Richard Evans is the Chairman of the CIPHE’s Education and Training Group. In this issue of ETM he reminisces on his own experience of the days of grammar schools and the 11+.
Stepping back in time
Following the announcement of the reintroduction of grammar schools, I thought a personal recollection of my experience of the 11+ and the selection system that resulted in the 1940/50/60s will highlight the real concerns I have on this divisive proposal.
One of the many notable hypotheses made by Karl Popper was that we learn from our mistakes. He brilliantly expressed it as ‘a negative result is more positive than a positive result!’ This view has now become more widely accepted by enlightened people but one glaring exception is the current government!
One consequence of the reintroduction of grammar schools is the reintroduction of selection at 11, which has previously been proved to be a complete disaster. The last thing the education system needs at present is further selection.
I failed the 11+ twice in the early 1950s and was one of the millions labelled failures at 11. Even though I have very strong feelings about the 11+ I have positive memories of my experience at Secondary Modern School with great teachers, most of whom had been emergency trained after the 1939-45 war. Their lack of pressure when preparing us for the so-called academic examinations e.g. GCE ‘O’ Level and an enlightened curriculum with plenty of practical classes provided in a relaxed environment was the key. Colleges during the time of the 11+ were among the few places to offer a second chance opportunity to young people who had failed the 11+ examination (and the later exam at 13) and who did not want to go directly into employment at the school leaving age of 15.
One of my major reasons for making a career in FE was to be part of an education sector that had given me
my chance to advance after leaving school, so in a sense I wanted to repay my debt to the college sector. At this time colleges really did provide learning opportunities for many labelled failures at 11 and 13.
My experience and memories of the college were all positive. I owe a great debt to the college and the staff and am proud to be a past student of the institution. I was very lucky to live in Portsmouth with its College of Technology. Many others did not have that advantage because of the massive variations in provision across the country – something that will now be re-introduced if the number of grammar schools increases. Luck and chance should not be part of the publicly funded education system and the present post- code lottery must not increase further.
One other negative consequence of selection by the 11+ examination was that many of my classmates were more intelligent than me but did not have the support of parents or were demotivated as a result of the 11+ experience; they left school with little or no qualifications and were subsequently employed in a series of poorly paid jobs. In those days (circa 1958/9) lots of jobs existed but with little employment security and were poorly paid. Also the 11+ failures did experience a sense of being seen by society and employers as second class when compared with grammar and secondary technical schools pupils – that stigma was very real and manifest to many of us – I have experience of this!
Therefore I am irritated and angered when politicians extoll the advantages of selection and grammar schools when they have no direct experience of what it means to be judged at 11.
This decision, if it is implemented, also raises fundamental questions about the role and place of FE colleges. The view must be by the current government that schools offering an academic curriculum post 16 are better than the FE sector and it’s constitute college. Reinforcing the false perception that academic subjects are superior to technical/vocational ones.
One sad reality is that 60/70% of people welcome the decision to reintroduce grammar schools, which is another reflection of the hostility towards technical/vocational subjects and ignorance of the past mistakes.
At present there are 163 grammar schools in England (out of approximately 3,000 state secondary schools) and 69 in Northern Ireland, while none exist in Scotland and Wales and both these home countries have no intention of changing that situation.
The reintroduction of grammar schools will:
• be a disaster, be very divisive and regressive
• not increase social mobility except for the more wealthy parents and increase the postcode lottery
• further undermine the role of colleges
• create a more academic curriculum and the schools will not involve vocational, practical or technical programmes to any significant level
• further increase the complexity of the educational landscape
• create further confusion among employers, parents and pupils/ students
• widen social inequality and will further disadvantage those who will not gain a place at the grammar school
• penalise late developers and those who have a phobia over examinations just as the original 11+ did.