Does it really matter where I went to school?

I’m not sure I really follow the argument against Grammar Schools. Don’t get me wrong, I do understand that ‘pass/fail’ entry is hardly inspiring, but nor is what is going on in quite a lot of schools either, when it comes to ability.

In primary, it is common to be sitting on tables with others of similar ability. Kids know if they’re top, middle or bottom but there is a mild advantage that you may be on the bottom table in one subject, but the top in another. Having said that, do children think that through that much?

As I’ve said before, I did multiple schools. Changing schools to me, was a bit like changing shoes size. It just happened on a regular basis up until somewhere around puberty. When I moved to Norfolk from Derbyshire, my 7-year-old self simply assumed that I was so far ahead because there was a difference in education systems. I think that must have stemmed from being bounced about previously, but any joining of the dots must have happened at some kind of subconscious level. Being ahead meant I read a lot. Hmm, maybe not. Reading a lot may have been down to the transient nature of friendship. I could read very, very well so what else do you do if you haven’t yet made friends to socialise with? I spent an awful lot of time alone. Luckily I quite liked my own company. I have to admit too, to being a bit odd.

Anyway, I did my 7 or 8 months in my final infant school before moving on to middle (having previously been in both infant and primary schools). I spent a lot of time in the corridor making clay models, mainly dinosaurs. I realise now that this must have been while everyone else was doing English. Another new pupil joined me, a few months later, so I gained a bit of company out there.

It is only with hindsight do I realise that a) I was ahead academically and b) it was innate. All through middle school I sat on the top tables in the top classes. We had moved from being with the same teacher all the time, to being with a few different ones, a bit like a cross between primary and secondary. Not for one moment did I look down on my peers, it never entered my head. I either got stuck in to my own work, or I helped others with theirs if I’d finished. Oh, and sometimes a few of us were sent to do other things as we’d finished. At one point I and a few others painted the new mobile that had arrived. It was summer & we were listening to this exciting new band on the radio. They were called ABBA! However, other than additional company, it was akin to sitting in the corridor playing with clay all over again.

In the late spring of ’76 my parents bought a house, about 6 miles away. They decided that I should move schools before the summer, to make new friends. It was a case of – here we go again, yet another new school. I can’t blame my parents, city school stopped at 12 but county schools started at 11. I hadn’t sat the 11+ and no-one asked me to. It was automatic that I went there. I went to a Grammar School. I didn’t make friends.

As I was saying on Twitter the other day – it was not my fault that I was ‘bright’, it was something I simply was. There was no sitting round the table with my folks tutoring me with my homework, they were too busy with the business they had bought. Apart from occasionally asking mum for some spellings, they had no input whatsoever in my schooling, other than putting me in one (or many). My ability is innate. There, I’ve said it.

So what difference does it make, in truth? In primary you are segregated into ability groups with the same class. In high school you’re in different classrooms. How far removed from that is being in different buildings? Even within Grammar School classes, I was still streamed!

Those following Vygotskian theories may argue that mixed classes ‘scaffold’ learning, where the more able become the conduit by which the less able learn. But how do the more able learn? Where is their conduit? Personally, I think that if you’re following Vygotskian theories, you also need a level of vertical setting where age groups mix – but you’ll still get stuck when you get to the top!

I realise that I’m running the risk of promoting some kind of ‘special’ education for the bright. Maybe on some level I am. We all have different skill levels and we all have different motivation levels. I was thoroughly unmotivated, which is why, in part, I gained a mixed bag of qualifications. Another dimension to this was joining the school late. I had missed bits and my teachers never cottoned on as to why I was underperforming. Bits of learning were missing. The foundations were insecure. I was bored.

Grammar Schools do not improve social mobility, the research says. I can’t answer that one. If I’d have joined my school in the September, would I have made different choices? I’m not sure, I am academically quite lazy. How would that have translated if I’d have attended my brother’s comprehensive (which had a bad reputation and was threatened with closure)? Would I have thrived in the top sets or got bored through lack of motivation? Being in the top set of a ‘third rate’ school is still top sets, surely?

My social mobility was determined by my parent’s acts. They left behind a mediocre life in Derby to try their hand at running a small business. They risked absolutely everything and missed a huge chunk of my childhood too. And my brothers. The shop worked. My folks worked, they worked bloody hard. My brother and I reaped the rewards. Our social mobility was built on understanding that to get on in life, you work, you take risks and you sacrifice things. None of that came from my schooling.

In the same vein as Grammar vs Comprehensive, I don’t follow the change to GCSEs either. O levels and CSEs were abolished. One size was to fit all, everyone will do the universal GCSE. Only it wasn’t universal, it has different papers for different abilities. It is nothing more than the previous qualifications under one name. Kids know full well the difference between a foundation paper and a higher. How on earth does calling it by one name make kids feel better? Even better now – under a C (or grade 5) and you fail. You’re a failure. Fail the 11+ and you’re a failure. You’re branded with a bit fat FAIL. Different building, different paper. What’s the difference?

Opening an ‘annex’ to a Grammar School that’s 10 miles away is tantamount to opening a new school. Why pretend it’s not? But what are we going to do about education? We can wrap it up under a variety of banners – Academy, State, Free, Studio, Grammar, Outstanding, Good, Requires Improvement etc etc – but they will never be ‘even’. Education will never be ‘even’, so why pretend otherwise?

I went to a Grammar, my brother to a failing Comprehensive. We both signed on to The Open University as mature students and we both gained degrees in our early 40s. He did his as he hit a glass ceiling. I did mine because. Because I could? Because I may have had to home-educate my son? Because I felt cheated in Grammar? Because I was bright and wanted to prove it? Because, because, because….

In my mind, there’s a logical answer to the issue of schooling – personalise it. If kids learn at a quicker rate, accelerate them. If they need more time, allow them. Remove the barriers of year groups and age. Call schools, schools. Allow them to sit their exams when they are ready. Vary the leaving age. After all, would anyone care if I passed a GCSE at 15, 20, 40? Does anyone care that I was 45 when I got my 1st degree? I very much doubt it. My employer is only interested in whether I have the qualification necessary to do my job. When I got it is totally irrelevant. Where I got it? I doubt they even looked.

So, no. I don’t really understand the argument.


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