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Grammars: beware of selective memory

02 June 2017

Grammar schools? We’ve been there before, says Dennis Richards


Niche market: rugby marked Dennis Richards’s time at grammar school

Niche market: rugby marked Dennis Richards’s time at grammar school

BOTH the Labour Party and the Conservatives came to Yorkshire to launch their manifestos. Heaven knows why, but at least education-wise it is an interesting place. It always has been.

The past pupils of Eastmoor County Primary School, who passed through the hallowed portals of Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Wakefield, were few in number: the 11-plus exam saw to that. In my case, there were two of us; the other 36 went elsewhere, and our paths never crossed again. Compre­hen­sives were non-existent. You passed or you failed. Several decades on, it seems hardly credible that we are revisiting the 11-plus debate.

This time, it will be different, we are told. Social deprivation, and the damage it does to young people’s life choices, are the driving forces. The present system — selection by estate agent, where the middle classes move into the catchment area of a high-flying comprehensive — is given as a rationale for change.

The aim is a noble one. But, surely, one of the oldest maxims in the educational lexicon is that two wrongs do not make a right; and nothing will change the unfairness of separating the sheep and the goats with a test at the age of 11.

Again, it is argued that this time it will be different: different children have different abilities and need diff­­erent types of schools to suit their strengths and weaknesses. But we have been here before. The 1944 Act laid the foundations of a tripartite system. It assumed that some children were good with their brains, others were good with their hands. But children are not like products in a supermarket, on which you can stick a label.

They should meet Danny. Danny is regarded as something of a genius in both the maths and physics de­­partments in his comprehensive school. Give him a design brief, and he’ll fly: top of the top set. I teach him for French, and even Danny would agree that it is an unmitigated disaster. We have called a truce. Nul points. His English is not so hot, either. But he does love drama, and he’s good — very good. According to the “new” grammar-school thinking, Danny would need to go to four different schools in a day. In some ways, he already does: it is called a compre­hensive school.

Dennis Richards is a former head teacher. He now works as a senior teaching assistant.

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