The Truth about our schools

“The Truth About Our Schools: Exposing the myths, exploring the Evidence”, Melissa Benn & Janet Downs, 2015

“Required reading for each new Education Secretary” (Owen Jones)

I read this well-crafted and well evidenced book with much interest as a result of my own experiences as a teacher. Melissa Benn and Janet Downs address myths which have bedevilled any serious debate about comprehensive education in Great Britain. They deploy a wealth of evidence to de-construct these myths and set out clearly the value and worth of comprehensive education not just in the United Kingdom but world-wide.

The shame of the 11 plus

I have taught in and lead schools as a Deputy Headteacher and Headteacher in both selective and non-selective authorities. My first post was in a school in Kent, described as a High School, which was, in fact, a Secondary Modern School, for pupils aged 11 to 16. It was very clear that there was, indeed, a definite and marked perception that this school, and others like it, were inferior to the Grammar Schools which still flourish in that county.

Many of my students who were not selected to attend the local Grammar Schools felt themselves to be failures, even in the 1970’s, just as John Prescott describes in the book: “the message was that suddenly you are less than they are”. I can still recall, even now, the anxieties of parents and guardians at Parents’ Evenings as the time for selection drew near.

Grammar Schools do not have a monopoly of success

My teaching practices were in, respectively, a private school (Churchers College, Petersfield) and a rural 11-16 school in Hampshire.

I taught in a 11-18 comprehensive in East Sussex and was head of Sixth Form in a school in Caterham. My last two posts were as a Secondary School Deputy Head in Bournemouth, and as Secondary School Head, also in Bournemouth. Both schools were not Grammar Schools.

Bournemouth still operates a selective system of secondary education. Although there was very much a collegiate approach to shared challenges (not the least of these being underfunding) amongst my Headteacher colleagues (I was chair of BASH: Bournemouth Association of Headteachers), Bournemouth parents nonetheless competed to send their children to the local Grammar Schools.

My own school improved its GCSE outcomes very significantly during the time I was in post as Headteacher, from the mid-twenties to the mid-seventies in terms of 5 GCSEs at grades A*-C.  Students went on to excel at University. As Benn and Downs point out, Grammar schools do not have a monopoly of academic success.

Schools supporting their communities

I murmured my approval when I read Mary Boustead’s words, quoted by Benn and Downs:

“School teachers and support staff work every day to alleviate the burden that poverty places on the life chances of poor children. They do not need lectures on social mobility from politicians whose policies increase child poverty and blight poor children’s futures”

One of the ways we markedly improved attendance and attainment at the school was by setting up a breakfast and table tennis club. Many students lived in bedsits. Many had never left their post code. Many were members of families living for two generations on benefits.

Academies not the way forward

I can remember bridling when told by Michael Gove that the way forward for my school was to become an Academy. I wanted to tell him that his government was responsible for blighting the futures of our young people by policies which ensured the destruction of the public realm.

I was heartened and cheered by this book. It confirmed my beliefs in the value of a high-class education for all, not just the for the lucky few. I can still recall my astonishment at seeing the facilities available for students at Canford School and at Felsted School, where my brother in law was Bursar.

The Public-School Problem, the 7% problem, is one which undoubtedly needs further exploration.

So, surely, should be the issue of lifelong learning, which should be on offer for all, again, not just for the lucky few.

Chris Bradey