In general, people associate with people they have a lot in common with. We do it all the time, consciously and sub-consciously. The Grammar School debate is not really about social mobility, rather it is about social stability. People would like their children to play with other children ‘just like them’. They want them to go to a school filled with other children whose parents you can envisage being ‘just like us’.
Research shows conclusively in my view that Grammar Schools never did and do not now help social mobility.
In Kent the 11+ examination is not imposed on all pupils – it’s a choice – sometimes the school, most often the parents impose the test. If we really thought social mobility could be affected so easily, surely we would put ALL pupils through such a test and ensure ALL those who ‘pass’ go forward to the Grammar.
I went to a Grammar school (for one year). I was caught up in the last great Government wholesale school reform. In 1965 we had, as Secretary of State for Education, Anthony Crossland. He vowed to destroy every Grammar School in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Government circular 10/65 implemented that reform. At the centre of the debate at that time was whether or not the government could force all Grammar schools to become comprehensives. In reality he could not as the then DES (Department for Education and Science) had no control over secondary schools. Local Education Authorities were the then controllers of schools (unlike today where their control is all but gone).
Although the circular ‘requested’ Local authorities to eliminate Grammars not all did. And so we have the position of having areas of the country that are still selective, e.g. Kent where the new ‘annexe’ has been approved.
In the late 1960s I was in primary school and was being coached (yes it happened then as now) for the 11+. Everyone took the 11+ in my area. I still have vivid memories of the test, the stress, the brown envelope popping through the door and narrowly missing being sent to a Cathedral School if I had failed the test.
At the time I did not realise that the pass mark for boys was less than that for girls (same test). How else could they manage equal numbers of girls and boys attending these separate sex schools?
I remember the uniform, the tie, the grey shorts and schoolboy cap and the requirement to have a standard satchel (brown leather), a Bible and the correct mathematical instruments (Oxford brand). My own father had been to the same Grammar school (in fact more than one of my teachers taught him and the school uniform/tie had not changed). My own father did not attend university and, instead, went into the family business. He was a fishmonger, as was his father and his grandfather and grandmother. The business started with a hand cart and had progressed to a shop on the town high street. No real ‘social mobility’ for him as it happens.
As for me? Well at no point did my father wish me to take on his business. He could see that the rise of the dominant supermarkets was killing his business along with many local greengrocers and others. He survived until he retired (bang on the age of 65) and even refused offers from others to buy not just his business, but the business name. He knew that selling the name meant no control over it. His business was built on family and serving families. He could not let the family name potentially be misused.
In the early 1970s my own Local Education Authority decided to end Grammar Schools. Although I passed the test, after one year the Grammar School closed and I spent the rest of my education in a comprehensive.
Unlike my father I did go to university – not a Russell Group or to Oxbridge, but Goldsmiths’ College London. My sister did not attend university, but had a good career in Banking. Unlike me, she attended a private secondary school, a Catholic secondary, even though as a family we were not Catholic.
My background and the experiences of myself and my late sister have always been somewhat of an enigma to outsiders.
Am I working class from a working class background made good(ish)? Am I a result of that one year in Grammar, affording me some social mobility? What of my sister? Privately educated, yet no university. My mother went to a secondary modern, my father a Grammar. As a family we are a melange of educational experiences.
What an analysis of my own situation shows me is that schools as engines of social mobility have a limited impact.
My parents had aspirations for their children, if not for themselves. My sister was undoubtedly helped by the relationship (a very good one) my father had with his bank manager – he was always in credit, ran a good business that never ran up debt etc. My mother (as she never fails to remind me) came from a good ‘police family’. My Grandfather was the local Bobby.
Although I was never told exactly who I could play/associate with, it was clear that during my upbringing I was encouraged to make friends with ‘people like us’ or ‘better’ (that said, how ‘better’ is defined I could never work out as a child). One comment was very telling. When I expressed a desire to go to university my mother took me to one side. She was supportive, but said that I must remember one thing: “University’s not for the likes of us”.
I do not wish people to think badly of my parents. They were loving and loved and did what they could for their children and extended family. What they displayed was perfectly acceptable normal behaviour in the 1960s and 70s. What they displayed then I think we are seeing now in the movement in Kent to open a new Grammar school.
Let’s be honest. This school is not an ‘extension’ or ‘annexe’. These are weasel words to describe a test of the law and to see what the mood of the people is before the Conservatives think about amending the law to allow more selective education.
If I lived in an area where I felt that there was no school that housed children ‘just like mine’, would I be tempted to create such a selective school? I would like to think not, but should I condemn those who do think that way? Perhaps not. But there is another solution which we always seem very reluctant to speak of. Why not make the school that currently exists the school you would like your son/daughter to go to?
The new Grammar school, for that is really what it is, fulfils the need for certain parents to group together to create a social stability that feeds their need to belong and to be part of a like-minded set of people. They fear what they do not know or who they do not know perhaps.
This new school will provide for some families of Sevenoaks what they feel they do not have, a school where ‘people like us’ can feel comfortable sending our children. It’s not about social mobility but social stability.
The social mobility aspect will have to come from elsewhere.