Wednesday, 14 March 2018

The New Wave of Grammar Schools

Traditional grammar schools selected their intake on passing a test, the Eleven-Plus.  This academic filter would ensure that they only educated the brightest children in any given cohort, and the rest would go to the local Secondary Modern school, the academic students creamed off.  Returning to this state of affairs seemed plausible only a short while ago, when Theresa May began pushing for new State Grammar schools, but this policy seems to have been dropped after the dismal polling of the 2017 General Election.

But can we see a different type of grammar school emerging instead – one that filters their intake by behaviour rather than by academic excellence?  This is a deeply contentious point and I accept it will be met with considerable disdain from certain swathes of the educational establishment, but I feel that this could well be becoming the standard in this new era of zero-tolerance schooling.

Over the last few days I’ve engaged in discussion with several proponents of this strict style, where any kind of misbehaviour, no matter how seemingly small, is treated very seriously.  I have found that there are general points I can agree with on principle, for example a need for everyone to get a good education, an intolerance for persistent misbehaviour without consequence and a strong SLT to support teachers in their work with children and poor behaviour.  These things all seem eminently sensible and positive concepts that I can happily get behind (and generally enjoy in my current school).  However, there is a flip side to this: everybody getting a good education morphs into something more akin to those that behave should get a good education; intolerance for persistent misbehaviour without consequence becomes the straw-man that there are schools that tolerate poor behaviour with no consequences whatsoever (when this is certainly not the case in the main); Strong SLTs supporting their staff seem to become an argument suggesting that anything other than zero-tolerance policy is inherently SLTs letting their staff down.  It is a world of distant binaries, of the blackest of blacks and the whitest of whites with not a shade between.  It is, in short, the result of several years of tribalistic behaviour that has caused teachers across the spectrum of opinion to hunker down, bed in and get ever more deeply entrenched in our viewpoints.

The fact is that many of the people I’ve spoken to recently seem to be of the opinion that if a strict behaviour policy causes students to up and leave, or get kicked out, or get home schooled then this is all the better – get rid of the difficult kids so the good ones can learn.  This ultra-utilitarian attitude seems to forget that these children don’t simply disappear – no, they have to be educated somewhere, and the imperative that they get an education for the good of society as a whole has not vanished either.  This passing the buck of tricky children is increasingly seen as totally acceptable even when its eventual outcome can only be a stratified system of ‘nice’ schools where behaviour is impeccable, and then other schools that become the collection point for all of the discarded or disenfranchised students.  A Grammar system based on behaviour, not academic excellence.

Of course, any attempt to challenge this or to ask ‘where do the other children go’ is met with derision and even sarcasm by many teachers who support these extra-strict policies, and are very rarely engaged with, the consensus being that we are simply enemies of promise, to use Gove’s memorable yet misguided phrase.  I’m afraid that this is not good enough, and to write off such a large segment of the profession as doom-mongers who (for some reason) are out to stymie the chances of young people is frankly insulting.  So we are left with an unsatisfactory situation, where it is becoming increasingly okay to vilify a portion of both the student body and the teaching profession without properly engaging with them.

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