Social Mobility

  Jim Thing 15:30 18 Jan 10

Recent talk about posible ways and means of improving social mobility in our deteriorating society prompts me to suggest that this country once had an efficient and effective stepping-stone to success for bright children from disadvantaged backgrounds — but we allowed the politicians to throw it away in a bout of misguided political correctness.

My old school was a small grammar school of some 400 pupils in a one-time industrial town (coal, cotton & chemicals) in Lancashire; the school was founded in 1715 and was closed and demolished in the 1980s by the Labour-dominated local council.

Like many of its neighbours the town had suffered from serious unemployment during the pre-war years, and when I was in my teens few of its inhabitants had money. What they did have, however, was access to a good school staffed by dedicated professional people who thought of themselves not as militant 'workers toiling at the chalkface' but as mentors dispensing knowledge, friendly advice and encouragement to any child suitably equipped and willing to benefit from it.

Much of what these people taught seems now to have disappeared from our culture, much as the grammar schools have disappeared from our towns (and I would argue that those two things are not unrelated). We were taught that respect could not be demanded but had to be earned; that what comes too easily has no value; that nobody owed us a
living — and that, for those prepared to put in the necessary effort, the limits to our aspirations could be made to disappear.

Some years ago I started a nostalgia-type website aimed at ex-pupils of the school. In the course of collecting their reminiscences I have become aware of the achievements of some of those pupils for whom the school became the first rung on the ladder to higher things. The following list shows some of them:

— Distinguished academics holding Chairs in
Medical Biochemistry; Medieval German Literature & History of Language; Communications and Materials Science at universities in Britain, Europe and the USA.

— R.A.F. Air Vice Marshal;
— Fellow of the Royal Society;
— Nuclear Physics adviser to the Govt. of Canada;
— Chairman of the Society of Chemical Industry;
— Director General of the National Chamber of Trade;
— Several Knights of the Realm;
— Mayor of a major British city;
— Teachers and Head Teachers too numerous to mention;
— Doctors ditto;
— Textile engineers;
— Industrial chemists;
— Master mariners;
— Architects, Airline pilots, Authors, Editors, Journalists.

and, for good measure:
— A famous BBC sports broadcaster;
— A member of England's 1966 World Cup-winning team.

My list is by no means complete. It shows only a selection of the achievements of some of the pupils of one small grammar school in the working-class North of England during the post-war years. I wish I could invite all politicians seeking ways of improving social mobility to study it, to reflect on recent reports that we're currently trawling through third-world countries in search of people who can do maths and science — and to ask themselves whether it was really such a bright idea to abolish the grammar schools.

  natdoor 17:20 18 Jan 10

Grammar schools were fine. I attended one myself and, in one sense regret its passing. And the achievements of some of your past pupils seem to be excellent. However, only a small percentage of children gained entry and the others had a poorer education and left school with no qualifications.

I am sure that many comprehensive pupils achieve in much the same way as some of the grammar school students did. I also believe that there are many good teachers. The problem seems to me to be a lack of motivation on the part of many youngsters, a lack of encouragement and guidance from parents and a lack of discipline in schools.

In the past, many parents had little and were determined that their children would do better. This motivation is often seen now in ethnic families. Too many nowadays are happy to fritter away their lives or ruin them with drugs and alcohol.

  spuds 23:29 18 Jan 10

Education nowadays is a far cry from yesteryear. A number of our schools, even though quite a distance away from each other, are being run on a one head teacher as a dual role occupation, due to supposed head teacher or competant replacement shortages. Other head teachers are being given the responsibility of 'assisting' on a semi permanent basis,other head teachers and schools who have had poor Ofsted ratings.

To my way of thinking, this is a disaster waiting to happen, when some head teachers are having to double their workloads. In the long term, the pupils and staff are sure to suffer. But then again, when you talk to 'the experts', this is all in the name of progress.

  Forum Editor 23:45 18 Jan 10

Looking back I realise that I was incredibly lucky; I was provided with a first class education by the state, and I have been grateful ever since.

I didn't fully appreciate the value of it at the time - you tend to have your mind on other things when you're a teenage male. Latin and French and Physics had to compete with Rock & Roll and girls, and often it was an unequal contest.

Did I get a better education than the students of today? I don't know, but I think it was certainly more formal and academic - no course work in those days, everything depended on written exams, and if you didn't perform on the day you paid the price. My school had pupils from all kinds of background, there were certainly lots of people from working class backgrounds. Some of my peers went on to achieve great things, and some didn't.

I lament the passing of the Grammar school, but then I would, I'm the product of one.

  OTT_B 23:55 18 Jan 10

In part I agree with your thoughts, but there is an issues that your background *should* be irrelevant to your acceptance to a grammar school. In reality, it isn't. At least not as things stand now.

I went to a Grammar in Lincolnshire (not that you'd know from the way that I write!) and although the town that it was in had a fair mix of classes, almost all of the Grammar school pupils were from the middle class population.

The upshot being, that in order to get the best chance of entry, the child needs parents who coach the child through the process.

We moved back to Lincolnshire late last year, partly because we wanted to give our kids, who are rapidly approaching primary school age, the best possible chance of secondary education.

While we were looking around primary schools in December last year I was astonished that some of the small primary schools in middle class areas get less than the statistical pass rate on the 11+ exam. The local Grammar takes i.r.o. the top 25% of students. Some of the primary schools were getting pass rates of around 10%. None exceeded 25%.

Surely small primary schools with excellent teacher to pupil ratios should get sterling pass rates? So I asked, why? Well, the answer appears to be very simple. Primary schools do not concentrate on developing students who may otherwise pass the 11+ exam - the effort should be put into developing students who are lower down the gradient (and that's not to mention the targets that schools have to meet that are nothing to do with academics). I'm not saying this is wrong. Every child deserves the best education they can get. But the days of schools being a stepping stone for social mobility are over. It's up to the parents now.

  Quiller. 00:12 19 Jan 10

Lincolnshire. In those days we had the 11+ exam in which I managed to scrape through. Mathmatics, accounts, commerce and science were my main interests and did resonabley well.

My daughter who was going to go to the local comprehensive, decided to sit the verbal and non verbal reasonaing tests two weeks before the first exam at my old Grammar school. No coaching from us or private tutors, she gained an entry. Only 5% from her primary school achieved entry.

  Jim Thing 17:03 19 Jan 10

I hadn't intended to open this thread and then disappear, but a domestic emergency cropped up suddenly yesterday and couldn't be ignored. It's all sorted now though.

I can certainly agree with most of the points made by natdoor, although I'm sure his statement that chidren who failed to gain entry to a grammar school "...had a poorer education and left school with no qualifications" is by no means true in all cases. However, the fact that substandard schools exist at all is a shocking indictment of the system, while the fact that many bright children are directed into them for lack of decent alternatives is little short of criminal.

Which brings me to a point raised by OTT_B, who moved his family from another county "...partly because we wanted to give our kids [...] the best possible chance of secondary education." This is surely another indictment of the present system (at least insofar as it affects the county from which OTT_B moved) and I note with interest that he moved back to a county that still has grammar schools.

Yet another indictment of the present system is the well-publicised fact that, despite their having spent at least twelve years in the primary and secondary education system, a proportion of university entrants are required to attend remedial classes in maths and English before embarking on their degree course. I don't recall that remedial classes were ever necessary in the days when students entered university from grammar schools.

I do realise, however, that our under-performing educational system presents us with a complex problem that has many contributory factors, as mentioned by natdoor, spuds and OTT_B — and that's not to mention the collapse of our industries and the resulting serious lack of decent opportunities available to non-academic school leavers, who must surely face their benefits-dependent futures with much cynicism and disillusionment.

I would also argue that featherbedding children for eleven years or more in schools run on the principle that "every child must have a prize" is a bizarre way to prepare them for life in the competitive adult world — but perhaps that's a topic for another thread next time I'm in Grumpy Old Man mode...

  Mike D 18:06 19 Jan 10

I work in a sister company to a tuition business. The local primary schools actively discourage parents from letting their children take the 11+ tests (which is good for us) and at least two schools have tried to punish parents/children who take time off for the tests. The one thing that we do know is that those children who do not get extra tuition/coaching are now at a big disadvantage compared to the ones who do go to tutors (not just us). Deep down I don't agree with this (as an old style grammar school kid) but, hey it puts food on the table.

  Jim Thing 19:17 19 Jan 10

I've just been re-reading your 23.55 post of yesterday, in which you wrote "...the days of schools being a stepping stone for social mobility are over..."

Isn't that precisely what's wrong with the present system? The schools that were once the principal stepping-stones were abolished by the political-correctness loonies because they were considered elitist. Ideally EVERY school should be a potential stepping-stone for social mobility, but nobody has yet found out how to do it without offending the loonies. Simply chucking our money at the problem (and boasting about how much money is being chucked) certainly hasn't solved it.

  natdoor 10:05 20 Jan 10

Of course my assertion that non-grammar school children got a poorer education and left school with no qualifications did not apply in every case. However, it did for about 99% of children throughout the 1940s and 1950s and for almost as many until 1969 when comprehensives were introduced.

I went to grammar school in 1946, made possible by the 1944 Education Act, and, until 1951, the leaving-qualification was matriculation. I don't believe that matriculation could be achieved at any other form of state school. At that time the alternative was a secondary modern school.

A very small number of children from secondary modern schools would progress to a secondary technical school, with the opportunity to sit GCEs after their introduction in 1951. The selection procedure has been termed the 13+ but I believe that it solely consisted of a school's recommendation rather than an external exam.

In the 60s, more pupils stayed on for an extra year in secondary schools and may then have been entered for GCE in a limited number of subjects. Of course, education could be furthered subsequently by attending evening classes or through day-release for study for OND/HND etc.

Comprehensives are not perfect but offer opportunity to all. Whatever one thinks of current standards of A levels or of university education, there is simply no way in which over 40% of children would get to university under the pre-comprehensive system. In my view, their major problem is the effect of a general lowering of cultural and social standards and a loss of aspiration among parents.

  Quickbeam 10:58 20 Jan 10

Grammar schools are a fine ideal, but the biggest failing was that once the 11+ was passed or failed, you were firmly set in the mould.

The only way they could have any credibility again, would be if there was a way in past the dreaded 11+ exam deadline. Eleven years old is way too early to categorise kids for life.

There have also been plenty of kids over the years that went to the grammar school and failed at school.

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