Theresa May’s decision to turn the clock back five decades by building a new generation of grammar schools makes me personally very angry. It is divisive, it will narrow opportunities for future generations and it will entrench the current Establishment by introducing a new ” gatekeeping ” role to ensure who succeeds and who fails.
Superficially it will allow a few hand picked intelligent 11 year olds from the poor to go to highly academic schools but the rest of the population can go hang.
I should know because I was one of those who would have been labelled a failure at 11. In 1958 I failed my 11 plus. Living in Streatham, South London and failing to get into Battersea Grammar meant I would be doomed to go to Dunraven Secondary Modern which then didn’t even teach enough O levels ( now GCSE’s) to get any professional job.
But I was lucky – educationalists in 1958 had this new fangled idea of comprehensive education which was supported by Tories as well as Labour. A brand new school opened at the top of Brixton Hill called Tulse Hill – a huge rough multi racial school that attracted idealist teachers across Britain.
Its first head came from Dulwich College, a prestigious public school (incidently where ” anti establishment ” Nigel Farage later was a pupil) and teachers left cushy jobs at other elite schools to be part of the staff.
So instead of being consigned to the education scrapheap I was taught Latin by a teacher from Manchester Grammar, Spanish by a Republican fleeing Franco’s dictatorship, English by a guy who got plays on BBC radio and history by two brilliant teachers.
Even then though it took me to past 16 to really take off. As well failing my 11 plus I was a “late developer”. I mucked up some of my O levels but the flexibility at my school allowed me to retake some of them ( I was particularly bad at maths) while taking three A levels (one in 18 months). Even at 16 I was thought not to be university material but I was no longer thought to be a complete thickie.
I got much better A levels than people expected – though it did not surprise my history teachers- but had been rejected by every university. I used the ” clearing house” to re-apply to my first choice, Warwick University, backing it up by writing a letter.
In the meantime I was going to start my first job as a clerk with London Transport – but days before I suddenly got a place at Warwick on my chosen History and Politics course because someone dropped out. I gather the university chose me because they were heartened by my improvement at A level and thought I had more potential.
I have gone into such personal detail to illustrate why May is wrong – she may get some academically bright 11 year olds into grammars – but she will deprive thousands of other ” late developers” like me who didn’t show their real potential until they were 16 – of future opportunities available in a truly comprehensive system.
It is quite clear to me that without Tulse Hill and Warwick I would never have become a journalist. never have worked for The Times Higher Education Supplement and The Guardian. never been a lobby journalist and would not be sitting on a national independent panel now. Neil Hamilton, Peter Mandelson. Tony Blair, Leon Brittan, Norman Fowler, Lord Ashcroft, Ed Lester and Brian Coleman to name a few, would never have been bothered by a pesky inquisitive journalist and could have slept more soundly.And talking of Tulse Hill, would Ken Livingstone, another pupil, ever had become mayor of London?
Since working at this level I have become aware of how much of a Club the Establishment is. It is dominated by public schools and old grammar school boys who share an ethos that is now miles apart from the working classes. By filtering people at 11 she will entrench this conformist view of society and help the Establishment- and that includes herself – to keep out oddballs like me – who can be a nuisance to so many people.
My view is that Theresa May’s real agenda is create a more conformist society and bolster the Establishment with a sprinkling of academically clever working class boys and girls. Given her other main interest is pressing through a surveillance system that allows the state to keep records of every person’s digital footprint, the non conformists can easily be kept out of having a chance to shape society.