On Grammar Schools

The proposal by Theresa May, the new UK Prime Minister, to remove the block on the creation of new grammar schools, has prompted a predictable outcry from a surprising diversity of people who have adduced an equally surprising variety of objections. The most common objection is that selection at 11 by examination is unfair, premature and unreliable, a stressful matter for those coming up to the “11-plus” and no good indication of eventual “success”.

Comprehensive schools were always intended to remove the injustice of selection while preserving the best that all their predecessor schools offered, and therefore not only grammar schools but secondary moderns too, not all of which were as bad as is sometimes claimed.

The main problem Theresa May’s sudden reintroduction of this topic to education creates is that it tries to avoid a debate that is essential before our next major educational reform; indeed, it avoids it while presupposing a particular answer to it. My view is that the debate is essential, and the answer the reintroduction of grammar schools presupposes wrong.

Some will say that the line from universal comprehensives through academies and free schools (with the universalisation of academies not far behind) leads inexorably to the reintroduction of grammar schools, but this is a false inference that leads us down a dead-end. The key question we should ask, and ask of the best independent schools as well as academies and free schools, existing grammar schools and the most successful comprehensives, is what it is that they do that makes them successful.

The key question we should ask, and ask of the best independent schools as well as academies and free schools, existing grammar schools and the most successful comprehensives, is what it is that they do that makes them successful.

The answer, which we can only return to after a much longer excursion into another question, is that we make a difference to any life only by the quality of our interactions. The very best teaching makes children, pupils, students feel valued and affirmed, that they matter, that what they are doing is worthwhile and valuable. The very best teachers have generosity of spirit, a love and enthusiasm for their subject, and the intellectual hunger necessary to make them lifelong learners. These qualities communicate themselves to their students contagiously because they simultaneously affirm and inspire. Find any great school and you will find a school where the vast majority of the staff exhibit these qualities; find a failing school and you will find one where they do not. (There are parental and social aspects to this, too, of course, but they also reflect social values.)

The very best teachers have generosity of spirit, a love and enthusiasm for their subject, and the intellectual hunger necessary to make them lifelong learners. These qualities communicate themselves to their students contagiously because they simultaneously affirm and inspire.

It follows that the problem Theresa May is attempting to address by a return to grammar schools cannot be solved by such a move. The only thing that can solve it is the identification, training, professional development and reward (social and financial) of a new generation of teachers who exhibit these three qualities: generosity; enthusiasm; hunger. In other words, a regression to grammar schools is about taking the apparently easy route to a permanent educational solution because the costs and social changes needed to empower the new generation of teachers we need if all education is to be beneficial to all its client-groups is correspondingly difficult. But if we baulk at this challenge we will throw away the advances of the last fifty years in exactly the way we have just thrown away the achievements of the last forty years of membership of the European Union.

The only thing that can solve the deficiencies of our educational system is the identification, training, professional development and reward (social and financial) of a new generation of teachers who exhibit these three qualities: generosity; enthusiasm; hunger.

But we should ask a preparatory question about the meaning of educational success, which we often assume to be obvious, but is it?

Set aside for a moment all those stories about the badly-behaved kids who rebel against the system then leave school and become billionaires by exploiting their anti-establishment flair for entrepreneurship: no doubt there are some, but they will always be a tiny minority of the population. Ask instead what characteristics we would look and hope for in the successes education could point to.

Here we need to introduce a new concept borrowed from environmental science and applied to human science. Environmental science is increasingly focused upon lifetime characteristics of products: not that this light-bulb burns only 10% of the electricity of an incandescent bulb, but the mean cost from “cradle to grave”, from invention through manufacture to use to safe disposal. Attending too greatly to the wattage of the low-energy bulb compared with the shorter-lived and higher-energy incandescent creates attractive headline figures, but we need to take account of all the factors involved from the start of the process to its end.

So let’s introduce an equivalent human-resource measure we might call “lifetime effectiveness” that at least tries – I am not suggesting for a second that this is easy or even perhaps possible, but the idea it involves must be important to any measure of educational, which is to say human success – to measure our effectiveness as human beings “from cradle to grave” and then asks about the role of education in this process and tries to derive a measure of success accordingly.

Here, the equivalent of the headline-grabbing low-energy bulb’s wattage is the brightly-burning star we are so often shown as an indication of success, but a star which exhausts itself by 30, cannot cope with the anonymity of 40, and becomes a miserable drain on society at 60, 70, 80 if he or she doesn’t commit suicide earlier. We need instead to consider the full-cycle effectiveness of a life, not measure it by its fifteen-minutes of fame. And part of that measure – harder still to quantify – is the impact of that life on other lives: not how great a life was seen to be or claimed to be, but the cost of that fame and fortune measured by the misery it created for and in the lives of others.

We need … to consider the full-cycle effectiveness of a life, not measure it by its fifteen-minutes of fame.

Of course, cries of indignation will greet such a suggestion because we all know that we cannot possibly perform such measurements with any degree of reliability; but there will also be cries of indignation occasioned by the observation that the candles that burn twice a brightly for half as long are frequently responsible (but have we checked our facts here?) for the initiatives that bestow enormous benefits on others. We gawp collectively at the castles and palaces of the supposedly great and ignore the misery of the lives of the slaves and peasants who built them, and we continue to do so even when we become aware of their birth in oppression and tyranny. We do the same for the millionaire industrialists of the nineteenth-century who built fortunes on the misery of their workers. We gawpers are all, in a sense, closet fascists, tacitly giving our approval to behaviour that we would not tolerate for a second were it to be repeated today. Or so we like to think.

In reality, of course, we do precisely that: we tolerate despotic and tyrannical behaviour that produces palaces and the equivalents of modern castles when we tolerate the huge inequalities that capitalism generates, fortunes earned by the exploitation of the labour of others under the euphemism of economic necessity. (A passing nod is in order to the equally tyrannical excesses of communist and socialist systems in which peasants were treated like slaves and even the freedom to dissent was ruthlessly circumcised and controlled, starting with an authoritarian and totalitarian education system in which all expressions of dissent were suppressed from the earliest ages.)

Now all this may seem like a rant taking us off at a tangent to our main theme, “grammar schools”. But it is directly related and relevant because the underlying principles that would lead us to endorse a return to grammar schools are the same as those that would endorse a severely stratified society, whether based on wealth or merit. And here we start to get closer to our goal of understanding, as a preliminary requirement, what educational success amounts to.

I have written elsewhere about the essential role of meta-narratives in evaluating educational (or any other) theory or practice: only when contextualised by an accepted meta-narrative do questions about such things as success and effectiveness make sense. Finding an answer to the question of educational success therefore presupposes a meta-narrative; evaluating the full-cycle effectiveness of a life requires such a meta-narrative; forming an integrated view of what constitutes a successful intervention using something like Richard Feynmann’s “sum over histories” to evaluate its consequences requires a meta-narrative. And the key question that measures of success must ask is “What kind of human being do we think people should be?”

And this is really the point: education arises from, mirrors and embodies the kind of society it aspires to create. An education staffed by generous, enthusiastic, intellectually hungry teachers will produce a society of generous, enthusiastic, intellectually hungry citizens; an education system that models human well-being in terms of respect, dignity, equality of regard, fairness, justice and open-mindedness will produce a society where the same values prevail; an education system that does not judge us by our ability at 11, or 14, or 16, but gives us endless chances to learn and fail and be disappointed and succeed and triumph will produce a society of resilient, determined, hard-working, visionary citizens who will collectively and individually make the world a better place.

None of this can be achieved if we do not rise to the challenge of creating the kinds of schools (and universities) that will encourage the emergence of citizens whose characteristics mirror the generosity, enthusiasm, intellectual hunger and personal integrity of those whom we identify and resource to staff them. Those schools will not seek to determine in advance who are to be the most successful and the least because there is no reliable method by means of which such matters can be determined; instead they will endeavour to give every human child the best chance possible to make of its life what it can and will.

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