The ‘them and us’ argument against the return of grammar schools rightly concentrates on what the system did (and still does in some areas of the country) to many of the youngsters who failed to impress the examiners at the age of 10 or 11 and were, unless they were very lucky, thereafter forever ranked as second-class intellectual citizens.
A rather more subtle point is that within many of the grammar schools themselves there was a pecking order which had much the same result. We shan’t name our own alma mater, but it was dreadful, and the sheep were very early separated from the goats. Yes, we were all in the top 20 per cent or so, but those in the lower forms were nonetheless made to feel that we were pretty inadequate – and quite simply weren’t worth any extra effort to tease out what hidden talents we might perhaps possess.
There were, it should be stressed, excellent secondary moderns which encouraged their best pupils to shine and to overcome their 11-plus ignominy, but the system’s abiding philosophy chose early winners and losers and largely ensured that nothing much changed afterwards.
The current craze for academies is rushing headlong down the same cruel path, with selection by the back door and a feeling that money thrown at the schools by businessmen with no deep knowledge of education is going to create new winners. And if there are winners, there have to be losers.
We at Wink would unhesitatingly get rid of private education if we had the proverbial magic wand. A fat chance! But let’s at least give all our children an equal start, with teachers who are trained to discover qualities which may take many years to emerge – but will emerge if encouraged and nurtured.