Is the return of Grammar Schools really such a bad thing?

Theresa May’s announcement that Grammar Schools are to make a return has been greeted with near universal dismay. Grammar schools are seen as divisive and instruments of the very social engineering that they are supposed to counter. They, the argument goes, cause more social division by promoting the life chances of those who can afford tuition in order to get in, at the expense of those who cannot. And that may well be the case for the previous and current incarnation of grammar schools, there’s certainly a wealth of data and research which backs this.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

The main opposition to grammar schools is that the counterside of the coin means that you will automatically get secondary moderns. These schools, which have largely disappeared, were set up to cater for those who weren’t able to get into the grammar. Whilst some may have provided a decent education for their pupils, the majority didn’t. Quite rightly, this led them to gain a reputation as a sink-hole, very often condemning children to leave with no qualifications whatsoever. The low aspirations extended beyond academic ability and into behaviour. This led to schools where the staff had barely any control over the behaviour of the pupils, and a vicious cycle of poor expectations, poor behaviour, poor performance. Children who failed the eleven-plus were often reduced to tears at the thought of going there. This was partly due to the schools’ reputation, and partly due to the label that they were only going there because they were grammar school failures. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the bar crept lower and lower.

There is no reason for history to repeat itself. On the basis that only a fool makes the same mistake twice and expects a different result, if more grammar schools becomes a reality we need to ensure that we don’t also create secondary moderns and somehow expect them to perform differently. Instead we need to totally rethink both the way in which we provide education, and the way in which we view education.

One of the often overlooked sections of the tripartite system which gave rise to grammar schools and secondary moderns under the 1944 Butler Act, was the Technical School. These were meant to teach science and engineering to those who intended to go into industry, some also included agriculture. Due to the specific requirements of selection, pupils often went to these at 12 or 13, rather than directly through 11-plus selection. The intake was usually made up of those from the top end of the secondary modern stream. Unfortunately, this led, in part, to their demise. The equipment need to outfit these schools was also expensive and very specialist in nature. However, it seems that they did provide a good education and enabled the pupils to pursue practically-based careers. The stigma of being the poor-man’s grammar was hard to shake off, and in competition with apprenticeships they faced an uphill battle to survive.

We have, it is true, lost much of our industry, so a school focused primarily on this sector is not really feasible. Instead, we could take the best of this system, the provision of a quality education and high expectations, and incorporate it into the new replacements for secondary moderns. These new schools, let’s call them College Schools, could redefine the educational provision for the less academically able. They don’t have to fail those pupils in the way of the old secondary moderns.

So how would these schools work alongside the grammars? It would entail a redefinition of the grammar schools, but given that everything seems to be up for debate at the moment, I’m not sure that’s beyond reason. Rather than allowing the grammars to elect to only educate the top 25% as happened previously, we should look to a system where the grammars widen their intake a little. To balance this, the ‘college schools’ would overlap with some of the traditional grammar-stream intake, and provide the sort of academic education that’s currently found in good comprehensives. In conjunction, these ‘college schools’ could provide subjects that the grammars don’t, but with the same expectations of behaviour and perseverance that the grammar schools employ. I’d like to see the two schools linked, so pupils may transfer between them, with the grammar school pupils able to receive a more technically-based education if that’s the route they wish to pursue, without the feeling that they’ve been branded a failure. Pupils who express a wish to work as a car mechanic but who are not academically able, would be able to receive a good quality education and obtain GCSEs, whilst at the same time being given basic training in their chosen career. I’d like to see the hairdressers of the future be exposed to German and Latin, and to be able to study for a qualification in these if they wish. I want the quality of teaching in these ‘college schools’ to be at least as good as, if not better, than that in the grammars. Would it be difficult? Yes. But it wouldn’t be impossible.

Comprehensives already provide both academic and vocational courses to a certain degree. So what would be the benefit of splitting into two distinct schools? The main one, I think, is that it would remove the stigma of the bottom set. Teachers very often dread teaching Year 9 Set 7, and pupils dread being labelled as such. Poor behaviour is often a given with a bottom set, they know they’re the least able in the school, and know they aren’t viewed as valuable in terms of those league table boosting results. Specialist equipment is also expensive and may take up a lot of room, often comprehensives don’t have adequate facilities for the number of pupils who would benefit from the more practical elements I’ve proposed above. Many comprehensives also don’t have the physical space necessary to enable this.

Grammar schools are popular with parents because they are perceived to have entrenched good behaviour and high expectations. There is absolutely no reason that these ideals could not be applied to less academically rigorous educational establishments. I don’t think the majority of parents really want to ‘hot house’ their children. They want them to receive a good education, worthwhile qualifications and to work hard, but they don’t want them to be subject to undue pressure. They also know of the grammars’ reputation for strict enforcement of codes of behaviour.

Unfortunately, we have to face the very uncomfortable fact that not all children are academically gifted. Some are naturally very bright and thrive in a challenging academic environment, whilst others will be unable to cope in such an environment, and are in danger of being left to fall by the wayside.

Schools already segregate children by ability, either by streaming or setting. Very often children of different abilities will not mix during the school day apart from during PE and at lunch. Sometimes, due to the constraints of timetabling or a split lunch hour, pupils don’t mix even then. The most extreme example of this is Stationers’ Crown Woods Academy in Greenwich. This school is split into three mini schools, which operate more or less autonomously. The brightest pupils join Delamere, with the remainder of the school body split between other ‘mini schools’ on the same campus. They all operate and educate separately. Does it work? How do the pupils feel? I have no idea, and I’d welcome comment from anyone with first-hand experience. The school, it must be said, is not without controversy.

As well as splitting pupils by setting and streaming we currently have a school system that divides by income. Wealthier parents are able to move to areas with ‘good’ schools, condemning poorer pupils to go to the schools their better-off contemporaries shun. That in itself is socially divisive and does nothing for social mobility.

What we need is an education rethink, a revolution of academic provision. And we need to start with our perceptions of both schools and pupils.

Why should pupils who are not suited to grammar schools be seen as failures? Why don’t we start to see those who attend the ‘college schools’ as successes in their own right? Selection by ability doesn’t have to mean that only the most academically able are considered worthy of a good education. It also doesn’t mean that schools who educate the less academically able are doing so due to default, rather than choice. A pupil who goes to a grammar school could easily be viewed as being someone who failed to get into a ‘college school’. It doesn’t have to be a one-way system.

My thoughts are just rough ideas at the moment – there are many holes that could be picked in them, and there are probably a dozen better ways of addressing the proposed emergence of more grammar schools. I think it’s worth considering that although the data shows that grammar schools don’t improve social mobility, and may hinder the options of poorer pupils, our current comprehensive system already fails many hundreds of children a year. For that reason alone, something needs to change.

In order to implement this change and make it a success we need to change some of our fundamental preconceptions. We need to dispense with the idea that the only education worth having is an academic one, and understand that the very best education is the one that is suited to the child and enables them to go into the world equipped to succeed in whatever field they choose.

The perception that the best schools are the ones that get the highest results is wrong in itself. It perpetuates the myth that success is only admirable if it can be measured in exam results and university degrees.

And I think that says more about society’s innate prejudice against the less academically-gifted than we care to admit.

Posted in Grammar Schools, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Should schools send pupils home for wearing the wrong uniform?

Yesterday I was asked to write a short piece (400 words) contributing to the debate about whether Matthew Tate, the headteacher of Hartsdown Academy in Margate, was right to send pupils home for failing to adhere to the school’s strict uniform policy.

My thoughts are now online, along with those of Mary Cooper (Mary Wombat), a retired teacher who blogs as Little Mavis. As the word limit was so restrictive, there is much that I wish to add to this, which I’ll do in another blog post. I imagine that Mary probably has more to say too!

Guardian Teacher Network Debate: Should schools send pupils home for wearing the wrong uniform?


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Welcome Back

First proper day back yesterday, first staff meeting yesterday.

Welcome back. I hope you’ve all had a restful break and are ready to get started on making Leafy Green Primary the best in the area again. We have some new staff starting this term. You may have had the chance to speak to them on Friday, if not, introduce yourselves and show them how much of a team we are. Remember we are a school, not a collection of individuals.

As you know (new staff, make sure you know about this) we had a bad Ofsted inspection last term, and we lost our ‘Outstanding’ title. We now have ‘Requires Improvemnt’. This is disappointing. The parents look at this and decide whether to send their children here or not. If they don’t, and our numbers drop, then there will be job cuts. We cannot afford to keep staff numbers up when we don’t have the income to support it.

Our children are kind, clever and well behaved. They deserve the best. Make sure you give them the best. Our KS2 SATs were the lowest we have ever had – most of those children were the brothers and sisters of children who did well in previous years. They should have done well too.

But something stopped them doing well. Our school is the same, our ethos is the same, but something has changed to prevent them getting the results they deserve. Why? What is it? It can’t be the children, they just learn what you teach them.

I had an awkward meeting with the Governors last term. I had to explain why we got an RI. I wanted to support you, to say that we have very good teachers here, but the Ofsted result makes that difficult. Now we have our lowest KS2 results.

I have another meeting with the Governors on Wednesday. I’m going to have to explain why we did so badly in the KS2 SATs. What am I going to say? What, exactly, can I say to them? They look to me for answers, and I don’t have any. I can’t explain why you didn’t get the children through the SATs as well as you did in the past.

Don’t say it’s because of the new tests, we’ve known about them for enough time, and the children were taught the curriculum since 2014, so you knew what you had to prepare them for. Don’t tell me it’s because of the new scoring system. It doesn’t matter how they grade them, we shouldn’t have got such low results. What happened? What went wrong? I want to know.

As I said, I have to meet with the Governors next week. I need to explain this to them. I expect you all to send me an email telling me why you think we got such low results in the summer. Give me something to tell the governors next week. I need these emails from you by Thursday at the latest, so I can prepare what I’m going to say to the Governors, how I’m going to defend you.

I’ve got the results from the last few years here, along with the expected scores we should have got. The scores we should have got, but didn’t. Take them away, read them and tell me why we didn’t get good scores this year.

I’m worried we’ll lose our good reputation and numbers will start falling.

I’m worried about YOU.

Right, I’ve said all I can, you can finish preparing your rooms. Make sure they look good for the children tomorrow. Thank you.

And to the new staff, welcome.”

Well, this is going to be fun…

Posted in headteacher, Ofsted, SLT | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Tolerance and the job description

A common theme I’ve noticed in schools (both primary and secondary) is the promotion of Tolerance as a concept to be taught to the pupils.

In general, this is admirable, in practice this impossible. Not so much in the ideals of the concept, but more so in its delivery.

This is because tolerance is neither permitted nor promoted amongst the staff. Schools are run as a very tight ship and people can be made to feel very uncomfortable if they disagree with the prevailing orthodoxy.

I have to state at this point that I am not talking about racism or any other illegal or dangerous ideology. Rather, I mean the simple concept of a difference of opinion and the ability to express this. Or, to put in another way, freedom of speech.

Teachers are often told that they must “uphold the ethos of the school”,  frequently this is included in their contracts. This is, in itself, a reasonable request of allegiance. After all, a Catholic school can expect that a member of staff would, if not to actively promote Catholocism, at least not take every opportunity to actively undermine it. However, the term ‘ethos of the school’ seems to be becoming ever more fluid, and this is where the problems arise.

Teachers who signed on the dotted line many years ago now find that the schools they work in are rapidly becoming unfamiliar to them. They no longer have the same working conditions, nor are the same expectations made of them. In other words, the ‘ethos of the school’ that they originally signed up to has changed dramatically. Some choose to quietly go along with the new systems, others choose instead to leave. The final category of these teachers are the ones who chose to stay, but refuse to remain silent.

It is here, at this point, that the lack of tolerance becomes clear.

I have worked in many schools where members of staff have been off on long term sick leave, often caused by work related stress. Going into the same staff rooms (where schools are still lucky enough to have one) over a long period of time, shows some depressing trends. Despondent, demoralised, demotivated staff who are too scared to question some of the things they have been told to do, for fear of being put on Capability. Those that do go down the capability route are generally the ones who are signed off with stress.

Management imposing new targets, demands for ever increasing amounts of paperwork, and the constant need to supply extensive evidence of all of this, means that many teachers are finding that work intruding into every aspect of their lives. When this is raised, they are often told that they need to find ways to cope, or are they admitting that they’re not really up to the job? Older teachers are generally the ones that find this the hardest, but I’ve noticed that teachers with young families are increasingly choosing to go part-time.

At first I thought this would be so they can spend one or two days a week at home with their own children, and whilst this is certainly true, I’ve discovered that many of the ‘days off’ are actually spent in doing paperwork such as planning or marking whilst their children are napping. Those that have pointed out such a system is unsustainable are often also to be found ‘on capability’ a few months later.

I’m not going to discuss the excessive workloads teachers are expected to cope with, nor am I making a point about the changing age demographic of the workforce. I’m simply struck by the correlation between the teachers who express a differing viewpoint about new initiatives, and those that end up leaving their jobs because they find them untenable.

Essentially, any new idea or suggestion made by the management teams, is suddenly considered to be part of the ‘ethos of the school’. I’ll accept that when it relates to a religious belief or an expectation of hard work and links to wider society within the school body, but I’m not so convinced when told that it includes marking in a particular colour.

If expressions of disagreements with regard to working expectations or implementation of new policies, is regarded as a capability issue, where is the tolerance in that?

If teachers do not work in a tolerant environment, how are they meant to teach such a concept to their pupils?

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Ofsted want to see…

“Ofsted want to see…”

“Ofsted expect…”

“Ofsted are very keen on…”


Are you saying this because you’re an Ofsted inspector, and this is something you’ll be looking out for when you do your next inspection? Or are you saying it because it’s something you heard someone else say Ofsted want to see?

I’m fairly confident that the majority of such conversations fall into the latter category. The main reason for this is that they tend to focus on instigating new practices or promoting a certain teaching style. Both Sir Michael Wilshaw and Sean Harford have said that this is incorrect – Ofsted do not want to see a particular teaching style. And frankly, they’re the ones in the best position to know what Ofsted wants to see.

And yet, there are too many members of SLT who confidently trot out the Ofsted line, in the strong belief that no one will contradict them. This has led to staff meetings and INSET days where SLT have announced that from that point on, all teachers must ensure they include an element of group work in their lessons. That the pupils should have an opportunity for kinaesthetic learning, or a chance to share their work with the whole class every single lesson.

Every single lesson.

It becomes a mantra for the school, and soon it worms its way into some written policy. Once written, forever followed.

I think that trying new things can work well, that we shouldn’t assume that all new ideas are rubbish. I’m happy to try out new things in my classroom, but I do it on the understanding that if it doesn’t work I’ll go back to doing what I know to be productive. Equally, I want to be trusted to make my own decisions about the efficacy of something that I’m trying out in my lessons. If it works, I’ll do it, if not, I’ll stop.

I don’t want to be told that I must persevere against all reason just because that ‘something’ is expected by Ofsted. Repeated written comment and response between pupil and teacher actually takes time away from my teaching, and adds, well, what exactly? A greater marking workload certainly, but does it actually benefit the pupils?

If you want your staff to adopt a new policy or scheme, give them a good reason for doing so, don’t use Ofsted as an excuse. If it works, there’ll be a lot of evidence to back up your assertions. You’ll be able to pinpoint how this will benefit the pupils, how it will help the teachers, and how you’ll assess whether it’s working in the context of your school, and thus whether it’s actually worth continuing.

If it’s just some vague rumour you’ve heard, or that is doing the rounds of the local schools, stop and think before you insist that all your teachers adopt it. If it doesn’t work, or if it just bogs the teachers down in unnecessary work they won’t thank you for it.

In fact, they’ll see through you, and you’ll just look like a fool.

Posted in Ofsted, Policies, SLT | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

A fresh perspective

I’m back.

Blogging, that is. I never went away from supply teaching.

But something happened that made me think I needed to reappraise my position and ideas with regard to teaching and following educational policies.

I had just described a typically maddening day, when a friend asked “Why do you do it? You can’t stand the things you’re asked to do and you think half of it is pointless, so why do you do it? There must be something you like, or you’d walk. So what is it? Or is it just that things aren’t really as bad as you say?”

I was taken aback. I’m used to people saying that I complain about the way things are, and wondering why I don’t leave, but I realised that I’d never actually had someone ask what it was that kept me going. The last bit, slyly proposing that I might have exaggerated some of the more baffling procedures I’ve been instructed to follow, stopped me in my tracks.

Had I been exaggerating?

I knew in my eyes I hadn’t, but what of those of an impartial observer? Could I step back and look afresh at the current reality of teaching?

Over the intervening months I made lots of notes, but I didn’t write them up into posts. I decided to leave it until the end of my ‘experiment’ and see what I thought then. Would the value of hindsight add or detract from my initial observations? Would I find that comparing my observations from a number of schools would mean that they made more sense than if looked at individually?

I’m going to start writing those notes up now, reflecting and comparing policies, routines, statements (of missions, intent and otherwise), requests, demands, instructions and edicts – and I’m going to include both my impressions at the time and my latter thoughts on the matter.

I’ll go through my experiences of marking in various shades (quite apposite, as it turns out), starting every lesson to a prescribed formula, regulations regarding internal emails, rewards and sanctions, workload expectations, INSET activities, encounters with consultants and cover requirements.

The word ‘Ofsted’ may be mentioned a lot…

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The 23-point behaviour policy – revisited

I went back to the school with the mad behaviour policy (see this post) today. The school has a new head who started in January, so I expected to find that a number of new routines were in place. The new head was the deputy the last time I went to the school, so I didn’t expect major changes, but I did hope that the behaviour policy would have been overhauled.

Well, I was partly right.

As I entered the classroom, I noticed that the same behaviour charts were on the wall. The children still start on Gold and go down the chart after instances of poor behaviour. The chart is still reset at lunchtime. Now, however, it is also reset at break.

Thankfully the multiple warnings are no longer in place, the children now have one warning before being moved down a level. However, having the chart reset twice during the day means that a child could, with determination, manage to achieve 15 instances of poor behaviour before acquiring a sanction. As before, the only sanction is a phone call home.

Still, I guess a 16-point behaviour policy is better than a 23-point one, right?

gold star

Posted in Behaviour | Tagged , | 1 Comment