Posted tagged ‘year 6’

The pluses and minuses of grammar schools

April 14, 2017

Right now there’s a ban on building new grammars. Should this rule be changed because they “do a good job of closing the attainment gap” for bright, disadvantaged children? Or are we entering a new phase of preparing children to fail? Words by Nicola Baird

My teenager explaining GCSE revision in maths and science to her Dad. He’s a bit confused…

As a journalist I often interview older people who have had fulfilling working and family lives for Islington Faces. But if asked about their childhood they may become anxious. If I see their hands clench, and a slight shadow cross their eyes, then invariably the next sentence is that they “failed at school”. They’ll explain they didn’t pass the 11+ with the sort of score that took you to grammar school.

It’s not just that they missed out on a good education, they’ve also had 50 or more years of feeling academically inadequate. And that’s not healthy.

Not long after I listened to news about the need for more Grammar Schools (put by Justine Greening) on Radio 4’s Today programme I met a well-educated mum heading to the hairdresser with her two children, one in Year 7, the other Year 5. It’s the Easter school holidays so she was surprised to hear that my 16-year-old was back home revising for GCSEs that don’t start until May. Soon she was talking angrily about the SATs test that is taken by Year 6s at 600,000 primary schools every May.

  • SATs are also taken by Year 2 children. In 2016 they were criticised for being so toughly-worded that many children were unable to complete the questions, or left in tears.

At the moment SATs are not an entry ticket to a secondary school. SATs are used by the government to assess a child’s level of learning at the end of primary school. That snapshot is then used throughout secondary school to ensure that progress is being made.

One of those Year 6 moments (back in 2012) when a surprise spring day led to a fab picnic in the park. And no one needed to revise for anything.

Tutors and the 11+
In contrast the 11+ exam deliberately grades a child’s ability against their cohort, allowing schools to make selective choice of the most able pupils. So does the highly competitive Kent Test, which is taken in September by Year 6 students (mostly living in Kent) whose parents want them to go to the hugely over-subscribed grammar schools in Kent.

  • Just for the record September seems a particularly cruel date as it means many young children will be super-tutored over the summer holidays in order to raise their scores and secure a place.

Parents, who can afford it, are willing to pay for tutoring, because once your son or daughter is in a Kent grammar school the rest of the educational milestones – good GCSEs, excellent A levels and a place at Oxbridge or a Russell Group uni – are going to be much easier.

“There is a lot of bad press given to grammars and private tutors alike. People say that it only benefits the affluent middle classes and to a very high degree that is true,” says Muhammad Ali a maths specialist who runs The Tuition Network, based in Islington.

As well as tutoring Ali helps teach maths to students from AIM, an educational Kent charity set up by three mums in a bid to “level the playing field and offer affordable 11+ preparation to bright children who would not otherwise receive it, and so make grammar school places more accessible to all.” Typically the 10-year-olds from low-income families will receive 50 hours of free tuition one evening a week at a Tunbridge Wells venue and during school holidays, as well as being given mock exams to hone their exam technique. This isn’t building on what their schools give them as local schools do not prepare for 11+ exams; instead they focus on the national standard tests – SATs.

“I do a lot of pro bono work for the disadvantaged (he also works for The Access Project) because I want to make a difference. I am of Bangladeshi/northern (Manchester) roots and went to a run down school in Moss Side,” explains Ali. “My background is ‘poor working class’, my friends went on to youth training schemes, rather than sixth form and my parents had not been to uni, so there was no expectation for someone like me.”

Now the Government is touting the idea that Grammar Schools could help ordinary working families – the sort Ali grew up in. At least this is the message from both PM Theresa May and Education Secretary Justine Greening

  • Interestingly Theresa May was mostly state educated, but at 13 won a place at the former Holton Park Girls’ Grammar School. During her time there the Oxfordshire school system was re-organised and it became a comprehensive. Justine Greening went to a Rotherham co-ed secondary, now an academy.

Better off families throw everything at their child in that bid to get into a grammar school (because whatever the costs of tutoring it is a lot less than years of private school fees), which could be why there’s scant evidence that Grammar Schools aid social mobility. In fact many think their entrance policy prevents bright, but poorer children, getting a place.

Indeed the Government’s own report (published on 12/4/17) shows that better off families are far more likely to fill grammar school places (36% from below average incomes [but not receiving free school meals], compared to 53% from backgrounds with above average incomes).

On BBC News (13/4/17) the politicians spoke out against a return to the Grammar School era too.

  • Labour’s shadow education secretary Angela Rayner said the government could not “hide from the fact that grammar schools do not aid social mobility”.
  • Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, said: “pupils of working families are getting stuffed by this plan, yet again rather than making every state school excellent the government want to spend more cash on another ideological experiment.”
  • Head teachers’ leader Russell Hobby said the government seemed “fixated” on expanding academic selection. “Despite all the evidence showing the harmful effects on social mobility, the government is committed to delivering a policy for the few at the expense of the many.”

How much childhood is lost if you decide to try and make your child an A student?And then what happens if they can’t live up to that pressure?

SATs stress
The Grammar School debate is going to run for a while. Considering that SATs aren’t an entry ticket to a child’s next school, it should be a concern just how many parents find even the SATs process hugely stressful – and carry that stress to their child.

“We were told that level 5c was normal. How awful to know you’ve failed at 11,” said my mum-friend, in front of her similarly-aged daughter and primary-school-attending son. Both her children looked faintly bored. In inner London (everywhere maybe) impromptu chats in the street about education are an interminable part of waiting for mum or dad as you head to the park, shops or even hairdresser.

Should the ban on Grammar Schools be lifted my friends’ kids won’t be looking bored.

Hypothetically, the youngest would be in the middle of stressful (and expensive) tutoring sessions to increase his chances of getting into the nearest Grammar. And he’d know it. While his older sister would already be experiencing which side her life’s bread was buttered – potentially quashing ambition, aspiration and, most detrimentally for a pre-teenager, academic achievement.

Perhaps when the kids can look bored by secondary school chat it’s a sign that we’re still doing education right?

  • Nicola Baird is a parent governor at a community secondary school

Over to you?
What do you think? Should the government be giving the OK for more grammar schools




In praise of missing things… like Year 6

July 16, 2012

A fish-eye view of the school we’ll miss. Can you spot the boat and tree house in the playground? pic by Martin Woolley.

This blog post is by Nicola Baird sharing ideas about thrifty, creative and eco-friendly ways to raise children. This post is not about lost socks. For more info about my book Homemade Kids, with lots of ideas about parenting click here.

Lola, 14, came home early from school this week. It was raining again. What could we do that didn’t involve Facebook? I found the lovely carved cedar box that is kept locked with the most ingenious device (a sort of key). She’d never been inside this family treasure box before and was amazed to see hundreds of tiny envelopes with old-fashioned stamps from all around the world.

Inside are letters and receipts kept by my grandfather George Baird when he was stationed in Hong Kong back in 1937. He seems to have had friends and family corresponding from Sudan, Nigeria, Kenya and Scotland. Many are from soldiers just like him, writing about the countries they are stationed in – often critically, but they were clearly developing a fascinating world view. Nigeria for instance was producing ground nuts, palm oil and tin – and “we are doing pretty well from it”.

Most of the letters are written in such hard-to-read ink scribbles, so different to emails. But together Lola and I could read aloud and unpick most of the words. Time just flew as we found out that naughty William (whoever he was) was at last at boarding school (“god willing he’ll stay there”); that it’s risky going home to a cold house with scarlet fever and that my grandfather’s mother’s house had just suffered from the “ceiling falling in”. The builder was apparently on his way. Good thing too as this was December even though “the roses and gentians are still flowering”.

My Grandmother’s writing was always tough to read, even when she was in her 20s. She sent one from the steamer when it stopped to refuel at a steaming hot Port Said – there’s even a stamp covered in pyramids. She was going to join her husband in Hong Kong.

Didn’t she miss the kids?
I’ve always puzzled about this trip because it meant leaving her two children, Diana, 6, and Angus (who was so little at the time, 2 years perhaps) behind with their Granny for a year. The implication was that their mum didn’t mind at all, and it was all stiff upper lip and no family affection. But this letter shows this is not true. It is full of longing from Catherine, who hopes to soon see her husband and the horribleness of leaving the children behind. She called it “dreadful”.

In contrast my little hiccup about saying goodbye to the primary school Nell has enjoyed for the past seven years is nothing. It’s really just a change of routine.

Other parents keep saying to me, oh it’s your last summer fair, your last concert, your last term, and now your last week. And that’s right. It’s all that. But I think seeing my grandparents’ letters has helped put it all in perspective. Nell, 11, is moving on to a secondary school; she’s still going to be living in the same home with me.

Moving on
Missing her old school will simply be a chance to relive happy memories of a fantastic primary school experience. Thanks to everyone who has had a hand in that. And good luck to all of you whose children are moving on whether from nursery to reception, into middle or secondary school, or sixth form, or a gap year, or university… Or something different entirely.

Over to you
What are the things you’ll enjoy missing most about your child moving on? (For me it’s going to be the walk to school through a park, with the dog, utterly lovely).

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