In Defence Of How I Went To (Comprehensive) School

As the newest incarnation of the Conservative Party seems intent on steering Britain headfirst into its halcyon vision of the 1950’s, spare a thought for the children who may soon have the future of their education decided at the age of 11. Anyone who reads this article will (at least personally) be unaffected by Theresa May’s commitment to allowing the creation of new Grammar schools, or by her decision to allow all schools in England to ‘apply’ for permission to select pupils on ability. Unlike many previous policies such as the recent introduction of the ‘living wage’, which have been particularly nasty to 18–25 year olds, this is one the Tory leadership has earmarked for the kids.

Several individuals and institutions more qualified than myself have already made the case against the reintroduction of the Grammar school system. Whilst I don’t intend on re-hashing these points, I will quickly note that: a) almost all evidence points to Grammar schools having little or no positive impact on socio-economic mobility b) The chief inspector for Ofsted has said that a return to this system would ‘undo years of progress‘, and c) anyone still needing a few more well-researched points should head to Liz Kendall’s recent twitter post. But whilst there are resounding arguments and solid evidence against two-tier education, that’s essentially the issue; these are facts and figures, being used to critique a policy based entirely around sentimentality and a rose-tinted view of how things used to be. There’s no point taking these things to the education debate, because those with the power in this matter are a few who use anecdotal evidence and individual success stories to promote an inherently unequal and cripplingly stigmatic model for education.

So here I present my anecdotal justification for the current system of all-ability comprehensive schools. I’m in my third year of University, three years since I left my sixth-form college and five from leaving my comprehensive school. As such, I’m essentially semi-fresh off the State-education production line, and as qualified as any Tory who attended a grammar school in the 50’s/60’s to weigh into a debate on its effectiveness. In the part of North West England where I grew up, selective education — Grammar or Private — isn’t particularly common. Kids of all backgrounds within the local area went to the same high school. Some of my classes were set on ability, but we mostly had lessons in our randomly assigned registration group (or ‘form’ group, as it’s called). In my form there were high achievers and those that struggled, but through 5 years together we all became friends and importantly we helped each other as a group. I remember in our last year a girl who has recently finished a degree at Cambridge, helping out the boy sat next to her who looked like he might fail his GCSE science. Similarly, we’d take part in inter-form sports competitions, in teams comprising of aspiring athletes and those who had wanted nothing to do with sports. I’m not trying to paint my school as a model of altruism…. but you know, we helped each other. We were allowed to share our strengths and improve upon our weaknesses, academically and otherwise.

Now, if we had been separated on the SAT test results we did aged 11 and attended schools based solely on academic ability, would these scenarios have ever played out? I myself did well in those tests, and could have been parachuted in to a nice Grammar school with much better facilities and all the best teachers from the local area. But what about some of the others in my form? What about some of my friends? With all of the money and resources thrown at my education, would there be anything left for them? If they, for example, only fully began to engage with school age thirteen, be condemned to second-rate education?

My high school finished at 16. Our form group separated — some to Sixth form Colleges, some to technical institutions and others to apprenticeships. The College I attended had a minimum requirement for GCSE grades, and geared towards pupils that had aspirations to attend University. I’m not saying this is a perfect system, but at 16 it is safe to say we are far more developed than we are at 11. It at least gives those who bloom a little later the chance to have a future. At Sixth form none of my classes were correlated with ability (though the GCSE requirement had everyone at a certain level). Many children who had attended Grammar Schools and private institutions joined those like me and my friends from school to make up a large and diverse year group. The kids from the selective schools were not intellectually superior, nor did they vastly outperform the students from comprehensives. Though this is all entirely anecdotal (since senior Tories do not consult the facts on matters like these), I am confident that if you compared the A level results across the Colleges’ intake from comprehensive and selective schools you would see little if any difference.

This is not an attempt to put forward my personal experience as the norm for anyone who is State educated in recent years. If we’re honest, there isn’t really a norm; we are a big country with lots of schools of all different shapes and sizes. As I’ve said, there is plenty of hard evidence to suggest that the reintroduction of Grammar schools would be entirely damning for vast swathes of the population. But if you want a Senior Tory-style defence of non-selective education, here it is. I do not feel failed by my education, nor do I think it failed those I went to school with. More pertinently, I worry for the children who might go through a far more close-minded and stratified system than I did because of the commitment from a select few to baseless, misguided nostalgia and their own versions of the past.