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Student Opinion: Grammar Schooling – A View from the Inside

Jack holds a first-class BA and master's degree from Oxford University. He also attended a grammar school in England from age 11-18. Jack has now entered the world of work and took a few moments to reflect on his school years.

Grammar schools are something of an oddity in Britain’s patchwork education system. Similar to ‘gymnasiums’ – which can be found in Germany, the Netherlands, and a handful of other mainland European countries – grammar schools are premised on the idea that an important minority of children are innately more intelligent than their peers. Thus, to help them meet their intellectual potential, these gifted youngsters are subjected to a more rigorous academic experience from the age of eleven.

These schools, once ubiquitous across the British Isles, are now unevenly distributed geographically. Whilst counties such as Kent, Essex, Lincolnshire and Buckinghamshire chose to retain their grammar schools in light of the spread of ‘comprehensive’ secondary schools from the 1960s onwards, in other British regions, like Scotland, they disappeared. At present less than 10% of Britain’s children are educated in a grammar school.

In our current climate, it is no way revolutionary to suggest that Britain’s grammar schooling system is flawed. Ample research has illustrated how the most economically disadvantaged kids are majorly under-represented in these institutions. For those lucky few who do gain admittance, upward social mobility rarely follows. In fact, grammar schools seem to reinforce, rather than subvert, disparities in class and wealth.

At the centre of the grammar schooling system is the controversial ‘11+’ exam. Comprising subjects like ‘verbal reasoning’ and ‘non-verbal reasoning’ – identifying patterns in sequences of words and shapes respectively – this battery of tests is used as a dubious proxy for an eleven year old child’s natural intellectual capacity. Research shows that this standardised test is in fact highly gameable: access to intensive tuition and a strong grasp of the English language matter the most.

I would know.

I was brought up in a middle class English-speaking home. My parents also gladly paid for 11+ tuition for me. In essence, the privileges I was born with – more so than natural intelligence – determined what educational institution I attended. Yet, having experienced seven years within a grammar school, I don’t think the debate about them is as full or nuanced as it could be.

Current debates, to my mind, focus too heavily on the process of selection for admittance into grammar schools. Far less, I think, is known about what happens within these spaces. Hence my desire to share my thoughts. Understanding a child’s experience of grammar school can reveal some awkward and uncomfortable truths about selective schooling which I think are rarely acknowledged.

But first, some disclaimers. I don’t want to claim that my experience of grammar schooling is wholly representative of the myriad of Britain’s selectively schooled children. Rather, my hope is that my reflections can spark some meaningful and much-needed conversations. Moreover, I should add that I left my alma mater about four and a half years ago. I’ll leave it up to the reader to determine if I have developed (any) critical distance in this time!

Playing Mind Games

To my mind, the grammar school cocktail of demanding teachers, pushy and ambitious parents, and eager-to-please, hard-working children is by its very nature poisonous.

Let’s start with parents. Most grammar school parents see great potential in their children. Unfortunately, such parents often tend to value their children in economic terms. If parents pay hundreds or, more often than not, thousands of pounds on private 11+ tuition, and then spend two hours a day ferrying their kid(s) back and forth from school (grammar schools tend to have large catchment areas), they believe themselves to be justified in ensuring they receive the greatest return on their investment. This attitude manifests itself most evidently in the life choices many grammar schooled children are encouraged to make by their parents.

I have lost count of the number of times I have been told about my ‘earnings potential’. The implication is that having received a good education, it is incumbent upon selectively educated kids to gain admittance to elite universities and then enter into high-paying and prestigious jobs thereafter. If they don’t, then the wisdom of those initial monetary investments is called into question.

This reductive way of thinking – in which personal fulfilment, academic success and financial rewards are synonymous – is often instilled in grammar schooled children from the get-go. Plenty of my peers were offered deals by their parents whereby they would receive a cash sum, the value of which was determined by how well they performed in their final exams. By tying academic success so closely to monetary rewards, parents in effect quantified what they perceived their child to be worth. Such incentive structures had particularly troubling ramifications when applied to sets of siblings. One friend of mine significantly outperformed his elder sibling in his GCSEs. With each child offered the same amount of money per A*, my friend was amply rewarded; his elder sibling less so.

Such parental behaviour illustrates my central contention: a deeply unhealthy culture of competition pervades grammar schools. My Year Seven Maths teacher kept a league table of my class’ homework performances in a colour-coded spreadsheet and would regularly pull it up on the whiteboard for us all to see. I remember, aged twelve, frantically hoping that I would be as close to the top as possible. This was not because I particularly enjoyed Maths or aspired to be good at it. I just didn’t want to be named and shamed in front of my peers. Thankfully, I was eighth out of thirty, and my name was coloured in green. By contrast, those nearer to the bottom were shaded in progressively deeper shades of red.

The same Maths teacher also had a saying he would parrot to those he didn’t think were working hard enough: ‘use your head or use the door’. Such attitudes were commonplace amongst some of my teachers. After a small food-fight broke out in the school cafeteria in my first year, my Head of Year sternly rebuked us all in the assembly hall. She told us in no uncertain terms that whilst such delinquent behaviour might be commonplace in comprehensive schools, as grammar school students it was unacceptable. Such messages reinforced the central ideas grammar schoolers are constantly reminded of. By virtue of our innate capacity to academic success, much higher standards were expected of us. Failure – be it behavioural or academic – is not tolerated.

In most schools, children often gain social status by virtue of their sporting ability or outgoing personalities. Not so at a grammar school. I remember a time during my GCSEs in which several of my friends memorised the whole Science textbook in preparation for their exam. To test one another, they would recite its pages on command. In doing so, they received social kudos for their herculean efforts.

Such dynamics became most evident on GCSE and A Level Results days. After briefly scanning my own results sheet, I would open WhatsApp. For the rest of the day, me and my friends would debate our results. It was expected that everyone would post a photo of their grades on group chats so we could dissect everyone’s performances in minute detail. Having been taught that school was one big academic contest, me and my peers regularly reinforced this toxic competitiveness during our own leisure time.

Yet it would be wrong to say that every student bought into the academic rat race. Whilst many students obsessively crammed others became disengaged and despondent with the culture of unrelenting pressure. After completing Year 11, a significant number of my friends exited the school. Whilst some left for even better grammar schools (an interesting choice in itself), most departees joined non-selective state sixth forms. In doing so, they hoped to enjoy a more relaxed atmosphere.

Given this exodus, Sixth Form at my selective secondary school was unsurprisingly an even more intense environment. In 2017, the year after I had left, a glass cubicle was installed in the common room. Two years before this, chatting, eating and laughing were banned in the common room. Instead, sixth formers were expected to sign into this newly designated study space in each of their free periods to revise. Two years later, sitting in the glass cubicle was a staff member, who beadily watched over the students to ensure that no one was slacking. Me and my friends would proclaim, only half jokingly, that our school was becoming a surveillance state.

Hamsters on a Wheel

By conventional measures, I was a grammar school success story. I received a ludicrous number of A*s in my GCSEs and A-levels, and left aged 18 to attend a prestigious university. And don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for many of my grammar school experiences. Some of my teachers – particularly those who taught me at A Level – helped open up my mind to different ways of thinking and have each in their own way shaped who I am today. I also made some lifelong friends with whom I share wonderful memories: playing football, going to parties, watching films, and messing around.

And perhaps most significantly, the coaching, support and encouragement I received from a particularly influential set of teachers enabled me to attend the university of my dreams.

I spent four incredibly happy and fulfilling years at this university. I cannot know if attending a different type of school would have produced the same outcome. In any case such a question is counterfactual and, ultimately, unhelpful. This is because I see the obsessive focus on results as selective schooling’s fundamental problem. To judge grammar schools by their own criteria for success is to accept the cynical and superficial worldview that these institutions engender. As I hope I have made clear, I don’t.

With the passage of time, I have reflected more on the Darwinian environment in which I was educated. Subject to intense and constant competition, I existed in a permanent state of unease and was plagued by a restless sense of imperfection. Unsurprisingly, this was not conducive to good mental health.

Egged on and pushed by myself and those adults around me, I (and no doubt many of my peers) developed a narcissistic sense of self-importance based on my grades. Nowadays, I recognise that this egotism was fragile and constantly under threat. Bad behaviour, laziness, and the threat of a more intelligent classmate could easily derail my personal sense of self-worth.

As has been established, grammar schools entrench social and economic divides. Yet, in my view, even those children who ought to benefit from selective education are afflicted by the oppressive and hyper-competitive atmosphere within which they are taught. Plagued by a pervasive sense of paranoia, many grammar school kids believe their successes are never quite enough and their setbacks a permanent blot on their record.

Which makes me wonder: if grammar schools don’t serve the psychological best interests of their students, then why should anyone bother defending them? I know I won’t anymore.

1 Comment

Julian Gee
Julian Gee
Jun 16, 2021

Fascinating insight into what the student experience is at a grammar. I'd like to know more about what you thought about the curriculum you were expected to follow - was it interesting and valuable or just a matter of passing exams in academic subjects, because they are the subjects deemed to constitute the body of knowledge the Education Secretary of the day thought important?

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