Bafflesby Echo Scoops Schools Shake-Up

                                                  by our special freelance correspondent Ziro Owers

News that Prime Minister Theresa May has given the green light to grammar schools was greeted with cheers of gratitude and a fair few tears of nostalgia at the Bafflesby Institute for Generating Upmarket Policy (BIGUP) earlier today. This conservative think-tank is the brainchild of Doctor Ry Twyng who welcomed me personally in the foyer of BIGUP with an iron handshake, his eyes glinting behind rose-tinted spectacles. I imagined he would whisk me up to his plush office but, washing his hand with a wet-wipe, he indicated a couple of plastic chairs next to a wilting plant. The interview clearly wasn’t going to be a long one so I plunged in at the deep end.

Was 11 years old too early to separate children by ability? ‘Well,’ Doctor Ry began, leaning forward, ‘in some ways it’s too late. As we speak, we’re working on techniques to predict personal profitability potential in five-year-olds. It’s only a matter of time before we can reach into the womb … as it were.’

Profitability potential? ‘Estimated economic value. Future earning capability. It pays to think ahead, you see.’

I pointed up at the motto under the BIGUP logo, which read Backwards Is The New Forwards. The Doctor blinked. ‘Ah, yes, well … you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater! And one thing never changes, taxpayers want big bangs for their bucks. A return on their investments, you might say. We need to identify the growth points and channel expenditure accordingly.’

Did that mean spending money to help disadvantaged children catch up? He sighed, as if dealing with a slow learner. ‘You don’t turn sheep into goats by giving them climbing lessons. Think of grammar schools as hothouses for jungle creepers. A battle to reach the light!’

Spittle flecked his lips. I asked if he saw human beings as a collection of different species. He thought for a moment. ‘Well, I’d like the school system to resemble a well-run zoo. It’s certainly cost-effective to keep meat-eaters and vegetarians apart.’

Did cost-effective mean cheaper, I wondered? ‘Some people know the value of everything and the price of nothing,’ he said, with a mysterious little laugh.

So there’d be no truck with antelopes auditioning for the big cat enclosure? He rolled his eyes, back to that lesson with the slow learner. ‘It’s all about giving children the opportunity to succeed. The grammar school is a beacon of high attainment.’

Did that mean a light on a far hill only glimpsed by most people from the valley below? His snort of impatience implied that I was struggling with his analogies, which was hardly fair. I was only trying to help him with them.

Time, it seemed, for a direct ball upfield!

What I found hard to understand, I said, was the claim that grammar schools improved choice when the vast majority of children failed to get into them. ‘Ah, well, the losers have the choice of paying for a private education. We still live in a free country. Or are you suggesting we abolish the human right to buy our children an educational advantage?’

For some reason I imagined myself as a French peasant telling Marie Antoinette I had no bread and being told to go and eat cake. I looked at my hands. The Doctor must have seen his advantage. ‘And don’t forget,’ he added, ‘that everyone has the right to purchase extra tuition in the run-up to grammar school selection tests.’

He’d pushed his case too far. I told him I thought the PM had ruled out a return to entrance exams. ‘Ah, yes, well … selection can also be made by interview.’

Did this mean weeding out social undesirables? ‘Now you’re trying to put words in my mouth, my young friend! Think of the grammar school as a lifeline to bright children from the wrong side of the tracks. The poor are always with us, alas, but some of them are surprisingly clever.’

He gave me an accusing look, as if I should doubt his word. I pressed on. What of the existing grammar schools, in which a mere 3% of pupils were poor enough to need free school meals as against the national average of 18%? Were these schools playing a part in their country’s heroic struggle for equality and community?

‘You’ve forgotten liberty,’ he said in a dry voice.

I pressed on some more. Why, I wondered, did London’s comprehensive school system outperform the selective system of neighbouring Kent for children from every social background?

The Doctor opened his mouth as if to speak but stood up instead. I followed suit and he gave my chair a quick once-over with the wet-wipe before flashing me a smile like a porcelain wall.

‘Do you have a coat, young man? There’s a cold wind blowing outside.’



20 thoughts on “Bafflesby Echo Scoops Schools Shake-Up

  1. Speaking as a bright kid from a poor background who benefitted from being educated at a minor public school thanks to a grant from the local authority I must say that I don’t like the idea of grammar schools one little bit. Even though I had an unfair advantage I can’t see any reason to bring back the discriminatory and divisive system that prevailed in the 1960s and 70s. Well, I suppose we elected a right wing government and that’s reason enough. Not that I voted for them …

    1. My sentiments entirely! I actually went to a grammar school and did quite well, being in the A stream, but I well remember the entire C stream leaving at the end of the 5th form (Year 11) with no qualifications whatsoever – this was before CSEs. So much for the golden age of the grammar school! Their place in the 6th form was taken by a handful of Sec Mod kids who’d scraped a few O levels and a bunch of kids from private schools without 6th forms. Selection turned out to be a bit of a lottery all round …

  2. The US system is supposed to be equal, but the fact is, those who have the means hire private tutors for their children to bring them up to speed; those without resources are stuck with their local schools, which are unpredictable as to quality. It’s hard to know where to start to fix it. (K)

    1. Sounds like there are quite a few similarities between the two systems, though one difference is that over there students can repeat a year following their teacher’s assessment. This must give the teachers more status and power, whereas here we just have externalised tests. As a teacher myself I was involved in several losing battles to retain elements of teacher assessment. The push for grammar schools is an attempt to placate the middle classes who otherwise might vote with their feet and send their kids to private school – confusingly called public schools. It will be done in a divisive, market-led way to offer the illusion of choice – the effect will be more fragmentation with faith schools, free schools and academies further blurring the picture. And they’ll still have problems recruiting teachers because of all the top-down meddling – a real can of worms!

      1. Actually the teachers have less and less power here…and there are all kinds of “special” public schools, including charter schools, to try to placate parents of all classes. Many middle and pretty much all upper class kids go to private schools, some faith-based. Catholic schools have traditionally been a refuge for the lower classes because of their relative affordability, but they are broke and many have closed.
        I had many friends who had all kinds of fancy reasons for not sending their children to public school, but mostly they didn’t want their children attending class with poor minority children. By the time she got to 4th grade, my younger daughter was the only white child in her class. Her education was fine, although not as good as her older sister’s, because the city imposed absurd restrictions on the teachers and what they were allowed to teach and many of the good ones left education. It’s a real mess right now; I’m glad my children are grown!

        1. Oh dear … and the job of teaching should be such a wonderful way to contribute to the future! As inspiring teachers leave, the powers-that-be try to exert more and more curriculum control so that they can shoehorn in less and less capable staff – deskilled and therefore cheaper – to fill the holes. The slavish and ideological dependence on market forces will not drive up standards. The only way to ensure proper education is to make sure every school is excellent but our leaders are too cowardly and indifferent to take the steps to make that happen. My own children are approaching middle age and our anxieties are now focusing on our grandchildren …

  3. 90% of the population labelled failures and stigmatised at eleven years old! Great for the few but what about the vast majority? What are those schools going to be like without all the high flyers? The aspirational children? The people to look up to and receive help from? What is going to happen to the 90% of failures? Self-fulfilment?
    A charter for the rich to tutor their kids and dump everyone else! Disgusting!! And right-wing Tory travesty!
    Thanks for putting the humour into a grim prospect, Dave!

    1. I had a feeling this one would strike a chord with you, Opher. Thanks for your comment with which I agree 100%. The topic is pretty close to my heart, as I know it is to yours, and I found it tough to wring any humour out of it all at first. Then I came up with the name Ry Twyng and managed a little smile, which got me going. (Apologies to Ry Cooder, of course! Actually it was going to be a Brummie called Roy Twyng but you’d have to know the accent to get the joke … might have been OK, though … ) They haven’t even the guts to bring it in across the board, but are going to leave it to ‘the market’ making an already chaotic situation even worse. Ah, what do we know, we’re only teachers …

  4. I don’t know much about Teresa May, only what I’ve read online, but I do know that in general education systems set up by right-wing parties tend to favor the children of the wealthy. In fact, just about any system set up the right-wing parties seems to favor the wealthy. That’s how it appears to me, at least.

    1. Me too. Children from less privileged backgrounds need time to make progress and early selection always leaves them behind. This is essentially hard-hearted, something I tried to convey in my post.

      1. I think it comes across. Of course, your post was satirical, but all those weird and not very appropriate analogies about meat eaters and vegetarians or whatever are the kind of thing that some people do say.

        I know the argument is sometimes made that having separate schools for kids of different level of ability means children who are less able or from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are in an environment where they can get extra help. It sounds reasonable, but I think what in fact tends to happen is that the upper ability schools (which are predominantly full of the offspring of wealthier and politically more influential families) get most of the attention and resources and the others are neglected and forgotten.

        It’s very similar to what can happen when a public and private health system operate together. The wealthy, since they no longer have any need for the public service, do not care what happens to it and so it becomes increasingly starved of resources.

        Sorry, Dave. I seem to have ended up writing a much longer reply than I intended.

        1. No problem, you’re absolutely right and thanks for the contribution! You have exactly described the difficulties that arise when liberty (or rather, licence) is foregrounded over equality and fraternity, which I call community in the post to avoid the gender limitation. We’re all in this together was a phrase used by our Tory ex-chancellor George Osborne which came to haunt him, because the regime he presided over manifestly wasn’t fair. Citizenship of a country should put everybody in the same boat, to sink or swim together, otherwise it’s a sham. Perhaps if we work towards world citizenship, we can better establish meaningful rights for all …

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