Theresa May, yesterday.
It’s all about the meritocracy, you see. The upward mobility. But Theresa May’s bold plan to bring back Grammar Schools has one major problem - they don’t in fact reward talent. The myth goes that ragged mud larks from the fringes of society could be gentrified just by passing the 11 Plus, and then make a heart-warming journey from the slums to the dreaming spires of Oxbridge… Or failing that, Huddersfield Polytechnic.
St. Anne's College, Oxford. Or Legoland.
The truth of the matter is a lot more blurry. Grammars certainly have produced a lot of success stories (and Theresa May), but we don’t know if all that upward mobility would have happened regardless at, say, the local armpit comprehensive. (Now the Armpit Sports & Badger Baiting Academy.) And for all their success, they are, whether we like it or not, proof of an unequal, divided society. You might say that there are winners and losers in life no matter what. But if that is true, and I’ve certainly rolled a few natural 20s in my time, the lack of honesty about what Grammars represent is the real problem.
The 11 Plus designates winners and losers from a young age. You may well have had your life decided by that exam. And if the new grammars come up with more varied ways to pick their intake, there will still be people left behind, and they will end up with second best. Could they have flourished under the right circumstances? Maybe. But if you don’t have parents who will to support you, or you have grown up in a shit-hole of a council estate, that has more bearing on your future than any hidden talents you may have at your disposal.
Welcome to the arse-end of everything.
Call it the Art Class Principle - for my sins, I ended up doing art lessons at a certain comprehensive. And there were some seriously talented artists in that class. (Not me. I can’t draw for toffee.) But none of them made it past college, or even their GCSEs. They ended up in shit jobs, looking after children of their own or, if they were lucky, in an office somewhere, manning the paperclips cupboard. They didn’t pass a certain test at a certain time, you see. They didn’t get a chance.
There is an argument, of course, that this brutal Darwinian approach prepares young people for ‘real life’. Firstly, anyone who appeals to ‘real life’ is an idiot; we all experience ‘real life’ regardless, but some find it far more pleasant than others. But secondly, this smacks of that old instinct, most pronounced amongst the British, that views young people with a mixture of fear, jealousy and spite. Schools might not be able to give kids a good whacking any more, but they still brutalise them in other ways.
To understand how British schools work, consider total plonker cum head teacher* Matthew Tate and his overly stringent school uniform policy. There is nothing to be learned here. Issues of class, race and difference are not resolved. Uniforms are often pitched to the credulous as a way to create a sense of community or to erase (or rather, conceal) social inequalities. What they do in practice is keep school outfitters in business, give sad bastards with PGCEs an excuse to be anally retentive with teenagers, and demonstrate a certain contempt towards the young. Other countries don’t have school uniforms; a fair few (such as Finland) do very well.
'Creating A Sense of Community, Discipline & Respect', or some other such bollocks.
But uniforms aren’t about education but control, and that’s what schools in the UK really teach. To quote Frank Zappa, I got my education in the school library; all I learned at school, other than fear and loathing, was how to pass exams and follow orders from adults who secretly didn’t give a shit, unless I forgot to put on a tie. Countries with a thing for school uniforms tend to be full of perverts or fascists. Look at Japan, China and Singapore. Look at Britain for that matter. Schools are what we do to people who can’t tell us to fuck off. It’s about dividing up the winners and losers and making them all wear flammable polyester blazers in the process. You may cite a good teacher you studied under, but the truth of the matter is that for every Mr Chips, there are three-dozen Seymour Skinners.
'Look upon my works, ye kiddies, and despair!'
So of course Teresa May is going to bring back the grammar school. Like academies, free schools, comprehensives and secondary moderns, it is another vanity project that masquerades as a public good, some old fool’s utopia that no adult in their right mind would go to. Clever kids from comfortable backgrounds will do well no matter what. But if there is one thing that unites the young, it is that they all have to go through an educational system that is more about adult hobbyhorses than the best welfare of pupils.
And you thought I'd insert 'Another Brick In The Wall' at this point.
In an ideal world, of course, we would have education tailored to every child’s abilities and needs, but mass education isn’t meant for such aims. It’s about hammering squares into round holes and grown ups gone mad with power. It was done to them and now they will do it to the next generation in turn. It is always about power, not right and wrong, and certainly not education.
I should, of course, make a full disclosure. I failed the 11 Plus twice, the second time after the grammar’s headmaster had wooed my father with tales of their strict discipline policy to the point of giving him a semi. Reasoning, language and so on were perfectly easy for me. Yet I have always been crap at maths and still am. (Apart from mental arithmetic, the result of many years’ practice.) It did not stop me, as my degree, MA and PhD show. I am a raving egomaniac with a black belt in rabid obstinacy. I was going to get through regardless. But the grammar didn’t care - since I didn’t exactly meet its criteria, I was ditched into the nearest bin cum comprehensive. Some of us can leap out of the bin, others can climb out. But most stay there, and if you don’t find that obscene, you are not the sort of person who should be allowed near young people, let alone put in charge of their education.
* The two are interchangeable.