I was going to write a little about St Piran’s Day and the way it showcased Cornwall’s strong sense of community to the wider world, but then, this morning grammar schools are back in the news. And I just feel the need to share a very personal perspective.
I wish, with all my heart, that I had gone to a grammar school, but I didn’t. I went to an extremely rough, tough secondary modern and spent four years disliking ( because I don’t like using the “h” word) every minute of it. It’s a long time ago, but the years between 1976 and 1980 are ones that I choose not to think about but also ones which shaped very much the person I am now. Little did I know at the age of 12 that the test in front of me would resonate so much for the rest of my life.
I failed it and watched as all my friends went off to the very respectable girls’ grammar, with their blazers and ties, while I was consigned to the school with no uniform, a place where the children with no prospects were discarded, a school where the corridors were controlled by groups of bullying lads and with a reputation so bad that it’s pupils were banned from the local shops.
I realised early on that the only way to get through it was to immerse myself in books and educate myself out of it. Four years later, I emerged blinking into the sunlight, one of just three pupils in my year to take O levels rather than CSE’s and get enough of them to join my erstwhile friends at the grammar school for my A level years. The contrast could not have been more stark. I loved those two years.
But the sense of failure, that somehow, I’m not good enough, has stayed with me all these years. There are some positives…….going through a tough education teaches you resilience and I know many people who also failed the 11/12 plus who are now extremely successful and who say that sense of failure has driven and motivated them, but it is nevertheless still always there. The question I used to particularly dread in my early days at the BBC was “Which school did you go to?” Fortunately that doesn’t happen now!
And that is partly my reason for sharing this today… we shouldn’t as a society segregate children, though unintentional, make them feel as though they have no hope, that somehow they are not as good as others. That way, the divisions become deeper, the bitterness more entrenched. Grammar schools are brilliant, wonderful places of learning and I completely understand and support the need to encourage and invest in the brightest and more able. But at the same time, investment needs to be for all children, in an education system that supports the late learners and one that enables all children to have the same opportunities.
I was lucky, I came from a supportive family who encouraged me to learn and provided the home environment to be able to do so. And that is important…….because if we are going to bring back a two-tier education system, we need to recognise that despite initiatives for children from poorer families, many don’t have a stable home environment which will enable or encourage learning and I worry that despite all the government’s good intentions, fewer poorer children will in fact make it to a grammar school. When your home life is chaotic and your peer group has given up, it is difficult to understand that you can be different and expand your life chances. It is difficult to aspire and it is, as in most things in life, easier to follow the crowd.
I hope with all my heart that when provision is made for this next generation of grammar schools, equal investment is made for a new generation of non-grammar schools and we are as a society mindful of not subconsciously writing off the children who attend them. For that way, deeper division lies.
Thank you for reading this, sorry it’s a bit heavy. (There was actually another positive from my time at secondary modern, I learned woodwork which I loved, so I can make a very good dove-tail joint if the need arises and my planing is just sublime! )
Have a lovely day,