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).


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.

Some people find it difficult to discuss male underachievement (updated)

As someone with a long track record of interest in educational inequalities, I started my day by reading a new report on male underachievement. Published by the Higher Education Policy Institute, the report points to evidence from the UK of male underachievement in higher education entry, persistence, and final results. In particular, it presents evidence of underachievement among white working class boys. It then sets out a number of proposals for changing that situation.

New Picture (2)

I found it a reasoned and evidence piece of work, though far from perfect. Aware that they were entering a minefield, the authors went to some trouble to point out that they were very comfortable with the growth of female participation in higher education, and they noted that there are significant differences between subjects; they discussed male/female salary differentials for graduates and criticised female under-representation in senior academic positions. They developed their proposals in a way that sought to avoid zero-sum political carve-ups.

However, that wasn’t enough to prevent an official from the National Union of Students using the highly-respected WONKHE blog to attack them for turning “a complex and nuanced issue into a battle of the sexes”. Even for a zero-sum world view, this ignores possible wars over ethnicity and class.

The WONKHE blog also contains a number of inaccuracies. For example, it claims that the HEPI report says that female school teachers are the main reason why boys do badly in school. The HEPI report says in terms that “the evidence on whether male teachers raise the achievement of boys is contradictory” – so it is pretty much the opposite of what the WONKHE blog says.

I’d idly started to wonder whether the blogger had actually read the report, or was drawing on another source. Then I spotted an attempt to smear the authors based on who they cited. The WONKHE blog says that on page 36 the report refers to an “un-named academic”, with a footnote referring the reader to a “disreputable source” by the name of Mike Buchanan, who is a leading figure in a campaigning group called “Justice for Men”.

New Picture

The blogger simply got this wrong, muddling two quite separate footnotes to two quite separate sentences. The reference to the “un named academic” (footnote 61) is to Joanna Williams, who is at the University of Kent. Mike Buchanan is not identified at all in the report, but footnote 60 does list three sources – one of them being Justice for Men etc – for the statement that “groups representing men’s interests claim to have found areas where hard evidence has been ignored”.

In itself, I don’t think this is that important, though I’d like WONKHE to correct the factual “errors”. The National Union of Students exists to defend its views, and sometimes it officers will do so in ways that they see as robust and others as underhand. What this episode does tell us, though, is that some people will try and stamp out any attempt whatsoever to discuss male educational performance.



It turns out that the report put out by HEPI in advance to sector stakeholders and media had three slightly broken footnotes which were corrected in the finished version which was published. One of those who received an advance copy was the NUS, whose vice-president produced the WONKHE blog post. You must judge for yourself whether a failure to twig that something was obviously wrong was the result of the author’s prejudice or something else. Muddled footnotes do not, though, explain the other inaccuracies.

Fun with the Great British Class calculator, and serious lessons for education

Last night, I asked my students to look at the BBC Class Survey. It was ideal for the course, as we had scheduled a session on Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis of inequality. The Class Survey uses Bourdieu’s three-part model of capitals – economic, cultural and social – as the basis for its model of stratification.

It was a fun way of getting across the basics of Bourdieu’s concepts. We particularly enjoyed playing with the two-minute Class Calculator, a much shortened version of the survey that was used to inform the stratification model. The full survey also used Bourdieu’s basic concepts and the design was led by sociologists that I greatly admire, including Yaojun Li, Fiona Devine and Mike Savage.

The findings have generated huge popular debate, and are already provoking discussion among academics as well. Some are angry that we are still talking about class at all, or interested in the existence of a ‘precariat’, or comment on the restructuring of the working and middle classes. One group has so far attracted less attention: the elite, which comes out on all three dimensions as ‘the most advantaged and privileged group in the UK’, estimated at 6% of the population.

Of course, we have always had elites in Britain. What is striking about the survey results is the degree of social closure surrounding the elite. It is the least ethnically mixed group in the survey, its origins are geographically concentrated (parts of south-east England, and to a lesser extent rural/suburban settlements like East Lothian), and over half come from families where the main earner was a senior manager or professional.

Today’s elite, in short, neatly fit Bourdieu’s original model, based on data from 1960s France, of a group that successfully excludes outsiders and is immune from social mobility. Speculating for a moment, I would add that this class is probably characterised by a weakening sense of social solidarity.

Older mechanisms of cohesion – religion, nation, civic identity – don’t much matter to people whose assets are highly mobile, and highly institutionalised through remote interests in global corporations, and whose lifestyles may be highly cosmopolitan. But if they spend their lives in ethnically homogeneous enclaves, perhaps their last remaining bonds are those of perceived race.

As I say, this is speculation. The survey is a fascinating exercise, and we can learn a great deal from the results – particularly if we remember that the seven social classes are, in the best Weberian tradition, ‘ideal types’. And among many practical lessons, here are two for education:

  • Growing social advantage at the top of our society demands that we look again at the relationship between education and social mobility. At the moment, I conclude that education is reducing levels of mobility into the elite.
  • The identification of a distinctive precariat – 15% of the population – with limited economic, social or cultural capital suggests that schools are simply not doing enough to improve the life chances of the most excluded and stigmatised, and that our lifelong learning system is too weak to provide effective second chances.

And yes,  I took the test, and found myself in the ‘technical middle class’.  The most worrying thing about this group is that while we may have lots of connections, they are mostly with people from very similar backgrounds. I’ve said this before – academics need to get out a lot more!

Here’s a link to the class calculator:

Here’s a link to the article in Sociology: