Saturday, 10 September 2016

Grammar Schools and My Father's Education

I have been listening to the radio over the past few days with increasing fury.

Theresa May’s speech, standing on the steps of No.10 Downing Street, spoke of social inclusion and mobility.  I never believed it.  One’s cynicism seems to be borne out with her announcement  on the reintroduction of new grammar schools in England and increased powers for religious schools.

My father was born in 1935 and died in 2001.  He was from Hartlepool in the northeast of England and from a poor background.  He is no longer around for me to check the details but what follows is what can be recalled of his educational experience.

My father must have started school in 1940 and he enjoyed it. Apart from the threat of sudden death from the Luftwaffe and the near constant hunger, he said it, in general, was a great time to be a child.  All the children were covered in a substance called gentian blue - used to treat the resulting sores and general poor skin conditions resulting from the poor diet.

As a child, as he continued to be for the rest of his life, my father was bright.  He did very well at the junior school, that is until the age of ten.  It was then that the class got a new teacher.  For the next academic year, progress stopped completely.  Then the class sat the Eleven Plus exam.  Not one of them passed.

In the autumn, all those who failed went on to the local secondary modern school.  That was not quite true.  As a member of a different class in the school, the headmaster’s son had also failed his exam.  Nevertheless his uniform was bought, he attended the local grammar school and nothing more was said.

At the secondary modern, some pupils continued to get an education.  My father was among those who did not.  This even went as far as sporting activities.  One Wednesday afternoon, cricket was being taught to the selected.  The rest of the pupils were literally being ignored.  My father went up to the pile of spare equipment, got a couple bats, ball, wickets etc. and set up an alternative game.  One of the teachers noticed.

“What are you doing Veart?”
“Playing cricket sir.”
The teacher turned around and continued to ignore the group.

At the age of fourteen, my father left school without qualification and worked in an office as a gopher - go for this, go for that.  At seventeen he worked his day job and attended night school.  The lecturers was also the maths and and science teachers at the local grammar.  They used to say stuff like “I wish my pupils worked as hard as you lot do!”  Graduating with an Ordinary National Diploma, it was enough to get a job as an marine engineering apprenticeship.  This led eventually to a chief engineer’s ticket and a life at sea.

There wasn’t many people who had cars in the 40s and 50s.  My family certainly did not own one.  The observation was made that in Hartlepool, if the family had a car, any children went to grammar school.

To return to today, I simply do not understand May’s argument that the reintroduction of grammar schools will lead to greater social mobility.  Those who are better off will always find ways to preserve their privilege.  To an extent, that is human nature.  We should not be setting up new systems that allows privilege to be so easily preserved at the taxpayers expense.  

I am the first in my family to go to university and gain a degree.  An opportunity my father never had.


Liberal Democrats have already stated we will oppose these moves.  The reintroduction of English grammar schools is a retrograde step and should be opposed by any with a progressive outlook.

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