Questions to Councillors in the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead.
An open letter from Tony Hill, retired Head Teacher of Furze Platt School
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.
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.
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.