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).
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.