An Open Letter to Maidenhead Councillors

Questions to Councillors in the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead.

An open letter from Tony Hill, retired Head Teacher of Furze Platt School

Dear Councillors

Your Constituents at present can express a preference to send their children, at 11, to six schools skilled in providing education to young people of all abilities, with a record of academic achievement at the highest levels. They can also now express a preference for an all ability school which takes boarding students. If your constituents want their children to be educated in a grammar school they can apply to a Buckinghamshire school or the two Reading Grammar Schools.

So good are your schools at present that large numbers of parents not your constituents enter their children to Maidenhead schools. They do not trust the Grammar school systems in their areas to educate their children well. They trust your Comprehensive Schools in Maidenhead. Your constituents do not send their children across the border to the Buckinghamshire Upper Schools, however good they are.

If you put a grammar school in Maidenhead you will increase the number of selective places and take that number of children from the seven comprehensive, all ability, schools. All these children will be selected by the grammar school through an eleven plus test. This was the mechanism used to create the separate school populations for grammar schools and secondary modern schools. You will, therefore, be reconstructing seven secondary modern schools. To put the experience of the pre comprehensive era out of mind, you may call them Upper schools, High Schools, Maidenhead Academies, but the school populations in Maidenhead will be those of seven Secondary Modern Schools.

Questions to Councillors:

Would you prefer your child or grandchild to go to a Maidenhead School as now, or to a Maidenhead Secondary Modern/ Upper Schools as you propose?

Have you or your children sent children to the current upper schools across our borders?

But above all this discussion should concern the pupil’s experience. I have met with many pupils. I was Head Teacher of Furze Platt School Maidenhead for 16 years, and before that Head of Westgate School, Slough for six. As an English teacher I taught our language and literature, in classrooms in schools for 37 years, meeting and talking with students, their parents, and staff daily, hearing of their experiences before and after entry to their secondary education. Many of the pupils were among those found not fit for grammar school education. The whole population of one school had been classified as fit for secondary modern education.

The academic evidence and research on the effects of segregating children at 11, according to test scores have been available for many years. This overwhelming evidence on the experience of young people was the major reason for all but three County Councils in England abandoning their secondary modern- grammar systems. Difficult questions about the validity and conduct of the tests* provided other reasons for the change.

To the child found not fit for grammar education the result is an officially verified certificate of lack of ability**. As a Head of a secondary modern, and as Head of a school receiving a proportion of children rejected by Buckinghamshire grammar schools, I saw the way the young people regarded themselves at 11years of age: as lesser than they would have wished, and lesser than their classmates who ‘passed’. The sense that a flaw in their ability has been uncovered and officially registered, for many, continues into adult life.

These distortions of self-perception are unnecessary, as has been shown since the advent of a Comprehensive system nationally. In Maidenhead we have an education system which gives those in the Grammar school percentile all the opportunities which the Grammar school supporters choose to emphasise in favour of their segregated schools.

Questions to Councillors:

Would you want your children or grandchildren to be subject to the adverse effects of selection?

Are you absolutely convinced that your child or grandchild is disadvantaged by going to one of our Maidenhead schools as now?

Maidenhead schools attract staff who want to share their subjects with the most able and to teach the full range of abilities. The schools can attract the most capable of managers, leaders and Heads, who have experience of a wide range of teaching and training methods to inspire their staff. Thanks to the expertise needed in a school with a very wide range of pupils, teachers in our schools refine and improve their teaching skills to the benefit of each individual pupil. Our teachers daily enjoy meeting the student with highly individual particular talents, where for example a child might be in a top set for Maths but will have never seen the inside of a Grammar school because they struggle with English.

Coming to us is one of the most severe shortages of teachers we have known since the nineteen seventies. Attracting young talented teachers to RBWM will never be easy given housing and living costs. But, whereas now our schools can attract the full range of teachers, the councillors will find under their proposed scheme that highly qualified academic teachers will not readily look at a job where they know, before application, that they would be deprived of experience of teaching the full range of students. A move to such schools limits the future prospects and choices of a talented and committed young teacher.

So the children in all but one (the grammar) of the Maidenhead schools will find themselves having diminishing contact with the most academically able teachers.  Such a state of affairs will represent discrimination against those who do not pass the eleven plus. Their replacements will not be bad teachers. Far from it; they may well be excellent, but the children at all but one of eight schools will have less and less teaching from the very finest and most lively minds. The philosophy that first gave rise to selective grammar schools would approve of such an outcome,  as the belief was that once tested, categorised and separated, the particular kinds of intelligence so distinguished would benefit best from differently qualified teachers – with the highest qualified academics reserved for those who go to the grammar school.

Question to Councillors:

Do you want the most academically able teachers, wishing to share their subject and inspiration with the most able, to be put off applying for a job teaching your children or grandchildren?

Do you want the founding philosophy of the grammar secondary system to be applied to schools your children or grandchildren will attend?

I and generations of teachers and parents have seen students of all abilities succeed, including, as a matter of routine, getting places at our top universities. Numerous young pupils from our schools in Maidenhead have reached the highest levels of academic and career achievement possible – whether the pupil was described as ‘average or below’ on transfer at 11, or registered by test as not fit for a grammar school place in Buckinghamshire. Such labelling and official rejection was, and is not a necessary part of a highly successful education system in Maidenhead.

The system proposed by you as  elected councillors of the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, however, will mean the unnecessary categorisation of eleven year old pupils as fit for grammar school education, or not fit for grammar education – in playground terms, they will ‘pass’ or ‘fail’. One boy once described the day of 11+ results as  the most emotional he had ever experienced as he watched the reaction of his class-mates on receiving their results.

For some children it will be an official, test-backed registration in their minds of their capability which will define them for the rest of their lives. Some will not take the test. Teachers and parents, or even a young person lacking confidence, will decide that the student is better off lowering their aspirations. This decision, with all its long term consequences, will be taken when even the physical characteristics of the student might be little indication of their future appearance.

I and many other teachers who have worked in Maidenhead schools, have seen children measured at one level on arrival exceed all expectations over the seven years: the ‘average’ pupils at 11 who went to Oxbridge, the eleven plus reject now a university fellow, the dyslexic who went to university……

Perhaps the most damning reality which should counter selection at 11 is the number of pupils the eleven plus process rejected who gained qualifications and futures, through Maidenhead, equal to the best anywhere. The misplacement of each of these young people through the 11+ system, demonstrates a 100% failure of the system for each one of them. Fortunately, as one parent put it, a Maidenhead school ‘rescued’ them.

When you take away ten per cent, twenty per cent or more, of the most linguistically endowed from a school you limit the vocabulary heard and used by all the pupils. Brilliant teachers will work doubly hard to compensate, and will partially succeed, but they can never compensate for the lack of the day to day currency of conversation, and the fullest possible breadth of vocabulary met through contact between students.

Questions:

Do you want your grandchildren and children labelled by test and school allocation at ten or eleven years old?

Would you choose to send your children or grandchildren to a school where the vocabulary between pupils, pupils and staff might in any way be anything but the fullest possible range available?

Why do you, for your children and grandchildren, want to harm the schools which have such a reputation, even beyond your boundaries, for spotting and nurturing talent to the highest levels?

Please do not repeat the mistakes of the past.

Thank you for reading this letter.

Tony Hill

*
The original tests and their conceptual framework were partly based on the work of an educational academic psychologist whose studies of inheritance and intelligence came into disrepute after evidence emerged indicating he had falsified research data. The founding idea of a tripartite or bi partite school system, that intelligence could be identified as academic/grammar, technical, or modern to match with a specific style of education, came into question. Few could answer the question, what are the tests actually testing?

**
For a child who goes to grammar school, the result is an assertion that the young person is more able than those who go to the other schools.  This was so important a status and qualification in one early tripartite ‘Comprehensive’ school I taught at that those in the Grammar streams had to wear a different uniform from others – while the ‘modern’ children were excused uniform.

11 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Maidenhead Councillors

  1. One size fits all,parents want what is best for there child not you not teachers and definitely not local government what they think is best,why do parents move there children to a school in a different bourogh that is a question you should ask

    • Paul – I am not sure if you are attacking teachers, particularly Mr Hill, or ideologically motivated Councillors like Phil Bicknell.

      I would think the numbers of children at Bourne End BR station on schoolday mornings indicates the number of parents who move their children to a comprehensive area like Maidenhead because they mistrust so-called ‘selection. ‘

  2. A good challenge well up to Maidenhead Councillors? Do they want a perfectly good system of education skewered in favour of a discredited selection system?

  3. Fantastic letter Mr Hill. I am very worried that the education, for the majority of children, is about to be changed for the worse in RBWM. This is no time to be messing around with introducing a discredited system by the back door. As you say we are in the midst of a teacher recruitment crisis plus they have just reduced the amount of money by 11 million (plus, I understand, additional pay freezes).

    • A terrible letter, surprisingly long – winded and repetitive from someone who apparently spent decades teaching English. The idea that a satellite grammar would remove x number of places that would otherwise have been in comps is simply illogical. As I have said before, this proposal only changes things for parents who can’t afford private or bus fare to Bucks.

      • As far as I can see, Tony isn’t saying that x number of places would be removed…only that most of our more able students that would otherwise have gone to Maidenhead comprehensive are likely to be at the Grammar school. It seems to me that the entirely logical conclusion of this is that the intake for our comprehensive would no longer be “comprehensive”.

    • And if all education, everywhere in the country, was made “comprehensive” (what a ridiculous whitewash) , do you think you can erase social inequality?

        • No, I’m saying that social inequality begins long before children start school, and cannot be addressed, in even the remotest, most peripheral, sense, by stopping a satellite grammar. And that is the whitewash.
          It’s just political grandstanding masquerading as social concern.

  4. Earlier today I posted this on the Maidenhead Advertiser website –

    I write from Buckinghamshire. I would urge RBWM Council to reject the proposed reintroduction of grammar schools.

    If you click on http://iqtest-center.com/iq-scores.php you will find a bell curve showing the population according to IQ. In terms of numbers and IQ people rise from a small number of people at a low level of intellectual capacity to a large number at about average level, back down to a small number at a very high level – IQ does not have a sudden fall and rise with a part of the population being able to pass the eleven-plus and a gap between them and the rest of the population. The eleven-plus marks a variable cut-off point which moves up and down and at which those who pass the exam are given one type of education and those who fail are given another – at age eleven. This is the reason that many junior schools ‘teach to the test’, sometimes to the detriment of other aspects of a child’s education.
    In Bucks we have been told in the past that a child has to score “121” to pass the eleven-plus – many people believe this is an unchanging figure based on exam performance – in fact the threshold to achieve “121” varies from year to year – in accordance with the number of places available at grammar schools. So a child with (for example) an IQ of 135, will not always pass the eleven-plus and one with an IQ of 125 will not always fail (and if this WERE true then would it be a desirable, useful outcome anyway?) Is it rational to believe that we can establish a child’s intellectual capacity throughout its life one morning or afternoon at school when they are ten or eleven?

    The eleven-plus has a history of failing to spot talent – my favourite example from public life is Lord Plant, the head of the Law Department at King’s College, London University, who failed the eleven-plus and was rescued from intellectual obscurity by the ‘comprehensivisation’ of the secondary schools in his locality. Comprehensives deliver the goods as well – one example – Lord Dilnot a former head of Oxford University went to a comprehensive and if you look at the websites of comprehensive schools many have a list of distinguished ex-students. (A good local example is Desborough College – see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desborough_College#Alumni.)

    Grammar schools are often said to be a ladder of opportunity for gifted working-class children locally – when Buckinghamshire was finally compelled to disclose data concerning the origins of its pupils in 2013 it was found that 47% of children were from out of the county and 6% were privately educated. In this week’s Maidenhead Advertiser is a report of how Burnham Park Academy is replacing school governors and parental representatives – how long will RBWM have any control or oversight of a new grammar school?

    The twenty years after 1945 are supposed to be a golden age for social mobility from manual to white collar jobs. Studies in recent years shows convincingly how apparent social mobility post war, reflected a one off structural shift in the manufacturing economy accompanied by the growth of office jobs. Grammar schools may have responded to this but they were not the cause of social mobility. Even so in 1959, when grammars educated the top 10-20% or so of children, nearly 40% of their pupils failed to pass more than three O-levels.

    Grammar schools in Buckinghamshire are associated with depressed educational opportunities for non eleven-plus winners – the ‘gap’ in achievement between well-off and poor has been a continuing feature of education in this county since at least the 1990’s and local councillors with responsibility for education go through the motions of being upset and trying hard to do something about closing the gap. In a report in the Bucks Free Press in 2009 Sue Imbriano, the Bucks director of children’s services, said:
    “We have this as a priority to close the gap in achievement between that group of young people and their peers … There are extensive action plans and implementation plans.”
    However the BCC Liberal Democrat leader Mary Baldwin said: “There has been that gap for the 12 years I have been a councillor and probably longer, they have not managed to close it. I don’t believe they have done anything seriously about it. As long as we have top performing schools … what is happening elsewhere they don’t seem to care about.” (see: http://www.bucksfreepress.co.uk/news/4452367.School_bosses_fail_to_close_achievement_gap/#comments) and sure enough if you search the Bucks Free Press website for articles on the education gap in succeeding years you will find subsequent events have vindicated Ms Baldwin’s view – in March 2014 the BFP has a report about ongoing efforts to ‘close the gap’ – see: http://www.bucksfreepress.co.uk/education/news/11108724.Proposals_to_close_educational_gap_between_rich_and_poor/. At the time this was one of a number of reports about ‘closing the gap’ and the Council’s spokes people dismissed concerns about the role of grammar schools and selection – their view was basically that we should all step back and allow the Council’s latest efforts to help disadvantaged children another chance to succeed.

    Thirteen months ago an Ofsted report showed that 28 per cent of children in Bucks were going to SECONDARY schools deemed as ‘requiring improvement’ or ‘inadequate’ and that out of 150 local authorities, Buckinghamshire was ranked 94th for the percentage of pupils who attend top level secondary schools. Typically a spokesman for BCC responded by calling the figures for PRIMARY schools ‘great news’. (see: http://www.bucksfreepress.co.uk/news/11662210.Nearly_a_third_of_Bucks_children_are_going_to_secondary_schools_that__require_improvement____or_worse/)
    (The comment thread at this link expresses many of the serious shortcomings associated with ‘selection’.) Last year at the election in May the Labour candidate for High Wycombe pointed out that eleven out of the twenty non-selective Bucks Secondary Schools – more than half – were assessed ‘Requires Improvement’ or worse (only one non-selective school – at Waddesdon in the rural hinterland of the county – was assessed ‘Outstanding’.)

    In December 2013 in the Daily Telegraph there was a report of the head of Ofsted Sir Michael Wilshaw – a highly-successful former secondary school head – saying the number of poor pupils admitted to state grammars –around three per cent – was “nonsense” and that campaigners pushing for an expansion were mistaken. Sir Michael was quoted by the Telegraph as saying that grammar schools were “stuffed full” of middle-class children and failed to improve social mobility: ‘I don’t think they work … Academic selection works well for a tiny minority of pupils while consigning large numbers of other children to educational failure.’

    The eleven plus and grammar schools remain popular with Tory ‘backwoodsmen’ in Parliament and local councils. In my experience teachers, other than some in grammar schools, seem to be hostile to it – this applies particularly to junior school teachers who are genuinely familiar with children’s intellectual capacity and see the bizarre misjudgements of the eleven-plus.

    I am from a Conservative family and I admire and like many of the things Conservatives admire and like, however the Conservatives have abandoned, amongst other things, the Empire, opposition to votes for women, and the Corn Laws. I urge modern RBWM councillors to ignore another piece of Conservative orthodoxy from the past – the re-imposition of grammar schools will do nothing to help ‘choice’, social mobility, or academic excellence, but it will impose lasting distortion on the Borough’s schools and on the intellectual development of the children those schools are supposed to help.

  5. An excellent letter which I hope the Maidenhead councillors will take note of. The ‘grammar school’ idea that intelligence is a fixed quantity has effectively been discredted as the writer shows at the end. Maidenhead should be pleased that it has never been locked into the stone age thinking that characterises the 11 plus.

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