Educational systems are not perfect, and cannot be perfect.
This is the honest truth and the gospel of actor and comedian Bill Cosby who noted that he “did not know the key to success” but that the “key to failure is trying to please everybody.” Nevertheless pragmatism is essential. We must try to find the most beneficial system of secondary education to implement in this country.
Equal opportunity and social mobility are the primary tenets of debate surrounding the structure of secondary education in the UK. Jeremy Corbyn confidently asserts that the social divide within Britain will be worsened following the revival of the grammar school, whilst Theresa May persuasively contends that her system of grammar schools will enable “levelling up, not levelling down.”
The latter is more persuasive. Grammar schools select by ability, state comprehensives select by house price. We cannot escape from the fact that middle-class professional parents wanting the best for their children pay extortionate premiums to live within a stone’s throw of the most academic and prestigious state secondary schools.
Yes, these same parents wanting the best for their children will invest in tutoring for their child who is made to swot for the 11+. However, the system of the 11+ still enables children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to have a chance to enter the most academically successful secondary schools in the country. The grammar school is more egalitarian, it is more meritocratic. Is this not what ‘modern’ Britain aspires to be?
And it is on this subject of equality that Theresa May is most compelling. She argues for the equality of opportunity not outcome. Or in other words: all children should have the opportunity to enter the most academic secondary schools in this country. She is not saying that all children will attend grammar schools. The rigour of a grammar school may, in fact, not be the right path for many young students.
Indeed, for many children the more practical emphasis provided by schools akin to the secondary moderns introduced by Winston Churchill’s government will enable them to flourish. This country needs those with practical skills and those with academic minds, but instead of enabling children to become the best version of themselves the current system of education attempts to create an army of hybrids.
There are many examples of successful individuals who did not attend grammar schools: Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop, was educated at Maude Allen Secondary Modern School for Girls; and Delia Smith, author of countless cookbooks and presenter of cookery programmes, was educated at Bexley Heath Secondary Modern, London.
A shift in mentality is needed. Non-grammar schools should not be seen as failing institutions, nor should they be deemed inferior. Rather, they are a constituent part of a specialised system of education which will help this country to thrive. Grammar schools are not perfect and grammar schools never will be perfect. Therefore, twenty years from now it is probable that grammar schools will be abolished. Fifty years from now grammar schools will be reintroduced.
The constant cycle of education reform continues; death, re-birth and suffering perpetuates. We are yet to find something that works well enough to stick.