Grammar schools: Even the BBC is waking up to the painful, divisive reality
I suspect I am not the only person who felt beamed into some alien universe watching the first episode of Grammar Schools: Who Will Get In?, BBC2’s mini-series focusing on the transfer to secondary school in the selective borough of Bexley.
Are there really parts of diverse, metropolitan London in 2018 in which primary-age children are put through the 11-plus test? Who could not be haunted by the silent tears of Jaenita’s mother, who works at Poundland and has spent hundreds of pounds a month for years on test tuition, only to see her plucky, articulate daughter fear herself “a failure in life”?
Parts two and three of the series will concentrate on the secondary school years, particularly the run-up to GCSEs, with Erith secondary modern struggling with a minority of disruptive students and severe teacher shortages in science, while Townley grammar has the pick of highly qualified staff.
It’s riveting drama. But what most strikes me is the subtle way that broadcasters have changed their approach to this divisive subject. A 2006 BBC documentary about Joe Prentis, a Birmingham boy going through the 11-plus nightmare, was much less critical about the process, happy to describe families “seeking refuge” in a grammar school at a time of “failing standards”.
In 2012, I was part of a group that made a complaint to the BBC about its documentary Grammar Schools: A Secret History, a rosily nostalgic view of postwar selection that saluted the grammar schools of old. We didn’t succeed with our complaint but we gave the BBC a run for its taxpayers’ money in terms of the politics of misrepresentation.
So why does this series feel a bit different in tone and content? It’s partly that television has extended its reach in the intervening years, with popular programmes such as Educating Essex and Educating Yorkshire, which have brought so many brilliant heads, teachers and young people into sympathetic view. There’s more than a hint of “Educating Bexley” about the new series. More generally, as a society, we’ve developed a keener understanding of the emotional component of learning – so there’s much less of the stiff BBC upper lip about 11-plus failure and more of a sense of the damaging effect of the test throughout secondary education – and not just on those who have failed.
But the shift is partly down to politics. Theresa May’s rash decision in 2016to put selection back on the agenda has angered and worried parents and teachers and united the educational world against her plans. A string ofacademic studies have undermined the old myths of the grammar lobby, still repeated here by Townley grammar’s headteacher, who says his job is “talent spotting” and seems to believe that selection is not a problem for neighbouring schools, and that clever teenagers can only achieve if segregated from most of their peers.
Grammar Schools: Who Will Get In? reflects this shift in public, professional and political opinion through its use of indisputable facts, such as the lownumbers of children on free school meals who get into grammars (Townley itself currently has only 3% of students on free school meals), and the crisis in teacher recruitment in non-selective schools. But it is also reflected in the film-makers’ decision to track the progress of equally clever, ambitious – and occasionally challenging – students in grammars and secondary moderns alike, while teachers in both work insanely hard to encourage their pupils to get through the punishing exam system.
In taking a broader, and powerfully human, view of the impact of selection, Grammar Schools: Who Will Get In? will surely put a further dent in government plans to expand grammar schools. Only in the final episode – when too much time is given over to the self justifications of Townley’s smooth-talking head – does it feel as if the programme makers lose their nerve. By then, I suspect, it is too late. Most viewers will already have made up their mind about this rotten system.