I read with fury about the investigation launched by Ed Balls on Friday, into the number of parents who lie about where they live to secure school places for their children. The investigation stems from the recently dropped prosecution of a mother who lied about her address in an effort to get her son into a popular primary school in Harrow. Normally I have the utmost respect for the law, but on this occasion I cannot help but make a vigilante cry because the system is deeply flawed.
I grew up, and still live for that matter, with my family in a council estate in Hitchin, Hertfordshire. My home, an ex-council house, sits on the far edge of the estate, on the dividing line of the local state school catchment areas. For primary school, I was allocated a place at my nearest school: a school right in the centre of the estate, where the pupils perform poorly. Only after a year-long battle with the local council did my parents manage to get me out of the school and move me to a better one in a different neighbourhood. Luckily the school agreed to take my younger sister on automatically.
When it came to applying for secondary school I missed my parents’ first choice of the ex-grammar school and my second choice of a school in the neighbouring town. I ended up at the ex-secondary modern school that performs poorly, which again is right in the heart of the council estate. The year my younger sister applied, our house was just included in the ex-grammar school's catchment area, covering a largely wealthy housing area. The difference between the two schools could not be more marked:
On a personal level I am not the slightest bit bitter about the outcome. Firstly, because I love my sister and want the very best for her, and secondly because I was fortunate enough to be born into a family that places high value on academic achievement. This was not the case for most of my friends at school.
Research conducted by the Centre for Social Justice has found that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are five times more likely to fail academically than their peers. You don’t need to be a sociologist to see how this postcode lottery system effectively ghettoizes children from disadvantaged backgrounds. So I support Mrinal Patel, the mother who lied on her son’s form, because she refused to let him be condemned to a poor education simply because she did not live in the ‘right’ area.
I read David Davis’s article about the opportunities that Tooting grammar school gave him with interest and am inclined to agree that the real beneficiaries of the comprehensive school system are public school kids.
Although contrary to what you’d probably expect me to say now, I’m not entirely convinced that a return to the grammar school system should be the Holy Grail of Tory education policy. Sometimes children are late bloomers and don’t show signs of academic success until later than the age of eleven. Others suit one school ethos over another. I was a very shy eleven year old (hard to believe now, I know) and I wasn’t completely sure at the time that the ex-grammar school’s very formal style, which I perceived as aggressive, would have suited me.
It wasn’t until after I started secondary school that I recognised the negative influence of trying to learn in an environment where doing well was considered to be seriously ‘uncool’. In my worldly wisdom at the age of eleven, my suggestion to my parents was a compromise: I should go to the school in the neighbouring town of Letchworth, which achieved better grades than the school I ended up at, but was slightly less scary. I hate to admit it, but Dad you were probably right all along. It didn’t matter though; the postcode lottery system barred me from both.
Quite apart from of my individual circumstances, surely sending poor kids in poor areas to the same school regardless of ability is ludicrous. Therefore, despite my reservations, it seems to me that the grammar school system, or at least a selection process, is the lesser evil.
I can’t help but feel slightly irked by David Cameron’s accusation that support for grammar schools is “ideological self-indulgence”. Maybe he learnt something I didn’t whilst he was at Eton… I mean, come on, even Comrade Harman sent one of her children to grammar school. Although, interestingly, she did send her other child to comprehensive school — and guess what — that school wasn’t her nearest school… (it was also grant-maintained and religious, but shh! Wave that red flag, Harriet!)
I firmly believe that barriers to upward social mobility in modern Britain have very little to do with material poverty and are almost entirely to do with poverty of aspiration. Why then take the ladder of an aspirational environment away from families who can’t afford to live in an expensive housing area?