A family’s experience of selective education: the divisions and unrealistic expectations placed upon us

A father and daughter have written this piece for us about their experience of life in a selective local authority.

I don’t want to denigrate my teachers in any way, but on a social and emotional level the stress of the selective school system in my area perpetuated unreasonable expectations on young people to fit into stereotypes associated with the “natural orders” within our community. With some small exceptions, demarcation existed between the haves and have-nots who were allotted to either the grammar school or to the secondary modern school at eleven plus exam. I went to both types of school, transferring to the grammar school at 16 years old to study at A-level.

Although I do understand that my teachers at both schools were required to meet government targets, I know selection does not work and cannot understand why segregation is so readily accepted. As children, we were separated from our friends by a faceless system that did not care about our feelings, into schools that our parents believed were either good or bad. Hardly the best start to education. No parent was going to choose the “bad” school.Selective education seemed to mean there had to be more losers than winners. It was in our DNA to compare and contrast students in the “other school.” Students at our secondary modern school were sometimes compared to the grammar school kids with comments like, “you should have known that concept because those at the grammar school know it”.

It was generally accepted that students at the grammar school had access to many more varied and wonderful opportunities, such as expensive trips abroad that were not available to students at our secondary modern school. Outings from our school appeared to be heavily subsidised, I guess due to higher numbers of low-income students. But our experiences were not lower quality, far from it, our teachers went the extra mile to ensure they added value and joy.

Home-school transport was always an issue; students from our schools were segregated on the double-decker buses. Any damage to the buses was usually attributed to my peers, “to those at that other school”, and not to students from the grammar school. Consultations about bad behaviour echoed this fact; they were conducted at our school but not at the grammar school. Some of the bus drivers disliked us so much that they joked with teachers from the grammar school about us being from that other school. It appeared that they were expecting us to misbehave.The selective mindset of them and us was endemic within our community: “No matter what, some will never be academic”, “they come from troubled families” and “they are hard to reach, chaotic.” A particular zero-hours employer even expressed his preference for grammar school children.

With regards to post -16 education, I had high expectations for myself. The problem was my secondary modern school had no sixth form, and with minimal careers advice, learning pathways were difficult to predict with any sense of security. It was highly unlikely my parents could have afforded bus fares to a college so far away that it meant getting up at 5am.

Anyway, I achieved very good GCSEs – a big thank you to my teachers – and I now have first-hand experience of what it was like transferring to grammar school that provided the nearest sixth form setting for A-levels. Not everybody was as fortunate as me. Some had to get up at 5am to travel on the early morning bus to college and withdrew from their studies after just a few months.

A friend of mine had to study at an adult education college with middle-aged men. I am not ageist or sexist, but for goodness sake they deserved to be among young people their own age, didn’t they? After at short time my friend dropped out of college and doesn’t do much these days. I think the experience of some of my friends has taken its toll. They too wanted to go to a local sixth form, to a grammar school, but they didn’t get the grades.

This is why I chose to tell my story, for my friend. It’s not just about education; it’s about protecting the wellbeing of young people. It doesn’t feel fair that I gained the opportunities I dreamt of while my friend got none.The effects of selection at 11 years old continue for years to come in ways that don’t seem to be acknowledged.

Following on from my daughter’s experience

My daughter’s experience with the 11+ affected me quite badly. Having attended a 1970s secondary modern school within the same county, which provided an awful experience of learning by rote with no means for self-expression, I had vowed to help my daughter to do better. Not only that, her mum had been very ill and I had taken over the role of primary caregiver – so no apologies in advance to my critics for being protective.

I hadn’t paid much attention to the structure of education, so at the time of my daughter’s transfer to secondary school I couldn’t understand why her primary school years, in a comprehensive all-ability setting, were soon to be transformed by a quiz at 11 years old into a make-or-break situation labelled as parental choice. Of course most parents opted for the grammar school as a way out of local poverty. The posh kids went to the grammar school, so what was good enough for them was good enough for my daughter.

My daughter failed the 11+, but it was the way in which she received the news that left me feeling debased as a parent. It was as though she had not been regarded with the esteem of her peers and that she was now consigned to the secondary modern that was one of the worst performing schools in the country. I felt at that point that my own school experience was contagious. I now realise that I hadn’t caused this misery, that the very same ideology that had divided us in the 70s was still very much prevalent.

I know from bitter experience of not being given a voice in these matters that traditionalists on both sides of the political fence are committed to defending grammar schools out of their own narrow experiences, but I won’t have it said that parents like me don’t have any expectations for our children’s learning.

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