If we want more working class Oxford entrants we need a grammar school in every town

31 May 2018


‘I went to the same school as Ridley Scott – you know, the director of Alien and Gladiator’, I sometimes say when asked for an ‘interesting fact’. Except it isn’t a fact – not really. Although we both went to a school with ‘Grangefield’ in the name, and Sir Scott presumably walked the same corridors and sat roughly in the same classrooms as I did, our schools were quite different. Scott attended Grangefield Grammar School, whereas I went to Grangefield School and Technology College – a ‘bog standard’ comprehensive. 


I bet our experiences of Grangefield were quite different as well. I doubt that Sir Scott ever witnessed an elderly supply teacher crying under a desk as students pelted her with scrunched up paper, nor would he have spent two afternoons in one week sat on the field while a bomb squad scoured the school following two hoax calls – students of course – just to be safe. It seems unlikely that 13 year olds would have been selling drugs in young Ridley’s his playground, or that you might’ve found him ducking punches in the classroom. 


The comparison is a little silly of course. The past really is a different country and I’m sure some of that stuff happens today in the few remaining grammar schools. In any case, the fights and the cowering supply teachers weren’t all that harmful – except perhaps to the staff. The real problem was the way in which clever kids breezed through school without being pushed to work hard and see what they could achieve. 


It is easy to understand why the school didn’t devote enough time and attention to the academically gifted students. Schools were measured on the proportion of students achieving five A*- Cs (Grangefield was ranked in the bottom 20 percent of the country by this metric a few years after I left and was placed in ‘special measures’ by Ofsted). The top 10 percent or so could achieve well beyond that by half paying attention and doing a couple of hour’s revision the night before exams – if that. So why spend a disproportionate amount of time on those kids when there are dozens on the C/D boundary? 


And to be fair, most of those talented kids did fine – at least the ones who went on to do A-Levels at the half decent Sixth Form. I don’t think anyone from my year made it to Oxbridge, but most of the gifted kids got into decent unis. But these were students who really should have been challenging for places at Oxford and Cambridge – going on to high-flying careers in politics, journalism or business. A few grew up on the roughest council estates in Stockton and had that kind of potential. I’m sure there are thousands of children from poor areas across the country whose potential is squandered by ‘bog standard comprehensives’ every year – to the immeasurable detriment of our country.


The usual charge against grammar schools is that they’re elitist and unfair to the majority of students condemned to a secondary modern. But in 2014, 49.7 percent of secondary modern students achieved five *A-Cs (including maths and English). In our much lauded comprehensives, the figure was 56.7 – a mere 7 percent better.


There are some who believe equality is more important that education, even if they’d never say it publically. But the truth is the comprehensive system is not egalitarian. There are in fact very good comprehensive schools; they just happen not to be in places like Stockton-on-Tees. And if you want your children to go to them, you have to be able to afford a more expensive house than those found in Stockton-on-Tees. Why is selection by house price a more just criteria than selection by ability? 


But it’s worse than that. Even if your house does fall within the catchment area of a top comprehensive, your child is still unlikely to get a place if you’re working class. A Sutton Trust study found that the country’s top 164 comprehensive schools took only 9.2 percent of children from deprived homes, despite drawing pupils from areas where about 20 percent were income deprived. Whereas the 164 remaining grammar schools, drawing from the same proportion of pupils from poor areas, admitted 13.5 percent of children from poor homes. Top state schools are more socially selective than the remaining grammars schools. 


This is why David Lammy misses the point when he said its ‘ridiculous’ that Oxford – which he accused of being ‘a bastion of entrenched, wealthy, upper per class, white, southern privilege’ – would include grammar schools in their state school figures. Surely he would be even more outraged by the inclusion of the top comprehensive schools – which almost certainly admit a disproportionate number of students to Oxford – in the state school figures, given that these schools take fewer children from disadvantaged backgrounds than the remaining grammars?


The fact that 164 grammar schools account for one quarter of all state school Oxford entrants seems to me a good argument for building a grammar school in every working class town and inner city suburb. 


Yet, had I grown up in Stockton-on-Tees in the 1950s with Ridley Scott, I almost certainly wouldn’t have seen him at the grammar – I was distinctly average at aged 11. But all those who oppose selective education must believe it worth sacrificing the potential of countless talented children from poor backgrounds so that people like myself get to attend bog standard comprehensives like Grangefield, instead of a secondary modern. As one of the ‘saved’ I do not think the sacrifice is worth it. 

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