Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Comprehensive Grammars

OK, it might be Toby Young's idea, but don't let that put you off; it's a good one. Taking advantage of the Tories proposed 'Swedish schools' policy, which will allow people to set up their own state-funded schools, he aspires to create locally what he calls 'a Comprehensive Grammar...a school that embodies the ethos of an old-fashioned Grammar but which has a non-selective intake'.

Everyone thinks they're an expert on the education of our young people - I guess, because everyone used to be one. So here's the benefit of my expertise. I went to a comp, a big one, that when I arrived was poor but improving and is now improved (one of the best in the county, I understand).

I think it was good at providing the broad mass of pupils with a reasonable education. I also think it provided an excellent social education, one which it would be impossible to receive in the independent sector. But it fell down with those who weren't at all academic - it didn't provide much to interest them, there being a bias towards academic rather than vocational education. Paradoxically, perhaps, it was also poor at supporting the academically gifted: pupils were rarely pushed to aspire for the best.

(My guess is that a statistical analysis of state school results would show the greatest failures at either end of the bell curve.)

The worst conditions for the bright kids were in mixed-ability sets, which in my experience were disastrous. Typically, the not so academic pupils had little interest in the subject and wanted to fool around. Eventually, the more academic ones (such as myself) gave up trying to learn and threw their lot in with the trouble-makers (or at least this is what I put my poor grade in 'O' Level History down to, which, as I went on to get two higher degrees in the subject, does seem a bit anomalous). Thankfully, only a couple of subjects were taught mixed-ability.

The best atmosphere for learning was when there was a bright, uncompromisingly academic teacher, accompanied by a group of bright pupils. Information and method would be imparted with clarity and discipline. But, at certain points, intriguing thoughts might be pursued or a challenging problem addressed. Ensuring that the methodological foundations are in place is of the first importance. Then it's these diversions and 'reading around the subject' that give you the polish to go from a reasonable grade to good or good to excellent.

But why didn't this happen enough? I think the main reason was there didn't seem to be the will, outside of a small handful of teachers, to pursue a more demanding approach. I hate to say it, as I like my old school, but there was a default culture of mediocrity, of doing OK and no more. Could the teachers, a good proportion of whom weren't that bright, have managed to implement a more demanding approach? Certainly not all, but I'm sure enough to make a real difference.

As I said, the school also failed the non-academic. But perhaps a sort of Comprehensive Technical Grammar approach could be implemented for these pupils?

So focusing on culture and aspirations - rather than selection - would have a good chance of improving standards for the widest possible number of pupils, in my view. But the foundation for this ethos has to come from those traditional educational enablers, discipline and competition. Young says:
I needed a disciplined, competitive environment in order to thrive and I suspect the same is true of a lot of other children too.
I mentioned at the beginning that the school was poor but improving when I arrived and is now improved, being one of the best in the county. I'm absolutely sure that the improvement coincided with the arrival, just before me, of a new headmaster, Mr Saunders.

I thought he was a bit of a bastard, actually (of course). But then this was the key. He imposed discipline, partly by having something of an aura (he was a tall, bald, bespectacled man who wore dark grey three-piece pinstripe suits and had a horrible buck-toothed bark). He continually stressed the importance of learning and strictly adhering to certain (traditional) standards of behaviour. That is, he acted like a Grammar school head. But one man is rarely enough to go the whole way, what with fifteen hundred pupils, over fifty teachers, and a Local Education Authority to contend with.

Mr Saunders, the perfect head for the Comprehensive Grammar

UPDATE: A culture of mediocrity seems to be actively encouraged in the state sector.


Gadjo Dilo said...

Gaw, ahh, so you're an historian! Tell us more some day. I also went to a comp - and have the inverted snobbery to prove it - and it served me well and was also a social education, as you point out. (I ended up getting most of my higher education via the Open University, which actually wouldn't have required me to have done ok at my A-levels, but that's another story...) The head then was a similarly old-school-looking character called Mr Bate (fnar fnar) who didn't make a fuss but just seemed to be able to bring it all together.

Gaw said...

Despite the occasional frustration and a bit of bullying for being a snob (being clever automatically marked you down as such), I loved my school days. Looking back it was the freedom - going to college at eighteen felt quite a regressive step in this sense. But freedom isn't perhaps the most important thing in the production of good grades!

I've got a couple of friends, who like you, left school and got their higher education after a break. They seemed to appreciate it a lot more than the callow eighteen year-olds!

worm said...

I've done the exact opposite of you Gaw - private education from 7 until 18, (where we bullied people in the lower forms for being 'thick') then I left school (after a prolonged period of 'behaviour problems') and never went to university.

Looks like I wont be able to afford the luxury of sending my kids to a private school though these days, unless they get scholarships, so here's hoping I breed some clever offspring!

Gaw said...

Given your experience perhaps state schools might be better anyway. Probably not where I am in Islington, but I'm sure there are plenty of good ones in leafy places (more butterflies there too!)