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Threat? What threat?

Hilary Moriarty reflects on the imminent revival of the grammar school system

Posted by Hannah Oakman | November 02, 2016 | School life

Ah, grammar schools. Now there’s a rave from the grave. Except not really, because to some extent the jolly band of 163 grammar schools left in England have haunted my most recent years. I was a Head in Kent, a county which boasted a third of the whole country’s grammar schools. Leading a mixed ability school for five to 18-year-olds, I knew the pain of losing my brightest pupils at seven to go to more intensively academic prep schools ready for the 11+;  when they passed the 11+ and therefore left before they could enjoy my senior school; at 13 when those who had been not quite ready at 11 had matured somewhat, and benefited hugely from small classes and intensive tuition ready for grammar school at 13+, the entry point for the most local grammar school (and a state boarding school to boot), so it took boarders for the price of the accommodation – grammar school tuition being free. Bargain.  

Was that all? No – I lost them also at 16, when our small classes and excellent teaching meant that students exceeded even their own hopes at GCSE, and promptly disappeared to a grammar school, some for a more eclectic range of A-levels than my small school could offer, and some because fearing that university entrance was easier from a state school.

Not that I am bitter, of course. But my own personal battles with grammar schools mean that I know – I mean really know – in my bones and in my heart and in my head, the threat grammar schools pose to independent schools. Whatever our new Prime Minister recently said about independent schools doing more to earn their charitable status stripes and remissions, whatever threat may lie in wait for those which do not leap to compliance with all the collaboration the government could want, all this is as nothing when weighed against the threat of a major increase in the number of grammar schools in the country.

Surely, for years, parents have sought out independent schools for their children precisely because no grammar school was available. Parents believe that an independent school will offer the same kind of tuition, the same kind of classroom, the same kind of learning climate and the same results as would have been available in a good grammar school. Most parents, while making allowances for what they know to be their children’s strengths and weaknesses – ‘He’s great at history, hates maths. . .’ or ‘She loves science, not so good with languages’ –  firmly believe that their child will do well if he or she is not distracted by dissention in the class, rowdyism, back-chat? Children do as well as the children beside them in a quietly studious classroom, paying attention to a good teacher with great expectations. That sounds like a grammar school. And if one is not available, then the next best thing – expensive but worth it – is an independent school.

It therefore follows that if there is one thumping threat to independent schools, which have flourished in recent years regardless of their high and irrevocably rising fees, it is the return of the grammar school.

Parents believe that an independent school will offer the same kind of tuition, the same kind of classroom, the same kind of learning climate and the same results as would have been available in a good grammar school

Oddly enough, grammar schools have punctuated my own life. 

I attended a small grammar school in North Wales, reaching it from a tiny village school and a state of absolutely happy ignorance about the whole deal – ‘Exam?  What exam? Oh, I go to this school and write an essay and do some sums? OK!’ No extra tuition, no cramming, no pressure. I remember very little other than my own anxiety about what frock I would wear for the day. 

Had we done test papers in advance? Not that I recall. Was there any pressure from parents or the Head – who taught what we would now call years five and six together, all day and every day? Not that I remember. 

I do remember a dreadful scene in which the Head violently shook one of my classmates from the left to the right of the room and bellowed at him, ‘Are you thick, boy?’ (I am not harking back to a Cider with Rosie-type of good old days) so I suppose the Head may have felt some nervousness about our results. As well he might, for of our cohort of 13, only three passed the 11+, and two of those left school at 15.

One who failed, and failed again at 13, left school so cross about how the system had failed him that he got himself private tuition from the vicar, married the vicar’s daughter, got A-levels, then a degree, then a PhD and became a Minister himself. If you were in my year at Denbigh Grammar School, please let me know if you have a PhD. I don’t believe any of us, from our position of grammar school privilege, went that far. So much for selection. Master’s degrees, yes. But not quite the PhD. I sometimes think we were not cross enough. Or did not feel we had anything to prove. We did that the day we passed the 11+.

I never understood the wanton destruction of schools which (mostly) did very well by their students simply because those who did not get in did less well. Why not make the other schools better, rather than taking away the ones which worked? How was that ever logical? Even more mysterious, how come when most grammar schools went, some did not? I have in my time ranted about their random survival – why here and not there? There and not here? Sixty-three in Northern Ireland, I understand. None at all – not one – in Wales. My nephews in Northern Ireland did well in their grammar school. My four children, raised in Wales, did well in their independent schools. My sister and I are tax-paying citizens of the same country. How is that fair?

And a final irony: in a long career, I actually taught in a grammar school for five years. I had to drive 72 miles a day to do it, instead of continuing at a comprehensive school five miles from home, but it was worth it. In truth, I fled from that comprehensive in which I had taken maternity leave and returned to find, featuring on my timetable every day, a class described as year 11, set 12. Rank order on (presumed) academic ability. They were 15 boys and two girls, mostly doing carpentry and horticulture, but obliged to continue with English and Maths. Whether they liked it or not.

By lunchtime I had fixed an interview, and the next day took up a post in a grammar school, made possible because the county was reorganising – getting rid of grammars. But the one I joined escaped and I worked in it for five happy, exhausting years.  

On reflection, no wonder I am ambivalent about grammar schools.

Hilary Moriarty is an independent advisor for schools, a former Head and former National Director of the Boarding Schools Association


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