This week, whilst considering the reignited grammar school debate, I recalled my O Level project about education in my home town, Nuneaton - from 1870s church schools to the 1902 Education Act, standardising the various school boards. The 1944 Act, reforming secondary education and introducing the 'tri-partite system' so much back in discussion now - grammar, secondary modern and technical schools. And finally, in 1965 the Labour government instructing local authorities to begin converting from the tri-partite to comprehensives. A policy decision inherited by, of all people, Margaret Thatcher as Education Secretary in the early 1970s. She opposed comprehensives but it was too late to change most authorities' plans.
The picture above shows King Edward VI College (as it is now called) in Nuneaton. It began as one of many colleges established by Edward VI and survived as a fee paying boys' school right up until the 1944 Act. It had been called King Edward Sixth Grammar School since the 1880s but from 1944, it was selection rather than fees which decided its entrants. Then, in 1974, as part of the process which so outraged Thatcher, King Edward VI Grammar School closed. It re-opened as a co-ed sixth form college. I graced its doors in 1987 as a sixth former but it was still referred to as 'KEGS' by everyone in the town - ie the grammar school. A little piece of history surviving endless change.
I do not agree with grammar schools. I do not think any child should have their life choices affected so definitively at age eleven.
My own children are each very different in outlook. I am sure they will both achieve excellent results in the end but I think it will take the youngest longer to knuckle down. She is is Year 6 now though. SATs year. Or Eleven Plus year. And I do not think she would be a candidate for a grammar place as things stand at the moment, which would mean a very different path for her life, for her self esteem if her brother had reached the grammar, and so on, ad infinitum.
My own comprehensive experience was, it has to be said, greatly enhanced by streaming. But there was opportunity for all and fluidity based on ability. Total division at eleven does not allow for differences of development or personality. A piece I read this morning said that in the previous post-1944 system, grammar places accounted for 15-25% of secondary places, depending on location. If competition was considered to be fierce for places back in the 1950s, can you imagine what it would be like now? The tutors, the pressure, the backbiting over who got in, the social exclusion issues. To say nothing of the social media backlash amongst children and their parents! It is bad enough now with catchment issues in so many areas.
And what of the thousands of children without parental backing? Or with backing but no resources? My maternal grandfather was the first in his family to go to university. An immense achievement in the 1930s and very unusual for a son of a railwayman. It is a credit to the current system that his story would not be so unusual today.
Our schools are not perfect. What institution is? But we have made great strides, as the history of Nuneaton and KEGS shows. From education for fee-paying males only to education for all. Just thinking about the millions which will be wasted on these plans through public enquiries, civil service overtime and council battles makes me angry, let alone the actual proposals. And as the incredibly brief one-town rundown above shows, the changes, if passed, will take years to implement. We do not need grammar schools. We need resources for our existing schools. Unfortunately we are supposed to be planning how to compete in a 'post-Brexit world', aren't we?