A Grammar Lesson of Experience 91

Speaking to a meeting organised by Edinburgh West SNP last week, people were surprised when I told them my grandparents lived for many decades in West Pilton Gardens. They were surprised because I look and sound like an English ex-public schoolboy. I appear like this because I attended an English Grammar School, the entire purpose of which was to turn out ersatz public schoolboys. So am I walking proof of Theresa May’s thesis of grammar schools being the answer to social mobility for bright people from poor backgrounds? No.

The wrench has stayed with me for 46 years of my little group of primary school friends being split up between those who were sent off to Paston Grammar School and those who went to the local secondary modern. With the best will in the world, the separation became insuperable very quickly. I am back in Sheringham now for my mother’s funeral. It is very plain that an exam at 11, which you could pass or fail by one mark, changed people’s lives forever. Simply put, the majority of people still around are those who failed the 11 plus, as a pass led on to university and much wider life opportunities. Anyone who tells you that secondary moderns do not carry a stigma is lying – and you cannot create grammar schools without creating secondary moderns, whatever you call them.

Socially it was still worse as two of us four siblings passed the 11 plus and two failed. There is no doubt at all that this exam result at 11 – which had nothing to do with any difference in intelligence or industry in the family – irrevocably affected our careers and even, to some extent, the nature of our family relationships, though we are still very close. What is more it is not a coincidence that the two who passed were the eldest two – and we both had started our primary education when the family was very well off. By the time the younger two started we had fallen on hard times in a big way, and had to move. There are numerous statistics to prove that selection favours the wealthier. I know this.

The grammar school itself was absolutely modelled on the lines of a public (which is Orwellian for private) school and I believe had been one. It had this very strange militaristic ethos, and the teachers were all men who had been profoundly affected by fighting the second world war. There was a Cadet Force where you had to dress in real military uniform once a week and fire guns and march up and down a lot, and it was plain the aim was to turn you from a rustic youth into a member of the officer class. Latin was compulsory, discipline was extreme, and teachers thought it amusing to throw blackboard rubbers – with heavy wooden backs – at children’s heads.

It was so successful in turning out ersatz privately educated pupils that I have been mistaken for one more or less since. And there is no doubt at all that this helped me get in to the fast stream of the FCO – in an intake in which I was one of only two state school educated entrants in the fast stream. There were two graduate entry streams – administrative (fast stream) and executive (slow stream). In 1984 there were just two state school entrants in the fast stream, and no private school entrants in the slow stream.

It is this plucking of hearty young yeomen and turning them into officers for which Theresa May nostalgically yearns. But I absolutely hated the school. I hated the discipline, I hated the militarism, I hated the narrow thought. I hated it so much I performed terribly – I got a B and two E’s at A Level and scraped into university on clearing. Yet once in University with much more personal freedom, I flourished and never in my entire University career came less than top in any exam I took, culminating in a first class degree. The grammar school system had almost destroyed my potential because of my reaction against its class divisiveness.

Once in the FCO, I could perhaps pass in manners, knowledge and speech patterns as one of my fellow high fliers, but thankfully I lacked their class solidarity and social codes. That is why I could be a maverick and a whistleblower, and not go along with torture and extraordinary rendition, with which the Flashmans who dominate the FCO had no problem.

Theresa May was absolutely right that there already is selection in education, and that it is selection by wealth. But those buying a private education are not actually buying a better education – they are buying admission to a social network of wealth and privilege, bonded by common contacts and attitudes. The answer is not to sneak a few people into these networks, but to dismantle the social structures that have beset the UK for generations.

Bringing back grammar schools will not increase social mobility. Abolishing private schools will increase social mobility. The State can and should insist that every child has a state education, secular and of the highest quality. Attendance at secular state school during normal terms and school hours should be compulsory for all children in Britain.

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91 thoughts on “A Grammar Lesson of Experience

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    • fred

      A load of fuss about nothing. That’s what happens when you have an SNP grievance monkey for an MP, oh poor us the big bad establishment is walking all over us again.

      Anybody got any better ideas? Anybody got a better plan?

  • Gordon Logan

    I’m sorry Craig but all my life I’ve been trying to make conversation with people who are ignorant and/or thick as three short planks. I’m getting old and I’m sick of it. I’ve heard that the Twee males in Ghana stop talking after the age of 50. I can see their point. The future is Orwell’s oligarchical collectivism: an uberklass of wealthy oligarchs and a drastically reduced middle class. A life without a middle class will be hell with no social mobility. The masses will be dumbed down lumpens with their I-phones, drugs, declining literacy, dissolution of the family and concomitant depressive illnesses. Your wish to abolish private education reflects the developing pauperization of the middle class as the wealth is sucked upwards to the lucky few. Obviously paupers can’t afford private education, or housing for that matter. Nor will they be allowed to have money, which will be abolished to be replaced by smart cards which can be easily switched off by the new tyranny in the case of troublesome individuals like you and me. Decades of false flag terrorism are designed to turn the state into a tausend jahre legislative penitentiary. I’m sorry to hear about your US visa problem. For years the British Home Office has been trying to force me and my family to live in China.

    • Shatnersrug

      I think you should talk to young people rather than writing them off as dumbed down because you don’t understand their culture or language. Youngsters today see no borders they have friend all around the world and think nothing of distance. They’re on their phones all the time because they are connected to the wider world, they simultaneously learn and socialise – older people think them dumb because they don’t vote, but they’ve grown up in a time that political expectations have never been lower – the last 10 years have been absolute proof to young people that politicians do not give a fuck about the people they represent. Just look what happened when Jeremy Corbyn started speaking up they sat up and took note.

      It’s not all bad but something I learned from my grandmother and now parents – at some point it’s no longer your world and you don’t understand it any longer, and none of the things that you accepted as truisms mean anything any more.

  • glenn

    Very much agree, but you could emphasise that “Faith Schools” should also be abolished forthwith. If parents wish to delude trusting children with their superstitious nonsense, shame on them. But to do this with state schools and money, when they ought to be actually educated instead, is nothing more than a divisive disgrace at best, and should rightly be categorised as child abuse.

    “This is a Catholic baby”. “This is a Mormon baby”. “This is a Communist baby”. “This is a capitalist baby”. “This is a Keynesian -economic model based baby”. “This is a third-way triangulating Neo-Labour baby.” Would anyone stand for such utter crap, when announcing a newborn?

    Yet a few years of solid ramming down their throats of delusional doctrines later, we’re all supposed to be satisfied by the labelling of a small child as being Catholic, Protestant, Islamic, etc., and should therefore attend a school which will reinforce such primitive, mind-numbing dogma.

    I’m glad that your final sentence urged secular state schools to be compulsory. It is at the root of much division in society. If Catholic and Protestant children had attended the same non-religious state schools in Norther Ireland, for instance, I am sure secular divisions would have dissipated within a generation.

  • gyges

    So, why not go the whole hog. Just as it is illegal, within the employment field, to discriminate against people on the basis of age, gender, race, etc … why not make it illegal to discriminate against people on the basis of exam results?

    • fwl

      Recollect shades oif this in the 1970s with exam marks standardized in an inexplicable process of averaging, which confused all but then made no difference.

  • giyane

    The fast stream public schoolboys have broken the banking system and relaunched colonialism with global reach and total indifference to the suffering caused, ( 14 million Syrians, the Afghans who fled carpet bombing still live in camps in Pakistan , to mention 2).

    Am I being sexist/racist to compare Mrs May with the kind of tangled dust, cotton, sawdust and fluff you have to wrestle with your fingers to get your vacuum cleaner working again.Talking of fluff, there is a feminine side in there certainly, but very low priority compared to the Tory debris accumulated by the hoover.

  • Bert.

    While your suggestion that the abolition of public schools may be the true (and only real) road to social equality and mobility; can you imagine the rumpus. What fun that would be to watch 😉


  • Ian Brookes

    Craig, I understand your concerns about a life changing exam at 11 years old, but there could be other more acceptable methods of streaming children based on capabilities with opportunities for re-selection at regular intervals.

    I was fortunate to go to a Technical Grammar School – no Latin or ‘public’ school pretenses. It was certainly a great experience for me and something that I would like to see reintroduced.

    • Old Mark

      Excellent point Ian- Craig’s animus to grammar schools stems from his time at Paston GS, which he incorrectly assumes was typical of the majority of grammars. From his recollecton however, I would say Paston could be deemed typical of older grammars with a long history, but the culture prevalent there certainly didn’t extent to Tech Grammars (such as the one you attended) , or ‘council’ grammars such as the one I attended.

      Like yours, my school had no compulsory Latin (it was one of 3 languages additional to French- which was compulsory- that we were obliged to take at 13. In my year fewer than half a dozen pupils actually took it), and no CCF. Corporal punishment was applied, but within the very sensible guidelines applied by ILEA in London since the fifties- which meant than each formal caning had to be recorded in the school’s ‘punishment book’. This was (and would still be, if limited corporal punishment were allowed again in schools) a very useful guard against sadists and over enthusiastic ‘floggers’ who I admit were common in Catholic grammars and public schools during my time (late 60s- mid 70s).

      Like you, and unlike Craig, I was fortunate with my ‘council’ grammar experience- and by the time I entered the sixth, the school had been ‘comprehensivised’- so I can say truthfully that I experienced both systems- and found the comprehensive version unsatisfactory. (Indeed, after 3 decades the ‘comped’ version of my old school was closed as by then it had an unsavoury reputation- it now limps on as a ‘sixth form college’.)

      Slightly O/T, it would I think be interesting to get Craig’s thoughts on this perk that was available to him when he was in the FCO-


  • Jez

    The problem is encapsulated in your final paragraph Craig
    “The State can and should insist that every child has a state education, secular and of the highest quality. Attendance at secular state school during normal terms and school hours should be compulsory for all children in Britain.”
    Fine but does this not sound a tad Stalinist? OK so that means “public (private) schools” go. It also means all faith schools go. It also means all wingnut alternative schools go (e.g. Steiner Schools etc). One senses a human rights challenge coming on- just as well the tories plan to scrap the HRA. And speaking from a Scottish perspective where May’s “reforms” will not be taking place, the challenge is how to deal with the fact that what was once one of the finest public education systems in the english speaking world has under the stewardship of the current and recent administrations collapsed into mediocrity – closing the Edinburgh private Schools aint going to fix that……by the way thanks for another great DTRH especially given the difficult time it was for you

  • CameronB Brodie

    The education system in the western free-world, is of primary significance in naturalising symbolic violence and developing a demeanor, or state of mind (habitus), that is internally colonised by ideology (neo-liberal). This enables the perpetuation of arbitrary power relations that perpetuate and deepen social inequality and injustice.

    Frankly vile, IMHO.

    Symbolic violence and the neighbourhood: the educational aspirations of 7-8 year old working-class girls.


    This article focuses on the experiences of 7-8 year old working-class girls in Belfast, Northern Ireland and their attitudes towards education. It shows how their emerging identities tend to emphasize relationships, marriage and motherhood at the expense of a concern with education and future careers. The article suggests that one important factor that can help explain this is the influence of the local neighbourhood. In drawing upon Bourdieu’s concepts of symbolic violence and habitus and Elias’ notion of figuration, the article shows how the local neighbourhood represents the parameters of the girls’ social worlds. It provides the context within which the girls tend to focus on social relations within their community and particularly on family relationships, marriage and children. It also provides the context within which the girls tend to develop strong interdependent relationships with their mothers that also tend to encourage and reinforce the girls’ particular gendered identities. The article concludes by arguing that there is a need for more research on working-class girls and education to look beyond the school to incorporate, more fully, an understanding of the influence of the family and local neighbourhood on their attitudes towards education and their future career aspirations.


  • Rob

    Agree with you Craig. The silly (or knavish) schools minister “Nick” Gibb says grammar schools do not mark a return to a ‘binary system’ in secondary education. He clearly does not understand that ‘pass’ versus ‘fail’ is a binary.

    There is no doubt that the re-invention of the secondary modern school will mark a serious deterioration in the prospects for many children. Theresa May wants to get English state funded education back to the 1950s: schools must reflect the class system with grammars for the middle class and secondary moderns for the lower orders.

  • Ed

    In even further coincidences Craig not only did I live in West Pilton Gardens 1991-1992 (whilst at University) but I was also in Tashkent at the same time as you working, albeit in a somewhat different field.. for about the same amount of time, if we ever met on Broadway (Tashkent for those not in the know) and I told you this coincidental fact we would both be slightly amazed 🙂

  • Ed

    As some form of verification it was then 70p from West Pilton Gardens on the 27 to (nearby) Bristow Square and as I recall the Bus took around 50 minutes, and in UZ the Ragu definitely did home deliveries on my Curries, and EpiCenter was well.. EpiCenter but I am sure you never went there 😉 Ahhh the old days.

  • Gulliver

    If the re-introduction of Grammar schools resembles what went before and includes any form of selection at age 11 does anyone genuinely believe that parents with sufficient resources will not try to game the system in favour of their children getting into the local Grammar school? Thinking about it, it’s almost certainly going to be cheaper to employ a private tutor for a few hours coaching a week than it would be to move house to the catchment area of a good comprehensive.

    As an ex Secondary Modern pupil who didn’t sit the 11+ (I don’t know if this was a decision made by my parents or the school – but I probably would not have passed) my view of selection at this age is based on my own experience as something of a late developer. It is a very crude and premature method of separating children based on academic ability (as if academic ability is the be all and end all) with all the knock on effects in terms of life chances this entails.

    Fortunately, I eventually found my aptitude but it was something my secondary school completely missed. So instead of returning to some bygone age of academic selection at 11, would it not be better to resource an education system that can recognise and develop every child’s ability, at whatever age that gift manifests itself?

    • fred

      “As an ex Secondary Modern pupil who didn’t sit the 11+ (I don’t know if this was a decision made by my parents or the school – but I probably would not have passed)”

      Some areas used the Thorne system where only about three pupils sat the exam at a time I think. If they passed those ranked higher by teachers based on their work during the year automatically passed and the three below them sat the exam, if they failed those below them failed and those above sat the exam.

  • David Riley

    As a retired teacher I am totally against the relaunch of Grammar schools. It will be divisive now as it was in the 60’s and 70’s in that everything else would be second best. What this country needs to do is focus on providing top quality state schools and fund them as well as academies. Looking at OFSTED data clearly shows state schools doing better than free schools and academies in achieving good or better outcomes, not that you would know from this Government.
    I taught in a very good Suffolk school and we produced excellent exam results comparable to any local private school. What grammar schools do along with private schools is promote the idea that their student should have a place at the top universities as a matter of right.
    State school students have to earn that place. It wasn’t long ago we had a girl achieve 4 A’s at A level. She only got a place at Cambridge on an appeal. Meanwhile Prince Charles achieved a place on one B and 2 Cs. Until we start rewarding merit, nothing will change or only go backwards.

  • Ba'al Zevul

    My experience of a direct-grant school (and it is my strong impression that although my parents could have afforded to pay, they availed themselves of LEA money to keep me there -score one against the system for that) is similar to yours, although I didn’t ‘redeem’ myself by going to university until decades later, on my own terms, and after an access course. But the military aspect wasn’t strongly played – no masters were involved in the ATC, which I found a very welcome relief from festering uselessly at the bottom of the A stream to provide an awful warning to les autres, who mostly loathed me. Someone belatedly realised that I was a fish out of water, and I was kicked out before taking A-levels. If I had realised the significance of the 11-plus, I would have failed it intentionally.

    BUT on the other hand, some of my contemporaries did benefit enormously from the direct-grant system, to which their claim was genuine, and I can’t base a blanket condemnation on my own experience alone. Horses for courses, perhaps, the problem being to pick the right horses in the paddock…

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