16 May 2007

The Grammar School 1944-2007

Hundreds of middle class parents are today tearing up their 11-plus practice papers and bitterly lamenting the thousands they forked out for extra tuition in a desperate attempt to get their Nintendo DS-addicted Julian and Poppy through the 11-plus examination, following the announcement by Conservative Education spokesman David Willetts that the Grammar School has failed its final test and been condemned to the great Secondary Modern in the sky.

Though it could trace its origins back to Anglo-Saxon colleges of Latin grammar - where young Aelwulf, Leofric and Bede could learn exactly how to say that the slave of Caecilius was serving dormice at the orgy of the Emperor - the modern Grammar School was only born in 1944, following the passing of the Butler Education Act, which offered the children of domestic servants the chance not to follow in their fathers' footsteps.

In its early years the Grammar School was a popular child, with many friends on both the left and right of the political spectrum. Alongside its brothers, the Technical College and the Secondary Modern School, it promised to sweep away class divisions, granting a proper education to all and offering a real chance of advancement to any child. All this was to be achieved by the "11-plus" examination, under which each and every child at the age of 11 (that is, each and every child whose parents could not afford to opt out of the system and buy Nigel a nice place at Eton despite his inability to add two and two together without making "zebra") was categorised according to their ability to say 'what is to "hand" as "hat" is to "head"' and what time the 11.32 from St Pancras will be derailed by the 12.27 from Nottingham if both are travelling at 120mph. Soon children up and down Britain found themselves being divided up and allotted to their appropriate schools, with those who passed their 11-plus going on to Grammar Schools and those who didn't instead being offered a more vocational education at Secondary Moderns and Technical Colleges, which process left them completely untraumatised and in no way conscious of failure.

Despite this, the Grammar School had barely entered its teens when questions began to be raised about its fitness, as more and more people began to notice that larger and larger proportions of the pupils at Grammar School (by now usually referred to by their parents as "the clever ones") were middle-class while more and more of those at the other schools (by now usually referred to by the parents of the children at Grammar School as "the thickies") were working-class. Despite this, the Grammar School's fond parents in Westminster continued to dote upon it (and upon the votes of all those middle-class parents), even to the extent of lavishing money on it at its siblings expense. While the young Alan Bennetts of the Grammar School were enjoying after-school clubs where they discussed classical music recordings and enjoyed the attentions of fat, fond teachers with a liking for conducting lessons in French and quoting lines from "Now, Voyager", teenage children at London Secondary Moderns were sitting on chairs made for nine-year-olds and learning how to hit pieces of wood with a hammer.

Matters went from bad to worse as the 11-plus system itself came under fire, when it was found that the main test for whether a child on the borderline of passing should be sent to the Grammar or the Secondary Mod was to take him or her to the nearest WC and see if they referred to it as a lavatory or a toilet. With the frightening realisation that if the results of an IQ test really did reveal who would be the future rulers of the country then we could soon expect our sceptered isle to fall into the hands of the selection-of-biros-in-the-right-shirt-pocket geeks and weirdos from Mensa, the writing was on the wall for the Grammar School - in the form of a derogatory statement hastily scribbled by a pupil from a new rival, the Comprehensive School, which outrageously offered every child the same education irrespective of their background.

Nonetheless, the Grammar was to struggle on. While it soon found itself unwelcome in many parts across Britain, it still had many powerful friends. For decades it was able to rely on the support of thousands of parents eager to see Toby and Pippa do better than those children on the council estate they met at primary school while at the same time being reluctant to splash out thousands on public school fees. Even stauncher was the support the Grammar received from the Conservative Party. Yet all seemed doomed when, in 1997, the Labour Party swept to power and with it arrived an Education Secretary, David Blunkett, pledged to end all selection and break down class barriers - a goal he bizarrely attempted to achieve by mingling with the upper classes at parties held by The Spectator.

Even at this darkest hour, The Grammar School somehow found strength to struggle on, quietly whispering to senior members of the Labour Party how badly its death would play in the Daily Mail and how well the children of those very same party members might do if they got to go to a nice selective school rather than the local "bog-standard" Comprehensive.

Yet how often the best laid plans gang agley. The Grammar School had sown the seeds of its own destruction. Even as the Government reneged on its promises to end selection, so it created a new rival for The Grammar: the Academy. Young and fresh, the Academy was unhindered by the Grammar's historical baggage. It was backed by rich and powerful businessmen, eager to indoctrinate the young give something back to the community. It was able to select its pupils in more under-the-counter ways, seeking "aptitude" where the Grammar had clung to "IQ" and even interviewed pupils to check their suitability where the Grammar had been increasingly forced to stick to the arid results of an exam. It was little surprise when the Academy won even the heart of the Conservative Party and, increasingly unloved, ever-more-confused and unable even to find the hidden four-letter-word in the sentence "Roger paid over the asking price for his peerage", The Grammar School sang the school song (in Latin) no more.

The Grammar School will be buried at St Cameron's Church of the Apostasy. The Reverend David Willetts will preside. The hymn will be the number that completes the sequence 12,12,13,15,18.

The Grammar School is survived by the Academy, the Faith School, the Public School, the Trust School and, just barely, by the Comprehensive School.


Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Wonderful post, Dodo - definitely one of your best. Love the upper class kids' names; "the chance not to follow in their father's footsteps" - brilliant! Your description of the sec mod pupils' activities is not far from the truth! And as for "lav/toilet" being the true test, it might as well have been! "Survived, just, by the comprehensive school" - you gladden my heart, Dodo!

As A said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unpremeditated said...

Thanks so much WCL. Your kind words are greatly appreciated, almost as greatly as Sicily Scene itself in fact.