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Primary Education News
News Despite GCSE success, grammar schools aren't all they're cracked up to be | Rayhan Uddin
They may be topping state school rankings but grammar schools don't offer the rounded education that a comprehensive can
It's that time of year again when some students receive GCSE exam results and everyone else buys a broadsheet to scrutinise the latest league tables. Unsurprisingly, grammar schools are topping the state school rankings. However, this doesn't tell the whole story.
From the ages of 11 to 16, I went to a comprehensive school, changing to a grammar school to complete my A-levels. This convinced me that, despite the contrast in exam success, comps provide a much more wholesome and applicable education. A combination of poor teaching methods and lack of diversity have led me to believe that the merits of selective education are vastly overstated.
At my grammar school, I had some truly awful teachers. A-levels, the most rigorous academic challenge of my life, were often taught to me by first-timers who knew nothing beyond the exam curriculum. This forced me and my peers to engage furiously in what has come to be known as "rote learning": a textbook-heavy, exam-orientated method that involves an intense regurgitation of facts. Poor teaching went unnoticed. The sheer motivation of the students (either ingrained in most from the 11-plus onwards or, for the rest, like me, from not wanting to be the dumb new kid) meant that we worked even harder if our teacher was bad. Judged solely on results, underperforming teachers were so often made to look outstanding.
This was in stark contrast to my comprehensive school. The comp used a variety of teaching styles, relying much less on strict curricula. Teachers would always be challenging us to think outside the box: "the real world's not a multiple choice exam" my old RE teacher, Mr Parker, used to say. How right he was. In this time of austerity and youth unemployment, the ability to think outside the confines of examinations and into the complexity of real life is surely what increases employability. Textbook memorising can only get you so far in life.
At my grammar school there was also a distinct lack of socio-economic diversity. The school was situated in an affluent area (as most grammars are) to which I commuted 12 miles back and forth each day. Add to this the farcical 11-plus exam – an arbitrary one-off test that in many cases was determined by whether parents could afford a tutor, as opposed to actual intellect – and you have yourself an institutionalised system that overlooks the poorest. Contrary to the belief of proponents of grammar school expansion, in my experience, selective education has massively hindered social mobility.
It was in my politics A-level class where I began to fully realise this. Debating issues such as unemployment benefits and the rehabilitation of prisoners, I was suddenly propelled into the role of standalone lefty whose views were brandished "dreamy" and "irrational". I came to find out that the norm was to hold views that I would deem bleak and highly sheltered, lacking immensely in some sort of societal context or perspective. Once again, theoretical textbook arguments were superseding an understanding of real life context. At the comprehensive school, the diversity of the student body: ethnically, financially and in terms of life experiences, meant education came not only from textbooks, but also from each other.
Exams do not tell the full story when it comes to state school education. Diverse teaching methods and a diverse student body are integral in obtaining a well-rounded, worthwhile education. While grammar schooling taught me how to do well in exams, comprehensive education has taught me to think on my feet, and to understand and engage with people from different backgrounds and wide-ranging circumstances. Ofsted reports and exam league tables fail to recognise the latter. Life, however, recognises it considerably more.