Alternatives to Education Meltdown

Why is it that education is never geared towards the majority? Does that sound harsh? Well, that's certainly the impression you would get if you listened to the latest debate about education in England. Check your daily newspaper right now, and you'll see it concerns our Conservative Party's reluctance to endorse the idea of building new Grammar Schools. I know all about them, all right. At the tender age of 11 I was thrown into the '11-Plus' Exam that we had in Britain at the time. For some reason, maybe more good luck than judgement, I did well.

That allowed me into one of the top Grammar Schools in my city, where I stayed for the next 7 years. Later, my mother proudly told me, 'Son, you managed to get into the top 2 per cent in the test'. Hey, that's great, but how can you build an education system around the needs of the top 2 per cent? That leaves ? how many? ? out in the cold. Yes, 98 per cent. Damn, that's a lot of people, most of them directed towards a pretty second-rate schooling in what were then called 'Secondary Modern Schools'.

They were 'Secondary', because that's schools for the 11 to 16 year olds, and they were 'Modern' because they got re-designed in the 1950s to meet the new needs of industry and commerce. They didn't last long. In the 1960s a new government came along, the Labour Party, and they promptly invented 'Comprehensive' schools, that is, schools that cater for everyone, at all levels. Confused? You should be.

While all this was going on, the real top dogs, the people who grew, went to school and ended up running the country, ignored the topsy-turvy policies and carried on doing what they always have done - going to what we Brits call 'Public Schools', (what the rest of the world might think of as private schools). Don't know what they are? Think about the film 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' and just take it for granted that all those posh speaking men in the movie would have been educated in English Public Schools. That will give you some idea. So, British education comes out in levels. At the top level is the Public Schools, where rich people send their children to make sure they turn out like them.

Next level down is the Grammar Schools, which we've still got! Yes folks, the Labour government said 'Let there be Comprehensives' in the 1960s, then forgot to abolish the Grammar Schools, so they carried on. They had to rely a bit on charity and a few floundered, but quite a lot milked the government for grants and survived. The Comprehensive Schools spread out into every parish and town, and Secondary Moderns disappeared, mainly by turning from the latter into the former. A change of name, some new buildings and 'Comprehensive' became the norm. For 'most people'. That's the point.

For most young people in Merry Old England, the vast majority, in the last forty years, would have attended a Comprehensive School as a child. For some that worked out well, a few hated it, and most got by. Why aren't we arguing about that? For two reasons. One, the rich and famous avoided the debate altogether and kept right on using Public Schools.

Second, the local Comprehensive schools ? who took in everyone from their locality, right? - soon found that their catchment areas varied, the type of parent and pupil they received varied also, which meant that some schools did well, some didn't. If you start with good grapes you can get champagne, if you have trashy grapes, you can end up with vinegar. No surprise. Pushy parents saw what was happening and moved house, usually into an area that had a well-performing school. Their enthusiasm made the 'local' school even more successful, and it attracted the brightest kids and got the best results.

Oh yes, those schools were 'Comprehensive' all right, it's just that some performed better than others. They weren't all the same, as the original planners somehow imagined they would be. So we debate that, don't we? No, we don't. The current row that's raging is about Grammar Schools.

Remember them? We almost forgot about them back when things changed in the 1960s. The Conservative Party, just to prove that they have their finger on the pulse and is bang up to date with people's needs, is saying now that the country 'doesn't need any new ones'. So what? We'll just 'make do' with the ones we've got? Well, maybe, but that could be bad news for the layer of people slightly below 'rich and famous', the 'fairly well off and well connected', perhaps.

They aren't happy. They can't afford to send their kids to Public Schools, and they know ? since many of them went to Grammar Schools ? that the Grammar School is just about the next best thing. It's a terrible shouting match, and means problems for the real debate that should be going on about education in Britain.

And that is, what's the best way to educate the 98%? Because, if we can't solve that conundrum, we aren't just letting down the vast majority of our children, we're also laying up trouble for the future, since we aren't tackling the real issues that are leading ? right now - to teacher burnout, administrative lack of confidence, and a vision that looks increasingly like educational meltdown.

Mike Scantlebury is an Internet Author. He is resident in England where he writes books, stories and songs and offers them for sale on the web. His work can be found at Amazon and Lulu dot com. He also has a download site, where you can find a few chapters for 99 cents, in amongst the jokes. Try a click on - http://www.mikescantlebury.biz

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