Confessions of a grammar school boy

The current debate in England over school selection at 11 is an important one. The outcome will affect the shape of English society, and not just its secondary school system, for decades to come. I find the debate parochial (the German Länder, for example, offer a natural experiment in early secondary selection: some have comprehensive systems, others have teacher-based selection at 10, but unlike Britain all share a strong vocational pathway).

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Sturry Secondary Modern – image by Artcyprus, from Wikipedia

Part of that parochialism is a tendency for individuals to tell their own stories, which of course prove little. My own experiences were even less typical than  most: my father was a professional soldier, so my primary and pre-school education was peripatetic, and my parents decided to send me to the boarding section of a  grammar school.

I found it a brutal place, at least in my first years. By the third year I was too large to bully physically without risk; verbal cruelty was less risky. Bullying was not only rife, but was built into the school’s discipline structure, and complaining about the prefects would have been (a) pointless and (b) taken as a sign of weakness.Teachers regularly used public humilation as a way of controlling their adolescent charges.

Later on, reading William Horwood’s autobiography (he attended the same school four years ahead of me), I discovered that this culture of cruelty aruled among the day pupils as well. I don’t know why that came as a surprise, and I should have known, but I’d assumed that the boarders – most of whom had parents in the armed forces or expatriate professions – were unique. While I hope I didn’t bully others, I fear that at least once I did.

Academically I thrived into the fifth year, when I passed 10 O-Levels (11 if you include General Studies), then lost interest in the sixth year, passing two A-levels. I loved many of the extra-curricular activities, particularly rugby, the chess club, the debating society. As a person I learned to hide pain and defend myself verbally and physically. I also got up to the usual adolescent male stuff: making good friends, listening to records, puzzling over women (the school later became co-ed), stretching the school’s dress code.

Ah, that dress code. We were banned from wearing CND badges, so we all got one and wore it behind our blazer lapel. As a result I started to question other aspects of ‘normality’, and became a supporter of the anti-apartheid movement, and briefly joined Peter Hain’s Young Liberals. And I learned to despise and fear boys who went to the secondary modern down the road.

I feared them because we heard stories of secondary boys setting upon our fellow pupils, highly visible as we all were thanks to the school dress code. We despised them of course, because they were ‘thick’ and had failed their 11+ exam, because they played different (inferior) sports, because their school buildings were tatty, and because they were and would remain ‘proles’ for all their days. Not quite Oxbridge levels of contempt, but contempt all the same, which took a few years of working life to erase.

Most of today’s debate focuses on whether grammar schools are a good thing. We tend to forget that grammar schools are for a minority, and that their introduction means that the majority will go to non-grammars. Or, as they used to be known, secondary moderns. Arguing for grammar schools inextricably means arguing also for secondary moderns, and we need to face up to what that means.

Beware of the International Journal of Education

I receive so many emails from dubious journals that I usually just mark them as spam. Occasionally, though, one comes along from a journal that sounds reasonable enough to take in less experienced or less cynical colleagues. Then I blog about it.

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The latest email comes from someone called Amy Li on behalf of the plausibly-named International Journal of Education, addressed to me by name and asking me to submit my own research, encourage my colleagues to do likewise, serve as a reviewer, and join their editorial board. This sort of scatter-gun aproach is enough to start my alarm bells ringing.

The International Journal of Education publishes on an open access basis, as Ms Li’s email says. What she does not mention is that it charges its authors fees, at a rate of $200 an article. And it is part of a stable of journals published by an organisation calling itself the Macrothink Institute, one of whose journals accepted for publication a spoof paper concocted as part of a sting by the journal Science. You won’t be surprised to learn that Macrothink was listed by Jeffrey Beall as a ‘predatory publisher’.

Interestingly, and for me surprisingly, their editorial team seems to include some genuine academics. Among those listed from the UK are a principal lecturer at Leeds Trinity University, two lecturers at Ulster University, a senior lecturer at Glasgow, and a Reader at Northumbria (listed under her previous university). Some of these academics don’t list any publications on their departmental web pages, which prompts a couple of obvious questions, but others – including two whom I know personally – seem to be decent scholars.

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An extract from Amy Li’s email

Assuming that these colleagues are aware that they are listed as members of an unusually large editorial advisory board, I wonder what they think their purpose is? Are they genuinely contributing to scholarship in this way, or are they providing an academic fig-leaf for a less than ethical activity, which may well succeed in relieving some less experienced researchers of their money? And why would you allow your name and your institution’s to be associated with such a dubious enterprise?

I’m starting to think that there may be a role here for the learned societies. After all, societies like the British Educational Research Association are fond of proclaiming their concern for early careers researchers. So in the case of the UK academics mentioned above, shouldn’t BERA take an interest?

What I’m reading on World Book Day

It’s World Book Day, which seems a suitable time to reflect on your own reading habits, as well as to think about literacies and their uses across our planet. Unless you’re a kid, of course, in which case your mum and dad will dress you up and put your photo on Facebook.

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I usually have two books on the go at any one time: one fiction, and one non-fiction. Ian Rankin is among my (many) favourite crime writers, so I’m currently catching up on the latest doings of his great anti-hero, Inspector John Rebus. Rather be the Devil has Rebus well into his retirement, though like me Rebus is treating retirement as a “phased transition”, and is constantly poking his nose into the dark corners of Edinburgh. Having given up smoking and cutting down on his drinking, Rebus is grumpier and more obsessive than ever. Scotland’s Capital is, as ever, a central character in the new novel, as are two other senior detectives and assorted Scottish ne’er-do-wells. Great fun.

I’m also reading Christine Krüger’s study of youth voluntary service in 20th century Britain and Germany. Krüger’s main focus is on the period after 1945, though she says enough that is interesting and new about the earlier decades for me to wish I’d read it before writing my own study of work camp movements. In particular, she traces the origins of contemporary youth voluntary service to female responses to male military service, arguing that female social service formed part of a repertoire of claims to legitimacy and recognition (a trend that she sees as rather conservative). She finds clear contrasts between the two countries, as well as some strong similarities; I’m finding it a fascinating study, and would like to see an English language edition soon.

After that what next? For non-fiction I am going to tackle a biography of the influental but largely forgotten write and political thinker Thomas Carlyle, which was recommended to me by a colleague at Dublin City University. And I’m finally going to read one of Sebastian Fitzek’s novels; he is more popular in Germany than Dan Brown, so at least I’ll find out what the fuss is about.

And what better day could there be to pay tribute to all those tutors and mentors who work so hard with adult literacy learners all year round? Hats off to them all!

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