September – back to school and who would have believed we could be facing the spectre of a proposed return to the Grammar school system – the latest big idea by the post-Brexit- referendum--government?
The idea of a reintroducing such grossly unfair educational segregation at the age of 11 is truly horrifying. In areas where grammar schools still exist (such as Kent and Essex) the quality and morale of the ‘other’ secondary schools is eroded. My family moved to Essex when I was 15. My parents didn’t realise there was a grammar school in the town we moved to and innocently sent us to the nearest secondary school expecting a proper comprehensive education – they were sadly mistaken. This huge (2000 pupil) school had a tiny 6th form and extraordinarily low expectations of the students. Wanting to go to university was questioned and discouraged whilst children were allowed to leave school at 16 without taking any ‘O’ levels or CSEs. It was not an inspiring place to go to school – I would probably have done very badly had it not been for one teacher who took an interest in me, challenged the mediocre expectations of the school and encouraged me in literature, arts and politics. I was lucky.
I am currently Chair of Governors at a great girls’ comprehensive school in South East London. The driving ethos of this school is to recognise and realise the potential of every child and to enable them to develop a broad range of interests and play to their strengths. The school takes pride in providing opportunity for a genuinely comprehensive intake of girls, recognising that young people develop at different speeds and stages. When children are judged and segregated at 11 the self-esteem, aspiration and life-chances of the many are sacrificed for the privilege of the few. It is my strongly held belief that comprehensive education offers a level playing field and keeps hope and opportunity alive for all children. As a ‘civilised’ society we must invest in the future of every child – not distil our resources into the advancement of a minority already privileged by aptitude and ability (happening to be ready and able to pass an 11+ exam at the required time).
I can’t imagine a worse way of addressing social disadvantage than the re-introduction of Grammar schools. Already the breadth and adaptability of our education system is being endangered by the introduction of the Ebacc.
Interestingly the former Secretary of State for Education Kenneth Clarke has expressed strong views on the Ebacc this week. He writes in a recent report:
‘There is a correlation between affluence and academic success. I wish it were not so, but wishful thinking will not solve the problems of deprivation, and nor will the EBacc, in its current form. Our workforce needs a new set of skills, including expertise in emerging technologies. This narrow academic curriculum is regressive and will severely limit learning of the technical and creative subjects we desperately need in our new digital age’.
It is extremely worrying that so much of our political discourse is about looking backwards at the moment. The shockingly mendacious and misguided Leave EU campaign harked back to and sought to reinvoke a pre 1973 Europe and now we are being presented with a 1950’s Education policy! At this rate prepare yourselves for the next wave of D-Day landings ….. or maybe they will revoke votes for women next!
So what can we do from the world of independent theatre?
Well, first of all, arts practitioners have to continue to work strongly and closely with schools to provide and maintain creative opportunities for all children. Theatre is a great vehicle for reaching young people, giving them food for thought and a means of self-expression. Our companies who work regularly with schools provide an essential resource and we need to make sure more people (including government) are more aware of it.
Secondly people working in the arts need to join school governing bodies to share and learn. Governors are the custodians of a school’s values. We have to make sure that the values of creativity, equality of opportunity, diversity and aspiration are at the heart of our school system.
Thirdly we have to pick our-selves up after the morale-destroying result of the Brexit referendum and keep looking outwards and forwards. Partnerships across Europe are still possible (see Creative Europe) and need to be cultivated. Politicians need to be told what the potential losses and problems could be for the arts and education if we leave the EU – and yes I still think it could be ‘if’. No-one has a tangible or workable plan yet for Brexit – maybe the ludicrous Grammar schools announcement was intended as a distraction from that.