Grammar schools

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I miss that long gone, silly world. I like its pupils. I can still spot a grammar school boy/girl at a thousand paces – like “Billy Liar”, John Lennon, Maxine Peace, Tony Harrison, Alan Bennett or Jarvis Cocker. They are grim, tough, funny and eminently s

Karl Marx? Dave Spart? Michael Rosen? No. Sir Michael Wilshaw. It’s not often one agrees with the formidable Lord of Ofsted, but he does seem to have a point. The NAHT seem to agree. Last week they called for grammar schools to give priority to the “disadvantaged” in their entrance exams.

I might have been one of those in the 1950s. I somehow passed the dread 11-plus. There were seven per cent of us. Off I went to the fancy Grammar. Off went the rest to the wall – well, to the Secondary Moderns. I was alright, Jack. They were not. I can’t pretend I was FSM or “disadvantaged” or rescued from any coal mines, but I got an education my parents never had and went to university. This could not have happened without the grammar school.

So I’m ambivalent about them.

The case against them hardly needs rehearsing. The 11-plus was/is pernicious, traumatic, divisive, premature, ruinous, and traumatising. My school peddled a culture that was elitist, toxic, White, imperialist, smug, sexist, racist and, yes, insufferably middle class. Working class boys had to cross the cultures – or else. Those who wouldn’t were called “wide” and “vulgar” and punished – like my chum Rumble, who was expelled for wearing Brylcreem, resembling Eddie Cochran and bunking off for romantic trysts with the “wrong sort” of grammar school girls. 

Thank Christ for the comprehensives.

But... but... the school had mostly noble intentions and high ideals and I’m afraid I rather enjoyed the experience. I can’t forget the wonderful English classes with the great “Min” Hills, exploring Wilfred Owen’s Insensibility or the hilarious tedium of Caesar’s Gallic Wars or the long shadows on cricket fields, while evening vespers rang... it gets to you. Enough already! Am I morphing into John Major?

I miss that long gone, silly world. I like its pupils. I can still spot a grammar school boy/girl at a thousand paces – like “Billy Liar”, John Lennon, Maxine Peace, Tony Harrison, Alan Bennett or Jarvis Cocker. They are grim, tough, funny and eminently sane. In my Socialist Utopia schools would be a bit like my old grammar, but full of all classes and genders and Media Studies instead of Gallic Wars.

All public schools would be demolished. They would be only community comprehensives with very small classes and very big budgets. This would be financed by cancelling Tridents, Wars, Bankers’ Bonuses, Goves and even Sir Michael – with the fabulous Mr Drew in charge. What’s not to like?

  • Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.


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