Sadly, comprehensive schools of the 1950s and 1960s never reached South Lincolnshire. I went to a “red brick” secondary modern school in Louth while my better-off counterparts attended the local grammar school, the history and traditions of which go back to at least 1548, supported by the Church and local guilds. On leaving school in 1976 I was conscious that university wasn’t an option. None of my peers left school to go to university because we didn’t have a sixth form, which meant there were limited opportunities to combine O-Levels with CSEs and no opportunity to do A-levels. There were, and, still are, inequalities within that town that are symptomatic of selective education dividing social class. There are still demarcations across housing and income as to which schools serve particular parts of town. It is a popular misconception that secondary modern schools went away. In Lincolnshire we retained this type of secondary school designed for the majority of students – those not in the so-called top 25% ability-range of the 11-plus. To confuse matters still further, most secondary modern schools are now academies, some offer A-levels while others don’t; grammar schools offer A-levels but are selective. Lincolnshire does not have a comprehensive education system due to the sporadic nature of its school structures. Secondary modern schools and grammar schools maintain the 11-plus status quo, while academies complicate matters further.
Inequality has become so embedded into our culture that no one speaks out. Each year children are divided into sheep and goats at 11-plus for transition into secondary schools and we turn the other cheek. Grammar school supporters try to justify their system so we are faced with unfounded comments, such as “there’s no difference between schools selecting students and setting within schools”. In my opinion, having one’s own children rejected by this system seems like child abuse – it is totalising and brutal. Children’s friendships are torn apart. Rejection at 11-plus hurts everyone around the child. It damages community cohesion.
My observations are based on my own experiences, those of my children, their friends, parents and grandparents. I am also speaking out for those teachers whom I know are oppressed by the system.
In 2001 I moved to the coastal part of Lincolnshire within the district of East Lindsey, to a seaside village in-between Skegness and Mablethorpe. Our area suffers from 40% child poverty[i] [ii]and multiple inequalities that are exacerbated by selective education.
In 2013, in a TES article called, Waiting for a Sea Change[iii] Emma Hadley, executive principal of an academy group in Skegness, estimated that about 30% of students at a primary academy lived in caravans. She explained that the seasonality of employment means that at Skegness Academy (an all-ability school with a sixth form) about half of students in year 11 joined the school after year 7 and 45% were eligible for the pupil premium.
School wars or a “Coastal Challenge?”
In his rebuttal of the evidence from the Sutton Trust, that showed grammar schools take far fewer children in receipt of free school meals than other state schools[iv], Robert McCartney QC, chairperson of The National Grammar Schools Association (NGSA) said:
“Many, many parents from deprived areas, including what is generally called the dependency classes, are essentially not particularly interested in any form of academic education…”
It would be ridiculous to say that parents are not interested in education or that schools cannot make up for some surrounding poverty and inequality, but it would be equally crass to give schools the target of overcoming the link between social background and educational achievement and then punish them for failing. In my experience of my own children’s education, schools can and do make a difference, but they can only do so within the limits that political parties are prepared to invest in deprived areas. The language of “low-ability”, “chaotic”, “lacking resilience to accept disappointment” from those who should know better has offset scrutiny and responsibility for every child to be educated free from coercion and stress so that the powers that be can protect the remnants of an outdated education system that supports one child to the detriment of several others under the rhetoric of “parent choice”. The point is that the structure of selective education limits achievement and social integration. Even if parents are aspirational, unless children pass the 11-plus grammar schools don’t want them, which is ironic considering the pressure on school places is likely to move to secondary schools.
In light of Nicky Morgan, the Secretary of State for Education, approving a Kent grammar school’s expansion, Ian Widdows, founder of The National Association of Secondary Modern Schools (NASM) in Schools Week defends the successes of secondary modern schools[v]. However, the point is secondary modern schools are for “failures” and are seen as such. It is common parlance – fail the 11-plus, go to a secondary modern. Meanwhile, the elephant in the room for “coasting schools” (those rated as inadequate) is growing up poor affects child development, being best prepared to learn[vi], and from deduction having the knowledge to pass 11-plus tests, getting good SATs and achieving benchmark GCSEs[vii]. For me, the obvious solution is to end the 11-plus and establish local school partnerships to work at the heart of local culture.
Back to reality; the effects of child poverty, the 11-plus and lack of investment in our area have not been addressed. The secondary modern school in Mablethorpe has suffered and 60% of parents have chosen not to send their children to that school, which is now earmarked for closure[viii]. I think school closure might become more commonplace if grammar schools are permitted to become academy sponsors in Multi-academy Trusts and then seek to break away from weaker schools such as in Mablethorpe, which is in a federation with Louth. I strongly feel that if grammar schools are to become sponsors in Multi-academy Trusts that they should be willing to work much more locally to save weaker schools from closure and to prevent children being bussed for miles – we could call this “The Coastal Challenge”.
Post-16 education also presents a problem on the Lincolnshire coast. Grammar schools provide some of the nearest sixth forms for A-levels but if a pupil fails to get good GCSEs, given our isolated location, they are likely to face a considerable journey and expense to get to a college that might not provide suitable courses.
Cuts to the local authority’s budget are likely to be exacerbated by selection. Transport is provided to schools within two Designated Transport Areas, one with free, non-means-tested, transport to grammar schools, the other with concessionary transport to non-selective schools, which is means-tested. To qualify for transport schools must be further than approximately 3 miles from home. But if your child fails the 11-plus and your catchment school happens to be coasting and you have to send them elsewhere you will have to pay, even if the better alternative school is located next to the nearest grammar school.
At post-16 better-off students leave grammar school if they don’t get the grades but can afford to drive to college. Meanwhile in light of the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance, poorer students have to make do with concessions colleges are still able to offer.
In summary, the notion of educational apartheid should not be understated. I think that middle class professionals whose children fail at 11-plus should make common cause with working class and unemployed parents who also have their children fail.
Alan Gurbutt is a parent, former school governor (SEN) and member of Comprehensive Future’s steering group, 2015
[i] ‘Stark Child Poverty Figures in Mablethorpe and Sutton on Sea Are Revealed’, 2013, http://www.louthleader.co.uk/news/local/stark-child-poverty-figures-in-mablethorpe-and-sutton-on-sea-are-revealed-1-4833216, accessed 17 December 2015
[ii] ‘Lincoln, Boston and Skegness Named as Most Deprived Areas in the Country’, Lincolnshire Echo, http://www.lincolnshireecho.co.uk/Lincoln-Boston-Skegness-named-deprived-areas/story-28011239-detail/story.html, 2015, accessed 17 December 2015
[iii] I. Barker, ‘Waiting for a Sea Change’, TES, 29 March 2013,https://www.tes.com/article.aspx?storycode=6326724, accessed 18 December 2015.
[iv] S. Malik, ‘Free School Meal Pupils Outnumbered 4:1 by Privately Educated at Grammars’, The Guardian, 8 November 2013, sec. Education,http://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/nov/08/grammar-schools-admit-more-privately-educated-children, accessed 17 December 2015
[v] ‘Secondary Moderns Must Have a Voice, Too | Schools Week’,http://schoolsweek.co.uk/secondary-moderns-must-have-a-voice-too/, accessed 17 December 2015
[vi] B. Whitener, ‘Income Levels Affect the Structure of a Child’s Brain, NIH-Funded Study Shows’, (23 April 2015),https://www.nichd.nih.gov/news/releases/Pages/042315-podcast-sowell.aspx
[vii] ‘Narrowing the Gap in Deprived Areas of Lincolnshire’, (2010),http://archive.c4eo.org.uk/narrowingthegap/files/ntg_lincolnshire.pdf, accessed 18 December 2015
[viii] ‘Consultation | Monks’ Dyke Tennyson College’,https://www.mdtc.co/consultation/, accessed 17 December 2015