It might be the most moving real-life scene you’ll see on TV this year, the moment a disbelieving ten-year-old in south-east London learns from their mum that they’ve failed to get into the local grammar school. The child, one of four that are followed in a new BBC2 three-part series, doesn’t believe it at first and their mother has to repeat the words “you didn’t pass”, before the bad news fully registers.
Desmond Deehan describes the child’s experience as “a harrowing emotional journey”. And he should know. Deehan is headteacher of the school in question, Townley Grammar, in the south London borough of Bexley. “The most heart-rending part of it,” he says, as we meet in his office, “is the parental and adult pressure put on young people. Nowhere in anything that we do, or any grammar school I know, is there any mention of pass or fail.”
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The claim doesn’t sit well with the woman who’s also here at RT’s invitation. Beth Mckenzie is headteacher at Upland Primary School, where the four prospective grammar school students – Joanita, Summer, Philip and Roman – begin year six by taking the 11-plus. From her point of view, pupils do see an unsuccessful examday performance as a failure, and she has to pick up the pieces.
“I need to move very quickly and provide those children with good memories of their last year of primary school and what their education was like,” she says. “That, to me, is the biggest job.”
Upland and Townley are in Bexley, a borough that, like the neighbouring county of Kent and a scattering of education authorities across the country, still retains selective secondary education . The most academically able are selected by exam at the age of ten, and then educated separately. Both teachers are equally passionate about serving the needs of their children, but they have very different ideas about the benefits of the 11-plus.
Deehan believes in seeking out children with potential – “talent-spotting” is how he describes it in the programme. Mckenzie is focused on the psychological effects of a potentially traumatic encounter with success or failure so early in a child’s life: “We put so much pressure on children. Socially, and in education, they’re experiencing pressure like they never have before. I worry for this generation – what type of adults we are actually going to have. I think mental health is going to be a huge issue.”
We meet in the same week that Education Secretary Damian Hinds announces £50 million in funding for an extension of grammar schools, as long as they provide further help for children from deprived backgrounds. A tacit admission that grammars are middle-class enclaves. Not true of Townley, says Deehan. “We aren’t stuffed full of white middle-class children. We have a large proportion of black African students who live in overcrowded houses, often with a single parent.” Nonetheless, only three per cent of his pupils are on free school meals.
You can watch the trailer for Grammar Schools: Who Will Get In? below
There are other iniquities in the system, Mckenzie suggests. Children who aren’ t selected for grammar school are further disadvantaged when the pupils who are chosen are then withdrawn from general education. “Those children should have the exposure of having the most able around them in the class,” she says. “That’s why we don’t stream for many subjects at primary level, because we want our children to learn from the others. In English, we’d never stream, because being in a classroom when you’re hearing vocabulary from your peers is going to be far more powerful than hearing your teacher delivering that.”
If they are selected for Townley Grammar, Upland students enter a scholastic culture where the houses are named after Greek goddesses and the school motto is provided by Shakespeare: “This above all: to thine own self be true.” Mckenzie doesn’t disagree with such an overtly academic approach, she just believes all schools should have access to the best practices. “Teaching should be no different at grammars or comprehensives,” she says, “because an outstanding teacher should be an outstanding teacher in whatever school.”
At the heart of the debate is the issue of private tuition. “The 11-plus is demanding because it’s nothing like anything we have taught in our national curriculum,” says Mckenzie. “So, unless you’ve been tutored, you haven’t actually seen that format of exam until the moment you sit down.” Many parents at Upland, often those who can least afford it, pay tutors to get their children through the 11-plus. (One single mother in the film, who works in Poundland, spends £300 a month on tutoring.)
However, Deehan insists extra tuition doesn’t work. “In fact, the very opposite,” he says. “You often find that the ones who are intensively coached and have tuition are the ones who don’t succeed. You don’t need to spend £300 a month.”
Matters are further complicated for primary school head Mckenzie by the fact that her own daughter, presently at Upland, will be taking the 11-plus. “She’ll do it, because this is a selective borough,” says Mckenzie. “And if she passes, she’ll choose where she will go. Not me.”
The grammar school argument shows no sign of abating, and however long it lasts, it will always be rich in irony. Deehan, from a poor Irish immigrant family in south Wales, where he shared a bedroom with two brothers, went to “a very rough” secondary school. Now the headteacher of one of the top ten schools in London, his success could hardly be a better advert for the benefits of non-selective education. Not that he’ll admit it. “No,” he says. “It’s all down to a strong family.”
Grammar Schools: Who Will Get In? is a three-part series on BBC2 at 9pm on Tuesdays