Royal Grammar School

Newcastle

Chaos on the horizon

Chaos on the horizon

Well, that's the first full week of term largely wrapped up! We even had our first fire-drill of the school year, one of those necessities that interrupts the smooth flow but gets necessary practice done. Now that we have a powerful set of speakers on the back wall of the main building, I feel somewhat like Kim Jong-un (or any other dictator) marshalling the forces! As always our students did what they needed to quietly and efficiently: they are very biddable when they know it's necessary.

So everything seems to be running smoothly within the School, which is in marked contrast to the world outside. Certainly our new Prime Minister's announcement that she's seeking to expand not so much grammar schools as academic selection has put a cat among the educational pigeons. 

I've always worked in selective education, so you might expect me to be cheering. But I can't be that enthusiastic.

The Tory faithful will love May's announcement. But in truth she isn't recreating the tripartite system that, by never being implemented fully, made its own enemies and encompassed its own destruction. Opponents of selection frequently talk about the bad old days of the grammar school system. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, many schools were grim! Certainly even schools of the calibre of RGS may have alienated their own by too often treating those who weren't their highest-fliers with a degree of disdain.

But what really made enemies of the system was the poverty of the opportunities give to most who failed the 11+. The idea of the system was that boys and girls would be able to find the school that suited them, with excellent vocational alternatives provided to the non-academic route. 

It didn't happen. With notable exceptions, the so-called technical schools were, in the main, too few and too poorly equipped to provide really food vocational education. We've always done badly at that. Innate snobbery in the system - though not, I'd say, in the grammar schools - meant that vocational education wasn't just devalued, but underfunded: witness Lord Baker's struggles even now to get his vocational UTCs (University Training Colleges) off the ground in any number.

Secondary moderns [schools] far too often gave less academic children an inappropriate and watered-down grammar school curriculum. It's no wonder it was all swept away by the comprehensive idea.

Were Theresa May suggesting a proper system of choice and selection where the alternatives were equally well funded (don't hold your breath on funding!) and given equal esteem, I might applaud the plan. But this is barely even a plan. 

Her idea as presented today is mostly to allow comprehensive schools and academies to create a selective element. I've no idea how that's supposed to work, but it will certainly create competition which will cream off (that was always the criticism levelled) the brightest from neighbouring all-ability schools. They in turn will find themselves under the cosh of government targets and all the rest. 

No, this is a recipe for more chaos by tinkering with a system which is already in some turmoil. It's ill-thought-out, and such shameless politicking could spell yet more disaster in terms of on-going turbulence in the maintained education system. 

I suppose it's also making me cross because it's really not about children. Yes, the PM is keen to say that any selection would include an emphasis on giving opportunities to the poorest. She claims I believe, that it will increase social mobility, thought that is a vexed question and one that has been characterised more by polemic than ever by sound research.

My fear is that it's not looking at children, their aspirations, their needs or their wellbeing. To me it sounds more like fiddling once again with the sausage-factory that is too often education. Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, spoke on Radio 4 this morning, praising the huge progress made over the last decade in London schools without any expansion of selection.

He has a point: the figures are impressive. But even there I feat that some of the improvement has been through the creation of fairly ruthless regimes. Target-setting, an absolute focus above all on getting C grades at GCSE in English and Maths, these elements help schools meet or to address government imperatives, but they make for some harsh environments for children.

I can say this, because I run a school in a privileged position whose league-table position is unassailable in the region. But education is and must always be about much more than exam grades. It is about the overall (holistic) wellbeing of young people, about their emotional as well as their academic development. Their physical development too: sport and physical activity form a vital element in a broad education.

We are in a fortunate and strong position at RGS, and will keep doing things we believe in. With our admittedly selective intake, great teaching, fantastic facilities and all opportunities offered, we will continue to see boys and girls flourish in all those realms of personal growth and achieve top grades and good university places. Lucky us, lucky them!

But for the nation's children as a whole, I fear the PM's half-baked plans spell not greater opportunity, but more chaos.

Bernard Trafford
Headmaster