Education: The right school can save your life

Verity Horne was bullied at her comprehensive and had to deal with her mentally ill mother. Going to grammar school offered her a vital lifeline
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The Independent Culture
I GREW up in a maisonette on a rough council estate in Kent. My mother was disabled and suffered from declining mental health, and eventually I had to move out nine months before my A-level exams and go to live with my aunt and uncle. Yet, if I manage to get my predicted two As and a B at A-level this summer, I will be going to St Anne's College, Oxford in the autumn to study classics with Latin.

How did I manage it? Because from the age of 13 I was a pupil at a grammar school and it meant that going to school was a worthwhile and productive experience. Seeing the majority of my classmates from middle school proceed to abandon all hopes of a decent academic education at the local comprehensive has made me realise how going to a grammar school has given me the extra support I needed. I found myself among like-minded people, most of whom hoped to go to university and whose hopes were encouraged and turned into reality by teachers who found the time to support their students - in my case through some very troubled times. There were pupils from all social classes, but class didn't seem to matter. Everyone was there for the same reason, and we all mucked in.

Of course, selective schools which take the more intelligent students away from the comprehensive schools leave the local comprehensives at a disadvantage by lowering the average intellectual level of the students. But this also means that teachers at comprehensive schools - those who are enthusiastic enough to try - can attempt to motivate and inspire their students without holding back the brighter students who are able to find the standard of education that they need at the grammar school.

I know that putting students in streams in a comprehensive school according to their academic level helps combat the problem of holding back the brighter ones, but I think that there is much more to going to a selective school than just academia.

Attending a selective school made me more socially confident, as I was able to express myself without the fear of the relentless bullying I had suffered at middle school. Because I was reasonably intelligent I was accused of being a teacher's pet and mocked with abusive and foul language.

Had I attended the local comprehensive, I am in little doubt that the bullying would have not only continued, but increased, even though the school had a G-Plus stream. I would eventually have given up on the academic work. It would have got me into too much trouble with the other pupils to be seen to be doing well.

Admittedly, not all comprehensives are this bad and I know many people who have achieved as much, if not more, academic success as myself from going to a comprehensive. However, I remain convinced of the benefits of selective schools, especially in areas where academic success does not appear as widely appreciated as in other places.

Without the wonderful experience of talented and caring teachers, I would not have been able to overcome my domestic difficulties and be on my way to university. My mother's mental health problems caused extreme friction between the two of us, and while I managed to scrape through my GCSEs, carrying on to complete the A-levels I had started would have proved impossible at any other school with less dedicated staff.

Nine months before my examinations, my situation became such that I was forced to leave my mother under unpleasant circumstances. The deputy headteacher helped me to find an alternative home so that I could continue my A-level courses, and both the head and assistant head of senior school helped me to cope with the increasing academic pressure which resulted in a conditional offer from Oxford University, and one from Leeds University. Without the help of my teachers I would not have been able to continue my studies, and I feel that because I attended a grammar school the staff were more understanding, but it also gave me the determination to carry on and do well.

One teacher taught me Latin in his own time to help me prepare for my university application. Another taught me history in her spare time so that I could do an A-level in one year, again to help me get a place.

Grammar schools mean that the opportunity exists for all promising children to be nurtured to their full potential, regardless of background. They also help to provide the correct social conditions for such children, free from the pressures of children with no academic motivation.

Comprehensives need to be improved, of course, but does it really make sense to take away the opportunities grammar schools offer just because their pupils care more about their own futures?

In the end, Verity Horne got ABD A-level grades (in classics, history and physics respectively), and failed to win a place at Oxford. But she has won a place at Leeds to read for a four-year single honours degree in Latin, which she says she is delighted with