Read the question: Grammar schools

One of the more futile phrases we mutter as teachers in our attempt to squeeze more blood  of exam marks out of the stone of pupil indifference is ‘Read the Question’. In the unforgiving heat of the exam glare it is a rare student indeed who is able to consistently keep calm enough to recognise what question is really being asked and provide a thoughtful, well-crafted answer rather than smearing their answer paper with a random collection of half-remembered chemical names and a completely irrelevant aside about enzymes. It is entirely understandable and a feature of exam stress that this should be so; the ability to think clearly under stress is part of the process. The brain will take as many short cuts as possible in an effort to come up with something approaching an answer, and if that means it ignores the question and decides to write about something it knows about instead, there is little surprise. Students seek to move themselves away from the unknown terrain and on firmer ground of what they do know at the earliest opportunity. So what if the actual question wasn’t answered?

You don’t get the marks is the simple answer. Unfortunately, I hear a lot of the same approach being taken (deliberately or otherwise) in the current grammar school debate. It isn’t helped by the language of the question used, such as ‘do grammar schools work’, or ‘do grammar schools improve social mobility’. The answer to that is quite clear – yes in both cases.

For a given value of ‘work’.

The vagueness of these questions relies on the fact that the term work is never defined satisfactorily, leading people to answering the same question from differing perspectives and then wondering why they can’t see the other person’s point of view. So many of the pro-grammar arguments are coming from personal positive experiences (Chris Cook made the point on his Newsnight piece that many people feel a sense of personal investment in their schools regardless of whether it was a grammar school or not). If you, or your children, have had a positive experience of grammars than why wouldn’t you think it works? The converse holds of course for having a negative experience, though it doesn’t seem to generate as much of a hold on people’s minds because of the strength of the message that people can succeed in grammar schools. The narrative fits that people who did not do well probably have themselves to blame or where deficient in some way. It’s the same self-help emotional appeal of the person who lost 10 stone or ran 5 marathons or gave up smoking, the individualistic sense of doing things for yourself. This is not to suggest that it is not true either, though I don’t believe that every person with a negative view of grammar schools is responsible for their own ‘failure’. But this narrative is not only persuasive, it contains the truth that for those people promoting the positives grammar schools were both succesful and tools for social mobility. It may appear to the ears of some that telling them grammar schools don’t work is directly contradictory to their own experiences and so does no make sense.

If we peer closer at this slippery question of grammar schools working though we have to be more explicit in what we mean by work. More specifically, what is the price we are willing to pay for some students to have success if there is a cost to other students. We could presumably improve social mobility for a handful of students by shoving a few million quid in their pockets, but it’s clearly not a good or fair way to spend the money. There is also ethical stance, that evidence on grammar schools indicates that there is a cost to the selective system to students, which is of course the majority, not attending grammar schools. If we expand our question to ‘do grammar schools work for all pupils?’ then the answer is quite clearly ‘no’. So what price for the handful who will benefit?

It might be a crude and unfair way to stereotype political leanings, but using an ideological split between left-wing thinking in terms of individuals benefitting by societal improvements and right-wing thinking in terms of the society benefitting by individual’s improvements the sides of the argument resolve without necessarily coming any closer. Despite what each faction thinks of the other, both viewpoints are grounded in what people to be fair. I think this concept is incredibly important since both sides of the argument are presenting from a point of perceived fairness, or rather unfairness. That very British trait is driving both sides – either thinking it is unfair that there shouldn’t be choice or opportunity, or that it is unfair to potentially deprive students at cost to others. Personally i don’t think the price is worth paying for grammars, either financially or morally, a view based on the evidence as I understand it. I’m also well aware that arguments from evidence often fail to convince.

The demise of grammar schools didn’t begin until parents began to see unfairness in the system and put pressure on local MPs. It’s a lesson that has been forgotten over a couple of educational generations, although possibly not by certain MPs who fear the pressure of the local electorate when they find they didn’t get their invite to the club and demand change. It’s not a profitable line to attack parents for wanting the best for their child and convincing someone about long-term benefits from a more equal approach is not easy. Even when faced with evidence (The Spirit Level is an obvious recent example) people tend towards personal experience. It might need a negative one to shift the argument away from grammars.


Author: Mr Whellan's science

Nomadic science teacher

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