Want to know why grammar schools are wrong? Ask my mum. (You can’t.)

Full disclosure: I went to a boys’ grammar school (in a partially selective borough) and it is a brilliant school. Like most grammars it kind of can’t help but be so: all of its pupils enter with good Level 5s at KS2 so it’s pushing at 180 open doors every year. However, it also does a huge amount to turbo-boost these somewhat self-fulfilling prophecies through an unashamedly elite (not elitist) ethos, high expectations (it was just a given that the vast majority of us would go on to good universities) and a focus on transmitting to its pupils a breadth of academic knowledge. It’s everything a school should be (apart from the boys only bit – I like co-ed) and I am incredibly lucky to have gone there, apart from the fact that it left me with a crushing inability to chat up women (no longer a problem, of course).

My motivation for choosing to take the 11+ (and it was me who made the decision) is something I struggle to recall with clarity. While I was still in primary school we would occasionally drive past the grammar in our family car on the way to my Sunday football games and each time my parents would point it out as ‘the poshest school on the Wirral’. At some point I must have decided I’d like to go to ‘the posh school’ and so my parents entered me for the test. Only one other boy from my Catholic primary did so with me but he didn’t pass, so I went alone, whilst several of the girls in my primary class went to the adjacent girls’ grammar, or to the Catholic grammar at the other end of the borough.

Of course the uncomfortable truth about having brilliant grammar schools is you also have to have not-so-brilliant secondary moderns. In a partially selective borough like the Wirral, the grammar/secondary modern dichotomy is not as severe as in fully selective areas like Kent or Buckinghamshire. Many of the non-grammars in my neck of the woods still have broadly comprehensive intakes with a critical mass of high prior attainers (L5+ at KS2) as pupils have to opt in to taking the 11+ (although 30% of Wirral pupils go to a grammar school).

However, go back 50 years to the mid 1960s and the Wirral was still a fully selective borough where all pupils took the test, including my mum, who did so in 1967. Mum passed but, ironically given my later choice, point blank refused to go to the ‘posh school’, a grammar called Holte Hill Convent because – and this is the truth – she did not want to wear a hat to school (her sister had passed the 11+ and went to the school the year before; mum decided her sister looked a bit silly in her hat and was having none of it).

So mum went instead to St Winifred’s secondary modern, from where she left one Friday four and a half years later at the age of 15 with no qualifications, starting her first job in a sweet shop on her local estate on the subsequent Monday. At the time this wasn’t too much of a problem. Despite the looming threat of the oil crisis, three day weeks and, later, the IMF bailout it was still a time of relatively full employment. It was perfectly reasonable to expect to do what mum did and finish school on the Friday before starting work on the Monday.

Mum worked variously and fairly happily in a number of shops before working later as a barmaid and then evenutally as a cleaner. She met and married my dad, a divorcee 6 years her senior, in the early 80s whilst working in a pub in town and soon along came me and my two younger siblings. Then at the age of 50 in early 2007, whilst I was living and teaching in London, she began to suffer from recurring migraines. Stubborn, with the pain threshold of an Iron Man competitor and the work ethic of a Stakhanovite, she put off going to the doctors and when she did she was fobbed off somewhat with strong painkillers. In May 2007 she finally gave up smoking after trying to do so intermittently for several years and having smoked moderately since the age of about 12. In July she returned to the doctors still suffering with constant headaches. Next month she was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, which had spread to her brain – the source of the migraines. She was terminally ill.

When she broke this news to me and my siblings on an excruciating Friday evening in early September she characteristically accompanied it with a quip: “I won’t be around for ever,” she said, “but we all knew that anyway. And it’s not like I’ll be dead by Christmas.” She died on December 21st that year, less than four months later. She fucking loved Christmas, too.

If it seems like I’ve wandered off the point, I apologise. But I haven’t wandered off the point at all. I relay my mum’s story because had she consented to wearing a hat to school – FFS, mum – how different might her story have been?

She was bright, my mum. Way brighter than me. Wise. Sharp. Brain always working, always calculating. That those calculations were more often than not about working out how to juggle money, how to rob Peter to pay Paul while still making sure we had a week in a caravan in Rhyl every summer because she earned a pittance as a cleaner and Dad was pensioned off with a medical condition way before his time, pisses me off more than anybody could ever appreciate. Don’t get me wrong: I couldn’t be more grateful for my childhood and the sacrifices my parents made for us. We were well clothed and fed, ecstatically happy, knew no better. You can’t miss what you’ve never had. I couldn’t have asked for a better start in life and I wouldn’t have wanted one. And no doubt mum was happy – self-fulfilled and comfortable with us, her family.

But what gnaws away at me is the waste of her potential. She could have been anything she wanted to be but she didn’t want to wear a hat to school. So she went to the Secondary Modern, where they assumed she was a bit thick and babysat her for four and a half years and let her leave with nothing to go work in a sweet shop. Didn’t push her. Didn’t have high expectations of her. Didn’t fill her head with knowledge as her natural intelligence required and didn’t assume – nay expect – that she would go to university. Here’s the world outside your world. Come and join in. You belong. See what you can achieve. You don’t have to wear a hat.

And that is why grammar schools and the 11+ are wrong. My mum didn’t fail but because she was stubborn she was labelled anyway. Condemned to a second rate education and ushered out into a restricted world. Limited, hemmed in. She may well have followed a similar path had she taken up her place at the grammar school: her older sister who did so did not go to university; she stayed local and married young. But mum would at least have been making a more informed choice. She would have been able to conceive of other possibilities and may have been able to put her mind to matters less mundane than how to pay the next gas bill. She may have seen more of the world. She may have had dreams that she could have fulfilled. And she may not have died in a hospice at the age of 51.

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  1. This really resonated with me Lee and I share a lot of your frustrations around this grammar school debate. My Mum (still here, thankfully) didn’t sit the 11+ because her Dad told her that if she went to the posh school she’d have to leave at 14 anyway and start putting money in the family pot so she didn’t see the point. My Dad on the other hand, also living on a council estate, but crucially born into situational and not generational poverty, went to the Grammar. He’s not smarter but has all the confidence of someone who fulfilled his potential. My Mum has spent a lifetime filled with social anxiety and frustration. I really believe that had they gone to comprehensive schools, he would still have achieved all he did, but she wouldn’t have been written off. It always bothers me that the only stories we hear in this debate are from the ones who got in. Thanks for sharing your alternative. Your Mum sounds like she was a wonderful woman.

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  2. Catherine Reilly October 17, 2015 — 7:25 am

    Hi Lee,
    Like your mum, my mum passed the 11+ but didn’t go to grammar school (parents couldn’t afford the uniform) and like yours she’s also passed away after a hard life and from cancer. She really wished she could have gone, and I’m sure her life would have been different. All that said, it isn’t like the 1960s now; today mum would have attended with free school meals and uniform grants.
    Like you, I lived in a partially selective borough, I however didn’t sit the 11+ as my sister already attended the local secondary. Did this limit me? Heck no! It drove me on to escape the life I might have without education. I excelled at all my exams, and went to a Russell group university, I don’t suffer from social anxiety or thinking “what if I went to grammar school”, many students from my school have achieved great things. Maybe we’d have achieved more via gramma route, but we sure are a resilient lot.
    Maybe in the 1980s when I was at school all parents were less aware of school performance (pre league tables) But it is about choice…. And secondary schools no longer limit the exams students sit, or the aspirations they have. (So secondary schools are OK in my book!)
    However, I’m strongly pro grammar and also financially selective schools. The reason? I believe they are infact selective by behaviour, rather than by academic success. I certainly wouldn’t feel content sending a shy child to a local non selective as I see a fundamental lack of self control, and consideration of many students, these attributes are not displayed in the selective school students (whether financially or academically selective). Despite attending a school containing all walks of (badly behaved) life, I’d so much rather send a child to a place of learning that is quiet, reflective and studious, as the simple fact is we all learn better in that environment.
    Long life behaviourally selective entry!

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  3. This reminds me of my mum’s story – even though it doesn’t really include grammar school! My mum was evacuated at age 10 to Saltburn along with her three sisters for the whole of the evacuation period. She left school – although I believe she didn’t attend much! – and went to secretarial college at age 14 while still evacuated. It seems no-one much made sure she attended school and no-one much had any aspirations for her. Yet she was articulate, intelligent and fantastically literate. There was not much she didn’t know about how to turn out a good, grammatically correct sentence with no spelling errors and how to structure a text for purpose. She spent her life as secretary ensuring that men paid many more times as much as her sent out literate, articulate letters and reports. She made sure they looked good. She never thought for one second that she could do their job – after all she had no qualifications and was just a secretary.

    So there was never any chance of a grammar – or any other kind of school – for her. No, what she had was what we might call a technical or vocational education – at age 14. It limited her horizons for the whole of her life. And that, in a nutshell, is why I have always been opposed to “vocational” type courses – such as BTECs – in secondary schools. I know it puts me out of step but I believe that secondary education should be broad, challenging and aspirational for ALL students. So no grammars – just excellent schools for all our kids.

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  4. Brilliant post Lee. Heartfelt and struck a deep chord. My parents also went through the crazy polarising method – my mum being selected; Dad going off to work. What I’ve known all my life is that my Dad’s powerful intellect would grace any school – a test of 11 deciding anyone’s fate is perverse. I too took the 11+ but I failed it. My parents had no clue some kids actually got tutored for this stuff. Still, I wouldn’t have changed being with my friends and having some superb teachers who believed in me in my ‘bog standard’ comp. for anything.

    Alex

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