Our experience of being part of a BBC documentary to be shown later this year has caused many within the school to reflect on the nature of a Grammar School and what distinguishes it from other schools.
Contrary to the common misconception it is only in part the ability of the student intake. Detractors will frequently imply that Grammar Schools are successful purely because they have the brightest students and therefore neighbouring schools suffer because they do not. There is some truth to this clearly and if we simply looked at attainment alone that would carry some weight. Yet those of us who work in and lead Grammar schools understand that this is only part of the story and in many cases a relatively small part. To carry the argument to its logical conclusion every school would only be a reflection of its intake and add little to no value. That is clearly not the case. Granted a school full of able students has a positive impact on the learning environment and the converse is true. The minority effect theory proposes that one reason more able students do less well in schools with a more mixed academic intake is that they are in the minority. It is in our nature to scale down not up and reach the middle ground. Being surrounded by able peers can and does have the opposite effect, it elevates. This is a challenge for some comprehensives and secondary moderns and makes it understandable why there can be so much anxiety about Grammar schools.
However, I believe that rather than this being a threat it presents an opportunity. If a concentration of able students can have a significant positive effect on those students and challenge them further then cannot it also be used to have such an effect on students in neighbouring schools? The great tragedy of the current divide is the lack of meaningful collaboration between Grammars and their non-selective neighbours. Certainly there are examples of great practice in this respect but it is far from commonplace in my experience. This is in part due to the animosity fuelled by some and repeated by many but it is also due to a lack of vision by school leaders and politicians. It is not enough to propose more Grammar Schools or simply to oppose them. What we really need is a vision of how the schools we have might work together.
It is our ambition that by working with the students at Erith, by collaboration between teachers and students we can add greater value to both schools; in particular that we can help to motivate the able students and those with talent to aspire to more and offset the minority effect. But as I have suggested Grammar schools are far more than a concentration of able students. There is an attitude within them and with parents. The true strength is that those students who enter grammar schools have parents who have been aspirational and supportive, who value education, particularly academic success. Whereas such parents exist beyond grammar schools it is the concentration of them within grammars that enables such schools to achieve so much. Therefore we also need to work with parents across schools, to share that aspiration and enable parents to better support their children’s education.
In making the decision to sponsor a neighbouring non-selective school and form a Multi Academy Trust Townley Grammar is attempting to demonstrate what those without vision cannot see; that we better serve our young people by building bridges not walls.