The recent debate about grammar schools in Kent has once again brought into the spotlight the anxieties parents feel when looking for the right school for their child. The topic of Selection and Grammar Schools all too easily generates strong emotive responses. It is a subject laden with historical concerns over social divisiveness and for some it exposes personal scars and anxieties; hence the unhelpful and contentious nature of the debate that commonly erupts whenever the topic gets an airing.
Having taught (and been a pupil) in the selective and comprehensive systems, I have first-hand experience of the values and limitations of both. What matters for children and their families is the quality of care and learning overseen by their school; this has little to do with heated debates about political ideology. Great schools always have a clearly defined, distinct ethos, which is well understood and appreciated by families at the school as well as the staff who work there. A distinct ethos for every school means we want and need diversity in the education system; one size does not fit all. Paradoxically to some, our correct desire to meet the needs of every child does not mean every child being given the same experience. We meet the needs of individual children by presenting them with a schooling that best fits their needs. Rather than seeking a standard-issue experience for everyone, we should celebrate diversity in provision as this creates an educational landscape most likely to meet the needs of all.
Parents who desire a grammar school education for their children are seeking a school whose ethos they understand and which will best suit the personality and abilities of their child. Those parents who support grammar schools are simply seeking to ensure their children receive a quality education that is suited to them, something that is entirely reasonable for their family and at the same time is in the interests of the country as a whole.
If the neighbourhood, local school gives children the quality of education that parents desire, then parents will willingly select it to educate their children. The assertive negative noises aired about selective schools mask a dissatisfaction amongst significant numbers of tax-paying families in the quality and nature of their local state schools. If all such schools would meet reasonable family aspirations for the education of their children, selection would cease to be an issue.
Seeking to impose a universal, standard-issue school experience on all children, regardless of their actual needs is misguided, unjust and wasteful. Nor is denying tax-paying families what they reasonably want from their local school going to resolve the problems in our education service. We should instead respond positively to the sound aspirations of families and ensure schools present children with the care and learning that their parents reasonably seek and that the country as a whole so clearly needs.
Headmaster, Bristol Grammar School