The new school year is upon the nation’s sproglets and there’s a new-ish argument in Parliament and the media about grammar schools.
Am I glad to be back home. I want to add my two cents to the great grammar school debate, because I actually attended one – after 1974, which as far as I can tell is when most politicians left university – and no one seems to have thought to ask grammar school pupils what they think.
I went to a grammar school in Essex from 2007 until a couple of years ago, partly because I grew up surrounded by them, and their students looked very accomplished and clever and grown up in their uniforms and I wanted to be like that, and partly because my parents and teachers had worked out by the time I was eleven that I was a precocious academic brat. Also, the alternative schools were shit. They weren’t all shit schools, but they were shit for me. Had I gone to the local comprehensives, I would have spent my teenage years with the same people I went to primary school with. I did not like most of the people I went to primary school with. I was shy and awkward and did all my growing in year five, so I looked 15, not 10 – and wearing a bra and shopping for sanitary products when your classmates are still getting the giggles when they look up ‘vagina’ in the dictionary is less fun than it sounds. Plus I loved reading and reading = smart, right? SO I WAS GOING TO TRY OUT FOR THE GRAMMAR SCHOOLS.
At school we already had to do shitty tests and homework and SATs, and I signed up to the Eleven Plus assuming it was basically the same, which it was. I fucking hated all tests and homework right up until year 13 – so shout out to my parents, who gritted their teeth and walked me through my verbal reasoning book, and to my primary school teachers, who ran extra classes for the kids they thought could try out for the grammar schools, or the grammar stream that ran in one of the comprehensives.
I don’t remember much about the months leading up to the Eleven Plus, other than I listened to evening radio while I finished my verbal reasoning, and that’s where I got into MCR. But I do remember visiting the different schools, and one of my classmates mum’s saying to one of the teachers at an all-girls grammar: ‘Lucy much prefers boys to girls. She doesn’t get on with girls. Would that be a problem here?’ The answer was yes. Lucy went to a comprehensive. I never got on with her – and I thought boys were mostly gross, and I saw no reason to share a desk with them unless forced. My other resounding memory of that time is another child’s mum saying in the playground ‘I won’t let my daughter go to the girls school. It’s full of posh people and dykes.’
My friends and I conducted pretty thorough studies over the years and trust me, it’s really not.
Anyway, a lot of children at my school went in for the Eleven Plus, and a lot of us passed (again, shout out to the teachers for having faith in so many of us). A few went to the different grammars, but most went into the grammar stream at the comprehensive. I don’t know if that still exists, but if anyone reading this is worried their little girl might miss the company of the Y chromosome aged 12, consider that.
In my first week of year seven I was surprised at how quiet the classrooms were. My primary school was raucous and busy and chairs got thrown and kids hadn’t met their parents for years and kids were on medication and kids were loud. I couldn’t get over how much people wanted to learn (to anyone who taught my classes after year nine – sorry we couldn’t keep that up).
By the end of year eight I had learnt that I went to school with girls who were thick as shit but whose families had the money to tutor them through the Eleven Plus, with girls whose families didn’t have enough money to buy food and the expensive school uniform, with girls whose parents seemed to treat the grammar system as an extension of the private school system, with girls who are smart enough to run the country. I also learnt that I would not contract lesbianism by virtue of not being near boys, although I took an extra-curricular karate class just to be on the safe side. I still think boys are mostly gross but I would like to apologise publicly for confusing queerness with the flu. In my defence, I went to primary school with kids whose parents were twats.
I also learnt that I kind of hated school. I hated homework and poncy assemblies in which we politely applauded the latest hockey victories. I hated standing up when a teacher came in (show me some respect and I’ll show you some, dude) and the optional but-not-really letters asking for ‘small donations’ and the PE lessons run by people who never seemed to exercise and the ridiculous assumption that we should all go to university. I hated that the highest standard wasn’t high enough, I hated that the arts were ignored in favour of maths and science, and that maths and science was ignored in favour of sport.
But I loved my friends, my blazer’s many pockets and the weird little intricacies that came with a century-old institution. We had two staircases, one going up and one going down, and sometimes someone would lose a shoe on the way up. We celebrated our school’s birthday with giant fruitcake and a rousing rendition of Jerusalem. We’d visit foreign language teachers in spare offices once a fortnight to play with index cards about verbs. I hated that the highest standard wasn’t high enough, but only when it came to homework; I give the same attention to my work now that teachers wanted me to give to my work then.
I did well in my GCSEs by grammar standards, and badly in my A Levels by grammar standards. I’m doing okay now in life standards, although probably not grammar school ones – I didn’t go to university, I work for myself and I’m broke, there’s nothing about me that they can put on a brochure to encourage the next generation of precious academic brats.
If I had gone to any of the comprehensives, maybe the part of me that says ‘fuck’ a lot, dyes my hair pink and refuses to get a normal job would have flourished a lot earlier. Maybe I would have been more relaxed about homework and less frustrated by all the hoops I had to jump through as a student. Maybe I would have gone to university. Maybe I wouldn’t be blogging, wouldn’t be an MCR fan or wouldn’t be a writer. I have yet to see if being an alumni of my school can open doors; I’ve had more interviews based on my blog than I have my qualifications – although a during lot of local interviews people have mentioned that they went to a grammar, or their kid did, or their aunt’s cousin’s neighbour did. I don’t know if that’s an exclusive club I want to be in.
So, politicians and parents and teachers and, for once, the kids who are in the education system today:
I don’t know what’s best for you. Your parents might not know what’s best for you. A wonderful teacher and a supportive home life will get your far further than the number of A*s you’ve achieved. I didn’t do well in primary school because I was magically gifted, I did well because my teachers were brilliant and my family gave a shit. I’m no smarter than the children who didn’t go to the grammars, although my parents are smarter than the parents who didn’t let their children try out for the grammars. If you fail an exam aged eleven, you have the rest of your life to do everything in your life. If you want to try out for the Eleven Plus, do it. If you want to dye your hair pink, do it.
Only one of those things will ruin your clothes, your bathroom and some of your job prospects.