One of my pet peeves is the phrase "grammar school system", applied to the arrangements for state schools brought in by the 1944 Education Act. This evening, for example, there's been a programme on grammar schools
, which the BBC web site describes as being about "the British grammar school system, whose aim was to give the best education to talented children". It talked a lot about the 11 plus, from the point of view of those who passed and failed it. David Attenborough, Joan Bakewell, and others, were on hand to laud the schools that opened the way to their being sirred and damed.
The trouble is that there never was a "grammar school system". Talking about it in that way is like referring to universities as "the first class degree system", and ignoring the existence of people who don't get firsts, who are (even in these days of grade inflation) the vast majority. What the '44 act actually brought in, of course, or attempted to, was a tripartite
system, of which grammar schools were only one part, the other two being secondary technical schools (of which relatively few were ever built) and secondary moderns. While grammar schools got most of the money, about 70% of children were branded failures at the age of eleven and sent to secondary moderns. It's quite certain that these included many mute inglorious Attenboroughs, and Bakewells born to blush unseen. I celebrate David and Joan, but I also mourn their thwarted cousins.
Earlier this week, in a quintessentially Radio 4 series that takes famous people back to the sites of their childhood paper rounds
, we had Alan Parker looking at the bleak north London flatscape of his youth, and commenting: "I didn't have much ambition. The huge difference for me was that I got to the grammar school, Dame Alice Owens, at the Angel. And I was the only kid in the flats who got to that grammar school, and that was the absolute salvation for me: that was the reason that I ended up doing what I do now." This is obviously good news for Alan Parker, and since the programme focused on him it comes across as a fine endorsement of the "grammar school system". But do we really believe that of all the children in those flats, only Parker was intelligent and potentially-academic enough to have benefited from the kind of education he got at Dame Alice Owens? Thought not. And if grammar school was his "salvation", what does that make the Sec. Mod.?
Personally I still root for the comprehensive system (with setting not streaming, thank you), but whatever one's opinion, as a point of terminology it seems only fair to call the tripartite system by its proper name; or else, given that over two thirds of children were sent along that route, to call it "the secondary modern system". Otherwise, it just gets a bit too much like Omelas - but with most of the city's children in the cellar.