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Long read: Your understanding of grammars requires improvement, Mr Gibb

Nick Gibb - photo by Policy Exchange, used under CC-A licence

Long read: Your understanding of grammars requires improvement, Mr Gibb

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The Secret Governor may or may not be on your governing board. They may also continue to refer to it as a ‘governing body’, which may or may not be an attitude which Requires Improvement. They have indicated that this post represents a very personal opinion, with which you may dis/agree wholeheartedly.

Articles published in The Secret Governor category reflect individual governors’ and trustees’ experiences and opinions. If you would like to contribute an article as The Secret Governor reflecting on your experiences and opinions, then please contact secret@moderngovernor.com.


I don’t normally write things Mr Gibb. But here I’ve written more than I’ve written in a very long time. I can’t help it.

I normally work hard at my day job, and do my best for the children at the school where I’m a governor (for reasons which might become clear, I won’t be sharing which school that is). I also try and interpret what I read from government – both local and national – in terms of how it might affect the children in our care. I confess that don’t know what you think of those involved in governance – I read on social media your colleague Damian Hinds (is he your boss? Or are you effectively his boss? It’s hard to tell who has the power within the Department sometimes) speaking to governors in the last few weeks, with warm words which could have been written by someone at the NGA for their own conference’s consumption. He apparently made the right noises (some noble aspirations with a lack of understanding of reality) but still, I’m not sure where you stand on governance. Maybe that’s not important.

However, I (and anyone else following government policies on education) know where you stand on grammar. Fronted adverbials and all that. You must know you’re asking for trouble by insisting for standards from primary-age children which interviewers are predictably too-ready to test you on. Utterly predictably, when you refuse to play their game you’re risking being hoisted by your own grammatical petard – though from what I recall from February’s announcement on times table tests, you repeatedly refused to do so – and couldn’t see why this might cause a lack of confidence in you.

Anyway, I know what you think about grammar – whether or not you are able to exemplify its correct use effortlessly, which I’m sure we’ll never find out in front of a camera or microphone. By the way, I think I used a fronted adverbial in that previous paragraph, just to maintain your interest. Maybe your evenings are spent reading Grammar Girl or something similar (I only know that Grammar Girl exists because it’s my go-to page when I can’t remember the correct usage of that and which).

I know that you love Knowledge

However, what I do know about – and by “know” I mean actually know, experience and understand (not just presume that I have it all onboard due to my innate rightness regarding education) is selection. Not which team Gareth Southgate will choose to face Belgium on Thursday, but an ultimately far more important type of selection.

You see, I’m a governor in a school in a fully-selective local authority.

This is an authority (Conservative-run, which won’t surprise you, and may make you swell with pride Mr Gibb) in which grammar schools aren’t there in name only. They are baked-in, part of the true-blue DNA of the area. Every primary school-age child is expected to do the 11-plus and for most children, much of the course of their life will be determined by how they perform in that test. I’m also aware of your boss / colleague / subordinate’s reported commitment to widening the reach of grammars.

Last week, in the context of all that, I saw this:

which is a trail for Minister to urge grammars to take over the running of failing state schools in a new drive to boost standards. In this article (trailing your speech to the Grammar School Heads Association) you posit the seemingly sensible move that grammar schools should effectively run nearby “comprehensives” and implement their ethos and high expectations. If I was playing Education Buzzword Bingo then I would be shouting House relatively soon I think.

Now, I don’t know what universe you live in, Minister. I know that in some respects you are on a journey where the rear-view mirror has a definite rose tint to it – and every time you glance there you see a bright future past. Do you know the reality, Mr Gibb? Do you understand how one element of a particular system affects every other element? Does the law of unintended consequences not apply when one is moving backwards to an imagined Golden Age?

Here are some of the direct consequences of a selective system, which I don’t think you understand. Frankly, if you do know that they happen and yet still persist in your intended course, then I’m terrified for our future.

Social engineering

I know the line about social mobility and grammars. I know it’s what’s – let’s be honest – parroted by anyone from the DfE who stands at the despatch box, or appears before the Commons Education Committee. But – and you must be aware of this, Minister – there’s no genuine evidence that it makes a difference. In this area, grammars just amplify the social divisions in society. Students who – for whatever reason – don’t end up going to grammar schools are seen by their grammar-attending peers – and, often more worryingly, the families of those children – as second-class citizens. There’s no other phrase for it. If you were to visit a non-grammar secondary school – and I can’t see it happening – and utter the words social mobility you would be laughed off the premises.

Even the OECD says:

Selecting pupils on the basis of academic achievement tends to create great social differences between schools. It also increases the link between socio-economic status and performance – it tends to accelerate the progress of those who have already gained the best start in life from their parents.

Ten Steps to Equity in Education

Rafiq Raja of the Muslim Parents Association has put it another way:

 ‘The 11-plus is a legalised form of discrimination’

‘Tutor-proof’ 11-plus professor admits grammar school test doesn’t work

Please explain to me how the system I’m in enhances social mobility, Mr Gibb. Every piece of evidence I see (and you love evidence, don’t you?) screams the opposite.

Coaching and the 11-plus

The article Rafiq Raja is quoted in highlights another issue about the mechanisms of selection. In recent years at least one LA’s 11-plus has been changed to – apparently – make it tuition-proof- you even said yourself, Mr Gibb, that this was the ‘holy grail’ of selective education. This has widely been regarded as a failure – even by those within grammar schools who’ve dismissed your thoughts on this as ‘utopian‘ . Around here this failure can be judged by the number of vans I see from 11-plus tuition companies (vans, for goodness sake – what is in those?), and those centres – on high streets and even attached to supermarkets – where, for a price, parents who can stump up the cash can get attempt to fund a Golden Ticket for their children:

The corrosive effect on primary education

In primaries (yes, even maintained primaries) we do a bloody good job in the circumstances of shrinking funding and a Department which seems to have been winging it for eight years now. I knew that the 11-plus affected secondaries (obviously) and the end of primary but – but – I had no real understanding of the degree to which it infects – and that’s not too strong a word, if anything it’s mild – every single element of education around here.

A significant element of our funding is based on pupil numbers – and therefore how parents feel about the school and what it will do for their children directly affects our funding. If parents start to feel – rightly or wrongly – that a school won’t be effective at jumping children through the artificial and arbitrary hoops which the 11-plus erects in their educational journey – then parents will look elsewhere. I’ve known of primaries suffer massive depopulation in terms of pupils numbers, just because a feeling builds up among the parent body that the school isn’t focusing enough on the 11-plus. No matter if schools are offering an education which is beautifully broad and perfectly balanced, when those outcomes aren’t valued by the system then the educational environment becomes skewed, and odd, and non-inclusive and – let’s be honest – elitist.

It’s not surprising that when I first moved to this area I didn’t quite understand why there were so many primary-age prep and independent schools around, yet relatively few independent secondary schools. It didn’t take long to understand.

Funding

As mentioned, the previous issue directly affects funding, but there appear to be policy decision which have an equally significant effect. When your colleague Mr Hinds was addressing the recent NGA conference, I saw it reported that funding for grammars was covered in a question put to him:

Reading those, it’s hard not to see favouritism.

There’s also a more insidious issue, which is directly related to the social engineering element described above. As a representative from the local authority said to me once

a grammar school can raise more funds from parents in a coffee morning than a secondary modern can in a whole year of fundraising.

This further amplifies the divisions and (in the current underfunded environment we’re operating in) gives rise to further inequality and division.

If you’re the bursar or school business manager in a grammar school, then you effectively have guaranteed pupil numbers, so there are absolutely no worries about your actual budget for next year being smaller than you’d anticipated. Of course, like everywhere else, it’s shrinking in real-terms, but you don’t have the added worries created by a potentially fluctuating roll. You’re also less likely to have children with significant additional needs – for which additional support funding is being cut, so again that’s to your advantage.

If you’re performing the same role in a secondary modern, then all of those situations are reversed, and the cumulative effect can be crippling. Which leads to…

Staff recruitment and retention

Imagine you’re trying to recruit staff in an area like this. If you’re a grammar – well, that’s easy.  The financial advantages described above mean that the pitch is tilted in your favour, and you can afford to pay what you need. Plus, secondary moderns are normally more dependent on the local authority for support and are (in my experience) less likely to academise. This means that if a secondary modern wanted (in a parallel universe, obviously) to counteract the pull of working at a grammar, then the regulations around teacher pay mean that they couldn’t. Anyone involved in education knows that high-quality, well-trained, well-supported teachers

Edge effects

Our wholly-selective area sits next to several non-selective local authorities. An unintended consequence is that wealthy parents from these comprehensive LAs are affected by the coaching bug mentioned earlier. Their children (who fortunately for them are almost certainly in primaries which aren’t distracted by the looming 11-plus) are often put through preparation for the 11-plus, which means fewer school  places for children living near those schools. This means that in the mornings, trains and buses are loaded with children travelling miles and miles and miles to attend schools they live nowhere near. And on that…

Environmental & public health impact

What does selection have to do with the environment, Mr Gibb? Well, it’s quite simple. When I lived in a non-selective area, secondary-age children (with very few exceptions) went to their local state school. Primaries fed into secondaries, firsts into middles into uppers. One natural outcome of this was that communities formed around their local schools. Students lived, played with, learned with local children, families had connections around the corner and in the school around the next corner. Most walked, or cycled. Some got lifts in cars, but hey, that always happens.

What happens now, in my fully-selective location? The bizarre logistics of selection mean that, every morning and afternoon, the roads are log-jammed with buses, driving across the area, picking up small clusters of ones and twos and sixes and sevens of children to drive them ten or fifteen miles. Not just to grammars – but to the secondary moderns, as even if there’s a good school at the end of your road, you’ve no right to attend it unless you pass a flawed test (one in which success can effectively be bought). And that’s leads to the biggest issue which (to my mind) Minister, you’ve wilfully misunderstood.

The myth of grammars as representing opportunity for all

When asked, most people say that they would quite like their child to go to a grammar school. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? Would you like your boy or girl to play football for the English national team (I say England because this feels like a peculiarly English obsession).

No-one (well, no-one in the high-profile debates I’ve followed around the expansion of grammars) asks the corresponding question:

Would you like to have schools in your area which find it hard to recruit staff, receive less funding and favour from government, suffer from fluctuating and unpredictable rolls. Would you also like primary schools in your area to be under additional pressure in every aspect of their existence – with a particular impact in how they are viewed by parents and the focus of their curriculum?

No? I didn’t think so either.

Finally, in the article which prompted my thoughts, and intense reflection, there’s one of the most cynical views of the other secondary schools around grammars. Mr Gibb, read this slowly:

The existence of a grammar makes other secondary schools selective

As someone else better than me at this sort of thing has observed:

Grammars represent opportunity for those who can game the system – they create an artificial educational apartheid which you and your colleagues often portray as being “about parental choice” – yet even this phrase tells me that anyone who utters it has absolutely no understanding of the implications of what they’re advocating.

I know plenty of staff in local grammars – like their colleagues in local secondary moderns, they want the best for the students in their care. However, many of them acknowledge that the educational deck of cards they’re playing with has been rigged and that the hand they have been dealt is somewhat rigged. This isn’t about them and whether they’re right or wrong,  it’s the rules of the game which are rigged around here, and its effect is everywhere.

Incompetence – or something worse?

Sometimes, when I see you and your fellow-ministers look questioners dead in the eye and declare (with no apparent sense of irony) that schools are in a better position financially than they ever have been – when everyone of any credibility, experience and knowledge (oh look, that again) knows that statement is incorrect, I’m left with two options:

  • To believe that you don’t know such a statement isn’t true. This would make you incompetent – why wouldn’t a minister know this? If I was as oblivious to the finances of my school as this option makes you oblivious to the bigger picture of school funding, I’d be in trouble. Why aren’t you?
  • The second option is that you know such a statement isn’t true – and that actually redundancies, reduced school days, larger class sizes are directly related to the financial carnage that is being wreaked upon schools. This (and I won’t say the obvious conclusion) – would mean that… well, you’d be violating the Nolan principles of public life. As a governor I’d be (rightly) brought up on this – if it’s the case for me, why aren’t you?

This is the heart of the issue with what you and yours say about selection, Mr Gibb. You either don’t know it’s not true (in which case shame on you for not working harder to find the truth) or you know it isn’t, in which case shame on you for peddling a falsehood. Tell me, Minister, which is it?

An alternative to grammars

Here’s my alternative, Mr Gibb, it’s summed up in a simple sentence. If you can’t or won’t do this, at least have the courage to tell us. You’d get more respect that way.

Fund all schools properly.

I’ve said my piece and I’m done for now. Done as a governor? I’m not sure.


Image source: based on Schools minister Nick Gibb MP gives the introduction at the second annual Policy Exchange Education Lecture by Policy Exchange – used under a CC-BY 2.0 licence.


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