Somebody stupid, somebody clever

seagull_300px_jpg_300x10000_q85I started thinking about Kent education when my daughter failed her eleven plus. The schools were bad and the options were limited.

It is the natural instinct of a parent to protect their child. A seagull chick fell off our roof yesterday and it’s mother flew at everybody that walked by. That’s me with education.

Last week I asked my daughter what she thought of Kent’s selective education system. She said, “I don’t know. I suppose someone decided I was right for my school because I’m not as smart as (friends names).”

I asked if she thought this way to assign schools was good. “I don’t know, I suppose someone clever thought it was best way.”

She might just as well tug her forelock and say ‘sorry sir’ to her clever superiors..! But she is only fifteen, I am being hard on her. But I don’t like that she feels unworthy of an opinion.

She’s never been confident. There is no way of knowing whether her confidence was shaped by a test at ten. Would it have increased if she was surrounded by confident kids at grammar school? If she’d gone to a comprehensive school would this have had a neutral effect on her self worth, while her secondary modern makes her feel less sure of herself?

Lots of things shape us, though few are as blunt as failure at ten. It is quite possible her secondary modern education had no impact on her personality. But I do believe education is about more than exams, so I do think this aspect is worthy of study. I would love to see a decent study look at eleven plus failures and their aspirations. We believe grammar schools give people the confidence to become prime ministers, but do secondary moderns lower the ambitions of the rest?

I’ve also been talking to Peter Hitchens about education. Obviously he doesn’t have a confidence problem; he feels sure he knows the best way to improve our schools. This Twitter conversation started when I did a search for ‘grammar schools’ and interrupted a conversation to ask a question. I didn’t even know he was in the conversation. I’ve read many of his articles so I was aware of his support for selective education.

This turned into a very interesting debate. It led to two days of distracting tweets, this blog post and his response to it on his Mail Online blog.

At first I felt in awe of him, he writes books, he’s been on Question Time, our shelves are full of his books (he is one of my husband’s favourite writers..!) He is super smart and notoriously blunt.

I got my lack of confidence under control. (I went to a good comprehensive) while he entered the fray with little chance of nerves (he went to a private school.) It was the Noted Peter Hitchens versus Kent Mum with a blog (I will try not to tug my forelock.)

I am not as insecure as a 15 year old intelligence test failure, but I am not as sure in a debate as a journalist who’s studied grammar education. However I do have first hand experience of selective education, plus FOI requests and selective school stats.

I simply don’t like the selective system in Kent. (This is never the kind of argument I’d use with Peter Hitchens!) I see it’s not working in our county. Or at least it is only working if you are the right ‘sort’ and go to grammar school. I would hope for an education system that benefits more people. Here secondary modern children lose out on schools two ways. They can’t apply to the grammars, and can’t apply to the best of the rest (where places are decided by house prices just like in comprehensive areas.) So I support good schools for all sectors of society. I would like a way of allocating the best schools that doesn’t involve either IQ or wealth.

So my opinions are changing as I look into this more. It is easy to believe it is better ‘out there’ in the comprehensive world, but I see now that it is messed up in selective Kent, and messed up in comprehensive land too.

So what is the solution? Perhaps this is an advantage of my in-between sort of confidence. I neither accept the way things are now, or feel I already have the answers. I am not fixed in my views and I am willing to learn. I like this exploring approach, and I would like to see more people on both sides listening to each other and adapting plans based on the other sides views.

So I explored a few things on Twitter, and got a swift lesson in selective education from an expert. I feel lucky to have done so.

It is tempting to want to go through the comments Peter Hitchens wrote about my blog post. I could try to back up my statements and provide facts… But I decided to write this comment post instead. I will let Peter Hitchens have the last word.

It is frustrating that he criticised some things I now rethinking. But I am not ashamed for rethinking things. The best kind of education involves discovering facts and interpreting new information.

So my words were prodded, poked and criticised, but it was okay (just about.) I survived the mauling.

The points I made have reached a wider audience, I am grateful for that. Some of them were good points, and he even agreed about the library! I think both sides were heard and that is good. This should not be about ‘winners’ in a debate but about making schools better. Talking, raising awareness and considering education is all a Good Thing.

I think the ‘Hated Peter Hitchens’ listened well to my points, even if it was only to find a clear point to dispute mine! I am hoping I don’t get a lot of abuse in the comments of his blog (I haven’t looked yet) but anyone who writes online has to take that chance. I’ve kept all this anonymous to distance myself from potential nastiness.

I am determined to try to fix Kent education. That might sound a bit grand, but why not be ambitious? I would love a big fix, but I will be happy with a little one. A little fix might be getting people noticing the inequality in the grammar school places, or thinking twice before hiring a tutor, or setting up education debates in a few Kent towns.

I think the Kent test is here to stay, but maybe there are tweaks to make it fairer?  I am also interested in the fact that we have a law that allows people to choose their education system. It bothers me that the government’s own advisors say this doesn’t work. I’m a fan of democracy as well as education, and see that this law was patched up in June to apply to academies. Rather too late, and with no clarity as to whether this change applies to the academies that already exist. It seems like a forgotten bit of law in general, but it is a law so it matters. I may have a little prod at this bit of the Kent education agenda.

So, I will keep blogging and questioning, and planning a few things. I am very grateful to Peter Hitchens for presenting my side on his blog. It would have been easy to cut snippets and paraphrase. He is an excellent chap, both fair and decent as well as smart.

I’m sorry he feels I didn’t answer his question completely. I feel he didn’t answer my question in a satisfying way.


When I asked, ‘How does opening grammar schools make better schools for the 80% in secondary moderns?’ His reply was, ‘I didn’t say it did.’

He said ‘We are also leaving the armed forces, Tony Hancock, Iran, Strictly Come Dancing, Greece, Kate Moss,  the BBC licence fee, the weather and Wimbledon out of the discussion. That doesn’t mean we don’t think these things are important or interesting. It just means we aren’t talking about them just now.’

I would say that secondary moderns have a whole lot more relevance to the grammar school debate than Strictly Come Dancing. They are the other side of the coin. You can’t have academic schools without non-academic schools. Unlike the licence fee or the weather. It rains just as much on bog standard comprehensives as bog standard secondary moderns, sadly there is not much sunshine and happiness in either school.

So I would like more detail on this aspect. As a mum of a secondary modern pupil I want reassurance that ‘bog standard’ secondary moderns get something out of selective education too. If grammar schools come back then the majority of the UK population will be attending these schools.

But more than that, I want practical changes in Kent. I want clever chaps like Peter Hitchens to get their hands dirty and help here. We have the eleven plus (selective education fans like the eleven plus!) so why isn’t it working? And how can it be made to work?

There is so much  theoretical debate about how great the selective education system is, but we have selective education in a couple of counties. So why don’t selective education fans make it work so well in these counties that the rest need to copy it?

Unfortunately I don’t see selective education fans saying how great education in Kent is. I am not convinced that selective education is great.

I would prefer a Grand Plan for UK education, though I think small practical changes may be more achievable. But maybe Kent could just adapt to become a model county for selective education? ‘If’ Kent offered good schools for all and fair allocation of places then I will be happy, selective fans will be happy, and most importantly a whole lot of children will benefit.

Education is the most important thing, it shapes our whole society. I’d like it to consider more than exam results (But that’s another post..!) I feel we have a disappointing lack of ambition for a Great Big Education Plan. Why can’t we aim to have the best education system in the world? It’s been patched up by successive governments with so many changes, and often they don’t even work together. I understand why this is, but it frustrates me.

I started this post with my daughter’s views. According to ‘the system’ she is one of the dullards. I was just like her when I was a child. I could well have had a brain freeze and failed the eleven plus.

I gained confidence many years after school and I went to university at twenty five. Education goes on beyond school, and of course decent parenting is just as important as schooling. My daughter knows I tweeted a clever chap who always impresses me on Question Time. I told her I found the whole thing hard work, a bit scary, but also rewarding and educational.

Perhaps there’s some lesson for her there? Maybe she will grow up and not believe ‘someone clever knows better than me.’ Perhaps she will follow my lead and decide her opinions should be heard. Fixing UK education is going to be a  long term project, so perhaps she will  even grow up and press for educational changes that benefit her children?

But we’re not supposed to dream our children fulfil our own ambitions! So I will simply hope she survives school, and wants to go to university when all around her are settling for less. I am still annoyed by the idea of these ‘settling for things’ schools; so on the whole I would support comprehensive reform. But I’ll keep thinking, exploring and blogging, and I hope our education system will one day get things right .


5 thoughts on “Somebody stupid, somebody clever

  1. The point about “When I asked, ‘How does opening grammar schools make better schools for the 80% in secondary moderns?’ His reply was, ‘I didn’t say it did.’”

    Is the same as saying “When I asked, ‘How does opening elite football academies make better schools for the 20% in grammar schools?’ His reply was, ‘I didn’t say it did.’

    As Hitchens Minor keeps repeating, you don’t make Secondary Moderns better by closing Grammar Schools.

    Just like you wouldn’t make Grammar Schools (or Technical Schools, or world famous Schools of Performing Arts) better by closing elite Football Academies.

    There were two “problems” with Grammar Schools:

    They were though to be the pinnacle of achievement (all achievement, not just academic).

    And it was thought that anyone who “failed” to get into them was a failure.

    But it was the anti-grammar school activists who promoted those beliefs!

    Everywhere else non academics are as, if not more, prized as non-academics.

    I remember working on a major project for a Japanese client and was briefed on cultural differences.

    One thing that was stressed was how it was important to afford people’s business cards as much respect as the people themselves:

    The Japanese would give you a pristine card, and you would be expected to keep it pristine.

    However, it was pointed out that when the person giving the briefing had met the chief financial officer he made a great play of trying to find his card, and then “apologetically” digging out an old card.

    Which confirmed that, while he might currently by the CFO, he had actually been the Chief Engineer previously, something he though entitled him to far more respect (which it did in Japan)!

    We need to bring back grammars, properly introduce technical grammars, bring back proper polytechnics, let children with absolutely no interest in school based learning, never mind academic study (remember most kids weren’t up to CSEs, never mind O and A Levels! so why are we pushing half of them into “university” until 21 never mind school to 18?!).

    And if there is anything wrong with “Secondary Moderns” or “Comprehensives” as they are now known:

    Fix THAT!


    1. I am sorry that Kent Mom’s daughter lacks confidence. One does not need to be in a grammar school in order to analyze and reason. If compensating for her failure to qualify for a grammar school really would be important for her to improve her character, then perhaps her parents could arrange for her to succeed in academic-based extra-curricular activities, e.g. join a math competition, write an essay to earn a scholarship for college, or audit an university course on history (I did that at 13).

      It seems to me that a selective system like the post-war English tripartite system should be generally acceptable to a citizenry that is not blinded by class prejudice or egalitarian ideology if it is understood to select on the basis of aptitude rather than intelligence. Mr. Hitchens favours the German arrangement of allowing for re-tries after the initial 11-plus, which would should also make selection less distasteful. Every reasonably able child can do something useful for which he is well suited, and most children are not best suited for a life of intense academic study. One does not need a Ph.D. to possess and employ intelligence. A good public education system (and a good country’s economy) should ideally be organized on this basis in order to encourage the highest possible degree of excellence of the population in everything. Moreover, there is nothing that stops a warehouse labourer or a grocery store cashier from indulging himself in Rousseau and Dostoevsky if he wants to – that was me, once.

      I must make a disclaimer: I have no experience of Kent or England, and I suspect that there are issues of class or social standing in selection in England that I am ignorant of. Almost all that I have learned about this controversy has been through Peter Hitchens. My secondary education was entirely comprehensive in a Canadian high school. In retrospect, I see that I received mediocre schooling and that I owe most of my more advanced learning (apart from computer science) to my thoughtful, knowledge-loving mother. And, yes, we labelled each other as geeks, jocks, princesses, retards, etc. – that’s human nature in any school system, comprehensive or selective.


      1. it would defeat the purpose of the Grammar system, to churn out cannon fodder, nationalists and religious fanatics, if the secondary modern offered a decent education. The Empire needed butchers, the grammar system created them, and the private school educated elite lead them to slaughter. That was the point, nothing more, nothing less.


      2. As a response to Rob Godfrey’s comment, it would not defeat the purpose of Grammar schools. Think of it this way, within comprehensive schools currently (I worked in one in Kent) pupils are divided into “sets”. These are classes separated based on ability. Lower sets in maths for example, are for pupils whose mathematical achievement is currently very low and they do not possess advanced skills necessary for higher grades (yet). The hope is that eventually they will, but it is easier to teach a group of kids at the same level as their peers so each lesson can focus on what everyone needs. If teaching is made amazing for the lower sets and higher sets does that abolish the need for higher sets? No of course not. Each group is starting at a completely different level.

        The ideal outcome (although this sadly doesn’t work out because each child has their limits) would be that children of lower ability could catch up. Since this is often not practical, then the most fair option is that we help the lower abilities to make as much progress as is both comfortable to them, and comparable to the amount of progress made by their peers. Grammar schools would only embody a bigger part of this across schools rather than just within them. It would only be the first (more drastic and noticable) split in ability, further to many smaller ones that are made within the schools themselves.


  2. It is always nice to see two people engage in debate over the internet in a way that is full of respect for each other, and that they have a willingness to listen to and learn from what the other is saying. It is all too rare, so thank you for taking part in it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s