Phil Revell: Put grammars in the dustbin of history

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The Independent Online

Next week, television will bring us the second series of That'll Teach 'Em, the programme that re-creates the schooling from a previous generation. Last year it was a Fifties grammar school. This year, 30 middle-ability children are to be treated to a Sixties secondary-modern. And again we will have to listen to a lot of rubbish about how much better things were in the old days when children were divided into sheep and goats.

It is time to remind everyone that the Fifties were not a golden age, full of brilliant teachers and well-educated children. I know because I attended one of those supposedly superior grammar schools, 40 years ago.

On my first day I was impressed by the building, the teachers - and by the head-butt I received for being a stroppy little oik. My crime was to attempt to enter the building with the older boys, but a tiddler was just as likely to receive a biff for failing to wear his cap or for buttoning his blazer in the wrong order.

Bolton County Grammar School was well regarded, with some excellent teachers. But I can remember some absolutely awful staff, and teachers who had no idea how to control a class. In my O-level year we had a succession of temporary maths teachers, culminating in one poor women who lasted 20 minutes before she fled the building. I passed maths largely because I had the sine/cosine formulae written on the inside of my pencil case.

Those who press for a return to selection have forgotten, if they ever knew, how much the abolition of the 11-plus exam was welcomed in the Sixties and Seventies. Parents were heartily glad to be rid of the nightmare of cramming 10-year-olds for a test that could make or break their lives. But there was more to it than that. It's widely recognised that secondary-modern schools offered a second-class experience, but grammar schools weren't particularly successful either.

Forget the reminiscences from celebrity working-class boys who think that a grammar school education rescued them from t'mill or t'pit. The reality in my school was that pass rates were pathetic, and those most likely to fail were the children from working-class backgrounds.

I started school in 1965 with 90 others. We had passed the 11-plus, and were therefore thought to be the brightest kids in the town. Five years later, just 75 of the group gained five or more O-level passes. There are hundreds of comprehensive schools in Britain today that can do better than that. In the same year, just 45 sixth-form students left my school with A-level certificates and only 13 of them gained four passes.

Some modern grammars fail 10 per cent of their students, but GCSE success should be taken for granted in selective schools. The failure rate should be zero. If Thomas Telford Technology College can achieve a 100 per cent pass rate with a comprehensive intake - as it has for four years running - then why can't schools that have selected on ability?

Education research from the Fifties and Sixties offers a simple solution to this question. In any selective system the children at the bottom of the pile are likely to see themselves as failures and to do less well. So the bottom stream in my grammar school suffered from a self-fulfilling prophecy. Which explains why some 11-plus successes left school with just one O-level.

But there's more. Working-class children were more likely to drop out for other reasons. The culture was alien; they found it difficult to establish relationships with middle-class peers. At 16, these children often left school. My friend Michael M, with nine O-levels to his name, lasted less than a year in the sixth form.

Today's grammar-school cheerleaders have also forgotten that the entire system was based on a false premise. The "tripartite" system of grammars, secondary moderns and technical schools was based on research into intelligence carried out by Sir Cyril Burt in the 1930s. But Burt falsified his results. There were no clear and unambiguous differences between academic and practical children. The entire edifice was built on quicksand.

So let's consign the past to history and remember that selection was a bad thing, bad for pupils and bad for the United Kingdom.