Introduction – two quick stories to start this piece.

I was watching the Rio Olympics when I first wrote this, struck by the success of some of the South African representatives – the athletes, the rugby team – the majority of whom were black.  I worked in South Africa immediately post-apartheid.  At the time, liberal paternalists would have said then that talented young black sports players were spotted and helped to break through in the old system.  And, of course, the odd one or two did. However, 20+ years on and there is a torrent of talent coming through.  That potential talent was always there, of course, but without equality of opportunity (and it still isn’t perfect, of course) only the selected and favoured minority made it through.

That previous minority reminds me of the few working class kids who used to get into grammar schools in the UK (and still do where grammars persist), or the even smaller number granted assisted places to independent and direct grant schools.  They represented a ‘privileged’ minority rather than any belief system about the potential amongst the many that all could succeed.

Which leads to the second story, from those same years working in Cape Town.  On one occasion a colleague and I were driving to a primary school in Khayelitsha, the largest settlement or township in the Western Cape (below).  It is a complete paradox – an ocean of poverty and limited opportunity, and at the same time it can be one of the most vibrant and inspiring of places. Anyway, we got lost.  Three times we stopped to ask the way from children who were playing on the dirt roads – and who should almost certainly have been in school.  Three times we were directed in English by delighted children aged maybe 8, 9 or 10 years old.  As we moved on, my colleague, Philippa, said to me: “You realise, don’t you, that they were all directing us in their third language?”

We were in one of the poorest places in the world and the children are able to speak three languages fluently.  The first epiphany is this.  Can every child be a successful learner?  Of course they can.  The second insight relates to HOW they learn three languages – in their community; with and from their peers; for real purposes; in order to do things that matter.

Grammar schools and social mobility

My parents both had unfulfilled educational histories.

My father left school at the age of 14.  He attended a grammar school in York, but the tedium of a 7 mile cycle ride each way couldn’t compete with the attraction of work on the farm.  So that was that.  My mother attended Leeds Girls High School, but her mother was a widow and couldn’t afford university fees, so a job as a secretary followed school.

Married just before the war, by the time my sister and I were young children my father had a corner shop on a back-to-back estate in Kirkstall, Leeds.  He wanted to work for himself and provide a better life for his family.  My mother wanted her children to have the opportunities that she missed out on.  Standard stuff, really, and my sister predictably breezed the 11+ and went on to Leeds Girls High School and became a teacher.  I was much less academically inclined and so, faced with the prospect of one child in a grammar and the other a secondary modern, I was sent for private tuition in the evenings.  Lots and lots of it – that I, of course, resented because I wanted to be playing touch rugby or football on the recreation ground with my mates.

Anyway, I passed.  Probably grudging about not transferring to secondary school with my mates. I definitely hated the school. Later became the first in my family ever to graduate. We were one of only two families on the estate whose children attended grammars. But that’s not the story. The story is the 1960s UK equivalent of the Khayelitsha experience.

Once I had donned my blazer and cap and travelled the two bus journeys each way to the grammar school (they didn’t build grammars near back-to-back estates) my mates from primary school dissolved away.  Why not?  I went to a posh school – and my parents didn’t really want me contaminated by low aspirations.

But I knew something.  I was no brighter, smarter, more intelligent, or more talented than my former mates who went off to the secondary modern and who probably still think now that they ‘weren’t very clever’.  The schooling system said I was brighter, but it wasn’t true.  I knew that.  And that same knowledge, that sense of the waste of human potential, has informed the rest of my working life, really.

There are those who would say that this story exemplifies social mobility through the grammar school system.  But it doesn’t, and I was witness to that.  It’s the total opposite of that.  It shows that one random family was able to be offered a pathway to opportunity, but that (and this is the thing) the mass of others, the other 95+% of youngsters with just as much human and intellectual and practical potential were left behind, just like the hundreds of South African athletes in the old SA mentioned earlier.

Post graduation I became a teacher in a comprehensive school (a former grammar school that ‘banded’ the children!) and, ultimately, a comprehensive school headteacher.  The joy of the work has always been about transforming life chances for young people – trying to demonstrate tangibly that every student can achieve the metaphorical equivalent of speaking three languages.  Teachers are in the saving lives business.

And a reflection from all this? We have changed from a selective to a comprehensive school system and, in doing so, literally millions of children have had their life chances and self-esteem and social mobility and image of themselves as learners transformed.  But we still haven’t shaken off the legacy of those old grammar school days. There is still a widespread belief about ‘able’ and ‘less able’, and that some schools are better equipped to transform life chances and social mobility than others.

And that mindset leads to this.  School remains the only entity in our modern world that has institutionalised such a one-dimensional notion of ‘ability’.  We talk about ‘able’ and ‘less able’ children in a way that would be utterly unacceptable in the adult world.  And there are luddites who still want to promote a false educational apartheid, to partition schools by this spurious notion of ‘ability’ – a fallacy which is, in effect, little more than a socio-economic determinant.  Schools just should not be about labelling and limiting potential.

It takes me back to the South African athletes now liberated to express a talent that was previously suppressed by partitioned opportunity, and to the children in Khayelitsha who all spoke three languages because they learned them together in the real world for real purposes and not behind a desk in a classroom.  And it leaves me with two conclusions:

  1. Any suggestions of reverting to a system of educational apartheid is morally unacceptable in a liberal democracy.  It is nothing less than a denial of human potential.
  2. Our comprehensive school system still needs a massive overhaul (a school redesign imperative) in order to create learning contexts within which all youngsters are able to express their talents and leave fit for the 21st century.






8 thoughts on “Grammar schools and the myth of social mobility

  1. Thank you for this article. So true, those of us who have been around long enough to experience the evolution of the education system still fight for all our young people to have the education that enables them to learn. We are living in an unforgivable & divided society today. There are pockets of hope in the work of people like you and others who continue to develop Enquiry Based Learning, REAL applied learning through the development of a creative learning environment. My heart sinks at the thought of the loss for our children if this government continues to erode their life chances.

  2. David, you know that feeling you get when you’ve landed in a place that feels like home? Well, that’s how I felt when reading this post.

  3. Excellent piece David – and especially in the light of recent government policy again about grammar schools – and ultimately how the discussion gets framed in terms of ‘ability’ and ‘selection’ when I’m dubious about such claims, but more how that narrative still prevents the working towards a truly accessible to all comp system which recognises everybody as being capable, and where such a system is regarded just as beneficial and rewarding for a students education (academic/vocational achievement as well as socio-cultural good) as any selective grammar or private education.

    (former student of yours during your time as head, having stumbled upon your site/writing – good to see you still exude passion which I fondly remember had an effect on my schooling)

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