Nigel Utton, former headteacher and chair of Heading for Inclusion, explains his views on the government’s proposals to increase the number of grammar and selective schools.
When I was a primary Headteacher in Hampshire all of my children were well prepared for the move to secondary school. The vast majority went to Amery Hill Comprehensive which shared its facilities and even provided some teaching, particularly in modern languages from reception right up to year 6. The Headteacher and I had regular meetings and our staff worked with colleagues in respective departments to ensure the children went up with confidence and enthusiasm. They already knew the building, staff and other pupils well and had a very positive transition.
Moving to the selective model in Kent was a tremendous shock. My school fed into at least six different secondaries; two grammar schools and four secondary moderns with some children being shipped further afield when the place planning went wrong – which it regularly did. Until the children had the results from their 11+ exams none of us knew where they would be going. The curricula, especially the languages learned were different in each school. Preparing our children for transition was a cumbersome affair with the secondaries offering sporadic activities mostly to years 5 and 6 to try to tempt the children to their school. On these grounds alone we should resist a return to a selective education system.
The argument that grammar schools somehow increase social mobility is frankly a lie. Comprehensive schools do that – as I know from my own experience. I was the first from my family to go to university because my comprehensive school had that aspiration and provided me with the broad education to get me there. Working in Kent, where, due to political cowardice, selective education has continued unchecked, I have seen first-hand how aspiration is stifled almost at birth. Parents of preschool children have often already decided which of their offspring are ‘grammar’ children and which are not. This goes very much along class lines – with the parents’ own educational experience being a key factor.
My educational philosophy is that all children should be educated in local inclusive schools. My preference would be for a curriculum based around children’s individual needs both emotional, physical and academic. Kent’s model is based in segregation. Children with impairments are largely educated in separate ‘special’ schools; children who fail the Kent Test are sent to secondary moderns at age 10/11 and those who pass are sent to grammars. Where the model fails is that children do not fit into simple categories. The Kent Test is divided into language and mathematical components. To go to a grammar school children have to achieve above a particular score in both. Hence children who may only have exceptional mathematical or language ability are denied a place at the ‘best’ schools. Every year I watched extremely talented children being rejected by the system. The knock on effect on self-esteem was tangible. I was horrified talking to adults in Kent who had failed the Kent Test who actually still remembered their scores decades later.
What I hated most was seeing how divisive the system is in social terms. Right from reception class adults and indeed classmates refer to children as having grammar or non-grammar potential. Enough educational research on teacher/parental expectation shows us that these early attitudes have potentially devastating long term effects on a child’s learning and actually become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The best comprehensive schools educate all the children, building on their strengths and developing areas where they may struggle. Children learn with their local peers creating a positive cohesive community. Parents and the local community work together to ensure that their school is a place which contributes to a common cause. Bussing children around to different areas, as happens in Kent and other selective authorities, at best renders difficult and at worst destroys this essential function of education.
A child’s ability is not fixed at the age of 10 when the tests are administered. Surely the key task of education is to develop children beyond where their abilities seem to hold them. Putting in a glass ceiling is anathema to an educator. Segregating children into different types of school with different aspirations is everything that many of us have been fighting against.
The fact that some comprehensive schools, particularly those in areas where deprivation, lack of aspiration and generational underachievement, do not seem to provide the same levels of education as those in more affluent areas with a different demographic, is not an argument against comprehensive education per se. It is an argument for putting massive educational and financial investment into those areas to raise aspiration and provide hope through building coherent communities. Creaming off a small elite of children into a grammar school merely creates social division and a hierarchy of worth.
Sir Keith Josephs visited my comprehensive school when he was Secretary of State. As Head Boy I was asked to welcome him to the school. At the time he thought that assisting bright children into private education was the way forward. To a standing ovation I told him that those of us in my school were totally opposed to his scheme and were proud to be at a comprehensive school. Having been a teacher for 23 years, I am even more convinced that I was right.