I’m going to start with a confession. I went to a grammar school.
At the time it didn’t feel particularly controversial, indeed my father – who left school at fifteen with a certificate saying he could read and write, and who had never earned more than £60-a-week by the time he died in 1987 – was incredibly proud of my achievement.
But today mentioning that you went to one of the nation’s hated grammar schools seems tantamount to admitting to a criminal record. Rather than being the passport to a better career that we were promised, I’m half expecting ‘grammar school attendance’ to start showing up on my annual DBS check and being used as a justification for excluding me from sensitive roles.
Grammar schools really are that unpopular. But here’s another confession: I actually rather like them. Not just because of my experience, but because logically they make sense. There is no sphere of life in which we think that one size should fit all – except for education. In any other sphere of life we regard investing in excellence as a good thing. In education, conversely, we regard it as elitist.
We used to think the same about sport of course. In the
1970s and 1980s ‘Sport for All’ was the mantra. Until we left the Atlanta Olympics with just one solitary gold medal and decided that we needed to invest in our elite athletes. The result was witnessed both at both the London and Rio games.
Alan Fraser, CEO, YMCA Birmingham
So why is education different? Well the answer is to be found in what happens to the people who don’t get to benefit from the great education that I did. Most people who oppose grammar schools don’t (I think) oppose investing in excellence – although some of them do. What many are worried about is what happens to the people who are left behind. We all now have to be educated up until we’re eighteen, and shoving someone in a school that seems less well-resourced, less committed to excellence, and which provides fewer opportunities for pupils coming out at the end, can be soul-destroying. It can feel as though someone who doesn’t get sucked up into the rarefied atmosphere of a grammar school has failed.
But of course, that isn’t true. Not being brilliant academically is not to have failed, any more than not being able to run a mile in under four minutes is to have failed. It is simply that people have different talents and aptitudes. They need to be offered opportunities that allow them to flourish whatever their talents and aptitudes are. So if they are academically gifted we should unashamedly invest in the very best academic education we can provide for them. It is wrong for academically-gifted pupils to be held back in a comprehensive system, or made to feel guilty just for being bright. So I welcome the government’s commitment to providing funding for new grammar schools, particularly for people who, like me, come from poorer backgrounds.
But it isn’t enough in itself. Because what matters to those people who aren’t academically excellent matters too. They need to be offered an education that is shaped to their skills and aptitudes too. Simply forcing them into a comprehensive system and expecting them to achieve high grades is unrealistic. That’s why, in addition to grammars for the top 15% of pupils, we need to create other schools that cater for the bottom 15% - and resource them appropriately.
The good news is that we already have a model to do this. They are called Alternative Provision schools. They take pupils who are not flourishing in mainstream education and provide them with an educational experience more suitable to their skills and learningstyles. The bad news is that these schools are currently misused by the mainstream education sector. Too often pupils are allowed to fail in mainstream education before being referred to AP schools, by which time they are disheartened and angry. AP schools are not for the ‘naughty kids’; they are for kids who not academically gifted, kids who struggle to engage with formal, regimented learning styles. The fact that they are often at risk of permanent exclusion from mainstream education because of their behaviour, is more of a reflection on the unsuitability of their educational experience than it is of them. In the right educational setting they can flourish and grow in confidence.
So in addition to funding new grammar schools, government needs to commit to making sure that there are new AP Free Schools that can provide appropriate educational opportunities for those pupils. And they need to be able to offer places to pupils at the right time, rather than waiting for them to fail. Pupils need to see AP schools as a positive choice, rather than as a punishment. Nobody should be punished for not being academically gifted. Nobody should be made to feel guilty for not being part of the top 15% - after all, not everybody can be. Grammar Schools can work, and they can the public over – but only if they see the same level of investment going into those at the bottom too.
YMCA already provides an AP Free School in Southend that has transformed the educational opportunities for many young people who seemed to be failing. We hope to do the same thing here in Birmingham too, using the government’s free School programme. But for that to work, central government needs to ensure that appropriate funding is provided for AP Free Schools too.
Alan Fraser, CEO, YMCA Birmingham Spring Budget 2017