One of my earliest childhood memories is of being taken to a shop in Birmingham called, I believe, Midland Educational to buy Eleven Plus coaching material. Apparently, this was because I was thought bright enough for Grammar School. At ten years of age this didn’t really mean much, but I dutifully completed the exercises in the books and was sent off to do the exam which sealed my educational fate.
Great news, my parents told me: you are going to the Grammar School. Your future is bright, how lucky you are. I’m not sure I felt all that lucky: none of my friends were going. I had to start from scratch making new ones, not something I found easy at eleven. I had a five mile bus journey every day, and I was introduced to the brutal sport of ‘rugger.’ I was not allowed to call football ‘football.’ Soccer, I learned, was the sport of the common kids.
It wasn’t all bad: I had some good teachers (as well as some truly dreadful ones) and I had some privileges. For example, unlike my friends at ‘the Comp’ I was lucky enough to travel to school wearing a cap which bullies could snatch from my head and throw over fences and into trees, usually just as the bus was coming.
There was a lot about the Grammar School experience which I just didn’t get at the time. Like why some kids were always bottom of the class and miserable. I now realise that they were probably square pegs forced into round holes. They probably just squeaked the exam, with the help of coaching, and would have been mid table performers in the Comprehensive School, and doubtless been much happier.
The teachers were always going on about ‘Oxbridge’ although I couldn’t find it in the atlas. But gradually I realised that I was being groomed for a top university. If that was not my ambition, I was probably in the wrong place.
Don’t get me wrong, there were many good things about my school. I developed my love of science and travel there. I also learned my first lesson about ‘privilege.’ The school was well known in my area and putting it on your CV got you to the top of the pile.
Much later in life, I learned the true iniquity of selection. A local Tory challenged me, ‘why are you opposed to excellence?’ But the answer is simple: I’m not opposed to excellence. But the price of your Grammar Schools is too high. Seeing broken-hearted children telling their parents that they have failed them because they didn’t pass Eleven Plus. Seeing the cottage industry in Eleven Plus Private Tutoring so that those families who can afford it can tip the scales in their favour. I served as a Governor at a secondary modern which was doing a pretty good job under the circumstances. There is a yawning chasm in the economic backgrounds of many families of secondary modern kids and grammar school kids. Far from promoting social mobility, the system entrenches it.
When I first stood for parliament in Wycombe, I was cautioned about the popularity of selection in Bucks. I realise now that it is popular with those families who’s kids passed eleven plus, those families who hope they can get their kids through it, and those families who can afford to send their kids to private schools should their children fail (and there are many like that.)
But surely all of our children deserve to go to excellent schools, don’t they?