Tuesday, 2 February 2010

The grammar school phenomenon

I've written before about the research I'm involved in (’Social Change and English: A Study of Three English Departments 1945-1965’) and have mentioned the study we’ve been doing of the former Walworth Comprehensive School in Southwark. But we’re also looking at two former grammar schools, one, Hackney Downs, in the old London County Council system and the other, Minchenden, in Middlesex. Discussion of these last two, combined with my own experience as a grammar school pupil, have set me thinking afresh about the grammar school phenomenon -- which I find more and more surprising and striking the more I reflect on it.

Think of your average locality: a town, say, or a district of a city. In any such setting -- in fact, in just about any setting -- there are two institutions that seem natural, given, inevitable: families and work (sites and situations of economic activity). Supplementing those, it’s not a big stretch to add education, providing some extra preparation above what the families can offer and freeing parents to go to work. Everyone goes to school and it’s just part of the common experience. So that’s normality, a world in which there’s home, work and, bridging the two, school; children’s fate is to move through the three until they end up in work.

Now, suddenly, there’s this huge intervention in this nice, normal set-up. The local council sets up a separate system of different schools, with fees at first, though nowhere like as high as those of the public schools, and then (after 1945) completely free. And thus a deep and lasting divide is driven through the community as a spectre stalks the streets every morning, lifting from this house and from that one in five of the families’ children and depositing them for the day in a central building, more or less distant, where special and different things are done to them by special and different adults. These latter aren’t locals; they’re drawn from a national pool of graduates from universities all over the country, and they’re licensed to do to the children things that again have been determined by remote national institutions (government, exam boards).

Grammar schools did lots of good for lots of children, including me, no doubt about it. In another perspective, though, it’s horrific. How could people have voted for it with open eyes?

Not all did, of course. In Professor Jane Martin’s inaugural lecture the other day at the Institute of Education I heard about Mary Bridges Adams, a member of the School Board for London (it ran elementary education in London from 1870 to 1904) who advocated a common secondary school for all, free, with a leaving age of 16 -- which we finally got in 1973.

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