Comprehensive Or Grammar Schools?


There’s a vexed question of grammar schools in the news: should they be – or not? Leaving us with a conundrum not unlike that of Hamlet.

I never understood what all the fuss was about. I went to a grammar school and remember my father, who also went to a grammar school, telling me to look on the eleven-plus as the first rung up on my ladder of life. If successful, I would be on my way. Yes, I was nervous, but well remember the feeling of elation when I was successful; not only because I’d succeeded, but because it made my parents proud and happy too.

Life is all about challenges. We meet them every day. Some are more serious than others, but if we dodge them and take the line of least resistance, we achieve nothing worthwhile. To my mind, comprehensive schools have been anything but comprehensive being too big and unwieldy. Pupils got lost in the system according to a friend who taught in one. There was no way that a head teacher or staff of a comprehensive, with maybe two hundred or more staff and one thousand or more youngsters, can keep track of each other – let alone every pupil. Not in the same way they could in a grammar or secondary modern school with somewhere around twenty plus staff and three hundred youngsters to be educated. Bigger has proved not necessarily better.

Although secondary modern schools were neglected in the general run off things and regarded as a ‘dumping ground’ for low achievers; that was the fault of the education system and those responsible for running it. Given the right incentives and encouragement, all youngsters can be achievers. Too much emphasis in recent years has been placed on the status and importance of a university degree in something or anything; all too often in pursuit of trivia. Not enough importance was attributed to what we used to call technical schools, institutes or colleges where youngsters could learn practical skills and trades with certificates to prove the successful completion of recognized courses leading to qualifications, so they were phased out.

We now have reason to regret this decision having discovered the lack of those with practical skills like plumbers, carpenters, bricklayers and builders as well as those with hands-on-knowledge of how things work – electrical and mechanical engineers. The theories of all these skills are important too, but when we have a broken tap or electrical fitting, we are not as much concerned with theory as we are that the light or the tap works. Not everyone is an academic nerd; for many, their hands are their fortune. We need those with skilled hands who may not shine academically.

I have had reason to thank my DIY skills many times after being encouraged by my parents, especially my father, to be able to use the right tool for each and every job in addition to eventually graduating from university. I have met many academics, even skilled surgeons, who took pride in their DIY skills. My late husband, an ophthalmologist loved nothing more than stripping-down a car engine and cleaning every part until it gleamed.

I wish well-meaning-do-gooders would not leap and condemn before they stop to think. Free grammar school education afforded all children, even those from poorer backgrounds the opportunity to achieve much more than would have been possible had they not passed their eleven-plus and succeeded in passing that all important scholarship. It was their first rung on to the ladder of life, and if they took advantage, there was nothing stopping them becoming a prime minister or achieving any other worthwhile goal they set their minds to.

Equally important in the pursuit of success or failure is the influence of parents; their attitudes are crucial. Supportive parents are a vital lifeline between home and school. Education is a dual system where both must work in tandem for maximum effect and ultimate success whether children are educated in comprehensive or grammar schools.