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Chris McGovern: Destruction of grammars makes a decent school place an outside bet


Are you a parent living in London? Do you have lots of money and do you have bright offspring? If so, they might just have a chance of making it into a leading academic public school in the capital, provided you supplement current schooling with a private tutor.

But don’t count your chickens. The battle for places at the ‘best’ schools is becoming ever more frenzied.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Jo Heywood, Head of the prestigious and private Heathfield School, confesses that she is “amazed by the pressure cooker atmosphere of the schools market in London”.

The scramble for places, she adds “is replicated in many other areas around the country where parents are determined to get their children into the highest performing school in their area”.

Competition is even fiercer for places in the few remaining state grammar schools.

As Head of a popular preparatory school in north London I was, on occasion, confronted by seven applications for each place. However, in terms of secondary school transfer, all that my school could do was to gain entry for our pupils in the races for places.

Jo Heywood is right to sound a warning bell about the impact on children of such intense competition.

Indeed, the atmosphere around an elite secondary school on the morning of the entrance tests is more akin to Aintree on Grand National Day than to a contest for school entry. Bewildered 10 and 11-year-old ‘runners and riders’ turn up, decked out in an array of colours – caps, hats and blazers from their prep/primary school. They enter the examination hall and are soon under ‘starter’s orders’. Question papers are opened and the race commences.

The shock and upset of falling at an academic Becher’s Brook or Foinavon Fence is what awaits most of them. For all the coaching and preparation, most of the ‘riders’ never make it successfully to the finishing line of St. Paul’s, Westminster or North London Collegiate. The grammar school hopefuls have an even tougher ride.

What on earth, one might ask, are we doing to our children? Why must parents feel obliged to submit their children to such a fierce and potentially damaging process of selection with the odds, in many cases, stacked so heavily against them? Why is there such a shortage of outstanding academic schools, not least in the maintained sector? The decision to destroy most grammar schools is, of course, the direct cause of the problem.

Even if they succeed in winning a place at a leading school, many of the ‘weaker’, over-coached, youngsters struggle to keep up without the private tutor at hand. This generates even more out-of-school support and even more pressure. And where does that end up? Eventually, some teenagers will rebel and just ‘switch off’. Camden Market in north London can be a good place to catch up with them. Not infrequently they are the ones flogging drugs on the street corner.

Sometimes, of course, it turns out worse than that. I well recall a ‘master’ from elite Westminster School telling me about the experience of a group of his pupils travelling on the Tube. They were approached by a ‘down-and-out’, begging for money. Dirty, smelly and aggressive, he presented a sad but intimidating figure who seemed to inhabit a world very different to the rarefied elegance of their school.

As they shifted away from him, the vagrant noticed the dark blue on maroon colour on the tie of one of the boys. “Ah,” he growled, “those are Busby House colours. I recognise them. I used to be in Busby House”.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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