Bright but poor kids have been failed for decades. Since the abolition of grammar school expansion some forty years ago, an educational bottleneck has been created, through which children from disadvantaged backgrounds cannot squeeze. State primary schools are banned from teaching how to pass the 11-Plus test, leading to the creation of an incredibly unfair system.
Full disclosure; I live in Kent (grammar school territory) and both my kids were tutored and sat the test: one failed, one passed, no big deal either way as I too had failed the 11-Plus (and the world kept turning). A private tutor was essential if my kids were to stand a chance of understanding the questions, let alone answering them. In my day we were taught the 11-Plus in school.
Poor but bright kids whose parents don’t have time, money or the ability to home-tutor are, to put it bluntly, completely screwed. How can this be right or fair? Critics of grammar schools are wrong. We need to nurture our brightest and best, and to do that we need more new grammars and where that isn't possible, existing grammars should create satellite annexes.
If I ever need brain surgery, I want my anaesthetist and surgeon to be bloody top-notch unashamedly brilliant. I do not want them hiding their light under a bushel as they slice into my skull. And to have excellence like that, we need to identify and nurture aptitude and ability early on.
Imagine for a moment making two simple changes to the current system: Allow state primary schools (not parents) to select able pupils and give them focussed tuition during the school day (this is important) in the key components of the test; and ensure that every town or city had a nearby grammar school. I would put money on the fact that within seven years, Oxford and Cambridge would be welcoming a hell of a lot more pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. By making it solely the decision and responsibility of the school, (and not that of the ambitious parents), you immediately level the playing field.
Suddenly little Chardonnay in whom the teacher spots a glimmer of the sharp and analytical young woman she has the potential to become, is given the same chance as young Henry, whose love of ancient ruins was bolstered by his half-term trip to Athens. Chardonnay's mum is working three jobs just to pay the electric. If the 11-Plus was taught within the school day then every eligible child has access to it. Even the most chaotic household by law has to send its kids to school. Getting rid of the private tutors would be a relief to the just-about-managing who struggle to find an extra £100 minimum per month. And suddenly it’s possible for kids, regardless of background, as long as they’re in school, to have a decent shot at passing this exam. This is the first step to true educational equality.
The second is to provide enough grammar school places. No child in a first world country should have to commute for several hours just to go to a suitable school. To those who insist that grammar schools don't work because they fail to attract kids from the poorest backgrounds, I say this: the current system is flawed for two reasons: the selection system is skewed and there aren't enough places. Address these two issues and we can start to achieve true meritocracy.
Currently, grammars house lots of averagely intelligent kids whose parents paid for either private schooling or tuition, or both. This isn’t wrong or illegal, it’s simply able parents working the system. By outlawing new grammars and not offering a suitable alternative, we have unwittingly created a system that only works if you have money, and that is grossly and utterly unfair. Poor but bright pupils need more grammar schools, not fewer. That is a sure-fire way to get more of them into top universities. But, I hear you shout, what about the disadvantaged kids who don't pass the 11-Plus? Like me in fact. Don't worry, there's hope for them too within a system in which grammars are thriving, but that's a whole different article.
Linden Kemkaran is a freelance journalist and writer. She is currently writing her first novel, ‘The Interview’