Sunday, 5 February 2012

Opportunities Denied At 10 Years Old

Back before the last general election I wrote at how opportunities for people who have not been to a public school (i.e. an elite fee-paying school in the UK sense of the term) to have a good career and a decent salary were being closed off:  I anticipated that if David Cameron came to power then this situation would worsen, which is certainly the case.  I also see that I thought that it would be difficult for Cameron to get into power which also proved to be the situation given he was only able to do it as a part of a coalition which was difficult to negotiate.  Up until now I have tended to view the decline in the opportunity for ordinary people (the 90% of the population who earn up to £40,000 per year or less; the average yearly income was £38,547 [€45,870; US$59,740] in 2011 which means since I was made redundant in 2010; on £35,000 per year, I have fallen back below average whereas in 2005 I was earning about 50% more than the average) as a rather objective situation.  However, with the 10-year old living in my house it has began to impact literally closer to home.

In his first week back at school he received a letter advising his mother about the steps she could take to prepare him for the 11+ examination.  This letter went out to all parents no matter what academic ability they have.  Until the 1970s the 11+ exam was universal in the UK.  It was the examination which pupils took at 10 to determine which school they went to.  There were supposed to be three strands along the lines of the German model: the grammar school for academically capable pupils, the secondary modern school for the ordinary pupil with a vocational focus and the technical school for pupils who showed particular technical ability.  Typically for Britain the number of technical schools was tiny and many have become technical colleges these days instead offering post-16 education.  This system was introduced in 1947 and while it began to disappear from much of the UK in the 1960s and 1970s it was retained in certain counties such as Kent, Buckinghamshire, Lincolnshire and parts of other counties such as Wiltshire, Warwickshire and Merseyside. 

The trouble with the so-called Tripartite (read Bipartite) System is what it denied the 75% of pupils who would be sent to a secondary modern school.  They would not have a chance to study a foreign language and the school would be poor in science facilities.  The secondary modern pupils would not have the ability to study the curriculum for certain qualifications let alone take the examinations.  Thus, there would be no chance to go to study in further education (i.e. for 'A' Levels) let alone higher education.  You can see why the creation of the Open University in 1969 setting no such hurdles was so radical in this context.  At the age of 11 a person was locked into a path which unless they were incredibly lucky or their parents had the money to take them out of the system and pay for a school place, they could not escape.

There was a further challenge.  Across England and Wales 25% of pupils went to grammar school but the level at a local level could vary considerably.  A mark in the 11+ plus which would have easily got you into a grammar school in one district, say one with an ageing population, would be insufficient to win you a place in another district with more younger families.  Some towns had more grammar schools than others.  Grammar schools were often single sex so a twin boy and girl could get exactly the same grade in the 11+ and one would get into grammar school and one would not, usually the girl as the mark needed to get into grammar schools was higher for girls than boys both due to provision and girls' abilities at 11.  In a country that was trying to develop an educated workforce and provide equal opportunities you can see why the system was unsatisfactory.  If you have, as I have done, spoken to teachers who work in secondary schools in the areas where this system persists, you find how demoralised secondary modern school teachers are knowing their pupils are being shut off from a range of opportunities.  Similarly talk to parents shifting across the Kent-Sussex border. 

In most places in England and Wales schools steadily turned to comprehensive schools which means that they take pupils without any selection by ability, though they may select on the basis of where they live and increasingly on faith as well.  As was reported last month, the Church of England will be able to associate itself with schools that have previously been non-faith, despite the fact that only 5% of the UK population attends any denomination of church regularly.  When a school becomes a faith school it can discriminate against pupils and staff on the basis of religion and even which church or other religious institution in the case of non-Christian faiths, they attend.  Discrimination on the basis of faith is also a covert way to discriminate on the basis of social class and ability, something I have discussed before:  The woman in my house sent her son to a faith school and he got in on grounds of proximity to the school rather than her particular faith, to the disadvantage of less capable pupils who were regular attenders at the associated church.  An additional unsettling fact about the school is how self-righteous its interaction is with parents and how with a faith is supposed to come a subscription to a kind of lifestyle which was going out of date in the 1950s: mother at home all day, able to bake and sew to provide cakes and historic costumes for school events at regular intervals, able to collect a child from school at any time of the school day.

The Blair governments in the 2000s allowed the creation of more faith schools and of new grammar schools, thus beginning to turn back from the comprehensive model which had been promoted by the Labour Party in previous decades.  To a great extent this was because Blair's personal agenda was Christian Democrat rather than Socialist, Labourite or even Liberal.  We now have a mish-mash system with a mix of faith schools, selective grammar schools and academies which are centrally funded schools often revived failing schools with a particular curriculum focus such as in art, sports or technology.  On top of this are the so-called 'free schools' permitted by the coalition government which can be created by groups of parents or other interested bodies.  It might appear that this creates wider opportunity through greater variety.  However, it becomes an issue of Venn circles.  If you are not of a particular faith (or even if you are but attend a different church), if you child cannot pass a particular examination, if you did not have the time to insinuate yourself into a particular circle of parents, if your child's strengths are not in the area of the specialist schools in your district, then you quickly find that your choices have fallen away.

I will turn to the particular example of the selection facing the 10-year old in my house.  Those who live in the town, which is in southern England, may detect it from the statistics, but as always I will hold back from naming it due to wanting to protect my identity.  In the town precisely 30% of the secondary schools are girls' schools and 30% are boys' schools.  This is an unusually high percentage and I wonder what the history is behind this.  In the town 20% of the schools are selective grammar schools; 20% are Christian faith schools of different denominations; 20% are specialist schools focusing on two different subject areas.  As you will have guessed, there is some overlap between these different categories but I will not outline how many fall into more than one category for fear of giving the town away too easily.  Now, only 20% of the schools are co-educational, comprehensive schools.  Thus, if you do not mesh against the particular criteria (a number of which are mutually exclusive, i.e. boy/girl, different denominations, different specialisations) you rapidly come down to selecting between only 20% of the school stock in the town and that is entirely ignoring geographical location.

The boy who lives in my house has already been told that he cannot sit the 11+ as his handwriting is insufficiently good. As it is, the guidance provided by his primary school (which though a faith school is comprehensive) is that unless his mother can afford to buy past papers and engage a personal tutor then his chances are low.  We are already familiar with income shutting the boy out from certain opportunities as even our combined household budget does not stretch to the £365 needed for him to attend the residential course for Year 6 pupils and so he is shut out from that.  We are not a 'poor' 'family' compared to those on benefits and yet even in our kind of average income we cannot access opportunities that would benefit the boy; it will be worse when he reaches secondary school. 

It is ironic that he is already written out of the 11+ as he is in the top set for mathematics in his school and his abilities in computing and science have already been recognised; his vocabulary too is extensive and his reading age is about 12 though he is too lazy to read more.  Now, the National Curriculum compels all schools to teach a wider curriculum than was the case with secondary modern schools.  Even specialist schools ironically have to teach subjects which seem a long way from its specialism.  In addition we do not live in an entirely tripartite system area and whilst 60% of the schools select on certain criteria they do not explicitly discriminate in terms of ability.

The trouble with the rum assortment of schools on offer is the attitude.  Single sex schools benefit girls much more than boys.  However, in an age where the division between sexes is hardening at an alarming rate and is a tendency which promotes sexist behaviour and violence especially from young men, it seems terrible to put so many boys into an environment without girls.  Ironically the teaching will still be a more female friendly approach but without the girls to show how this works.  It is tougher for the boy from my house as he works so well with girls let alone being popular with them.  I can just see him being transformed into one of these thugs that expects girls to serve him sexually and that fighting is a norm.  In a town with a grammar school he will know from the age of 10 that he is 'not good enough' to attain that level.  What does that do to his aspirations?

Until the mid-2000s Britain was doing pretty well in encouraging people who were 'late developers' in academic study or need to change track in what they had studied.  Funding has been shut down for such education and the number of mature students going to university has already fallen by 15%.  Thus, as back in the 1950s once you have failed to get into grammar school, later opportunities will be scarce.  A 10-year old is amazingly alert to such divisions and the likelihood is that he will be shut off from pupils who might write more neatly and yet not be half as good in science or computing and be made to feel that he is the 'second best'.  He may also be shut off from girls as if they were a different species.  What is that going to do to his interaction with the opposite sex when inter-gender relationships are becoming dangerous, not only in terms of personal relationships but in the workplace where they need to function well. 

I know I am beginning to sound like an embittered middle class parent whose child failed the 11+.  However, this is the perspective of the majority in England and Wales.  The British schooling system may have faced difficulties but since 1997 there has been a rush to wreck even the good that was there and to adopt so many different fads and to adopt so many criteria on which children can be categorised that we have been left with a bewildering array of schools without an increase in overall quality and which promote mindsets that say putting people into boxes on gender, religion and ability is fine.  You cannot sustain a fair and equal society when so many young people are being exposed both to such segregation and for so many a sense that already at the age of 11 they have failed.  Are we surprised at the disengagement with our society and the violence that breeds if a child of well-educated (pseudo-)parents of a reasonable income face such disappointment, how much harder must it be for those without such advantages?

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