The dust has settled a little since our TV documentary and so this seemed a good time for reflection. As the final episode of “Grammar Schools: Who will get in?” aired the keyboard warriors and journalists (sorry opinion writers) went into a predictable frenzy. At the peak of these some who would describe themselves as adults decided to level their abuse at the students. That’s right, grown-ups judging 14 year old girls on social media. I weighed in, of course, with the eponymous Taylor Swift in support. What was revealing was how our students responded with grace, dignity and intelligence, including many former students who came to the aid of their compatriots. “When they go low we go high”. It was truly humbling and a reminder that it is this generation of open minded, compassionate and inspiring young people that will change our society for the better, if we don’t ruin them first.
The debate has continued, with Schools Minister Nick Gibb referencing the Townley and Erith MAT in his speech, which called for Grammar Schools to support Secondary Moderns as we are doing. The Guardian predictably misrepresented this speech, for which I was present and they weren’t, claiming that Grammars were going to “teach” secondary moderns how to do it. It is a confusing time. Grammars are apparently responsible for everything that goes wrong in other schools, affecting the entire lives of young people who never enter them, stealing all the very best teachers and probably lots of money too! But any suggestion that they may become part of the solution is outrageous to some.
There has been much that is bad about the response to the documentary. The absolute venom expressed by some not only on social media but in the press also has come as something of a shock to me. Of course I know that there are those opposed to selection but I was not prepared for the bitterness and darkness in some people’s souls. Don’t get me wrong, I have seen the ugliness of this world first hand, but I had not fully appreciated how deep this ran within the educational community. People who lead schools and influence educational thinking, filled with deep-seated prejudice and bigotry. Of course they will not see themselves as such. To their eyes they are champions of social justice. How often in history has great evil been done by those who believed passionately in their cause? There is also the sheer hypocrisy of those that would condemn a system that they personally benefit from; Primary Headteachers who will publicly criticise selection while sending their own children to Grammar Schools and politicians who will do the same while paying private school fees for their offspring.
If that was the entire experience I would despair for education and the futures of our young people. But it is not the whole story because there have also been some truly lovely and heartwarming responses to the documentary. On a personal note my highlight was boarding a plane from Dallas, Texas to London. I had been attending the Positive Education Summit and when I stepped on the plane a member of the flight crew recognised me as the “one from the TV”. Champagne followed and for a brief time I had that celebrity feeling. Personal feedback has been very positive and I believe genuine. Many saying how well Townley Grammar came across.
However, the really positive consequence has been the sincere and meaningful dialogue established with educational thinkers, writers and groups. In particular I would like to thank Ian Widdows at the National Association of Secondary Moderns for responding in such a productive manner to the issues raised by the existence of Grammars and Secondary Moderns. We have been able to agree that there is more to gain from collaboration than competition and I look forward to developing this relationship further.
Nick Gibb’s focus on the innovative MAT formed of Townley Grammar and Erith (now King Henry) School is an example of the political recognition that collaborative and small scale models can be a way forward and that Grammar Schools can do more for those students that don’t attend them. Many other educational commentators have seen beyond the simplistic and binary arguments to support the work we are doing. There has also been recognition that the blinkered and ill-informed picture of Grammar Schools as full of white middle class students is as out of date as the 1950’s image of a Grammar school so often referenced on both sides of the debate. We have brought the image of Grammar Schools up to date and like them or hate them you cannot now be ignorant of the richly diverse nature of schools like Townley Grammar.
Of course there will still be those such as Melissa Benn of the Guardian whose fundamentalist viewpoint will warp any truth to fit their view and refer to Townley girls as “pollyannas” but they are best ignored as irrelevant to the future educational debate.
That debate can now I believe be an optimistic one. This was the theme of our recent Townley Inspire conference at which, among others, Sir Anthony Seldon and Nicky Morgan spoke. I gave a talk about Optimism in an educational context and this idea has been further developed at the aforementioned International Positive Education conference in Dallas, Texas. An Optimistic Philosophy of Education sees this as “the best of all possible worlds”. So rather than employ our energies on changing systems and structures to find the “perfect one” or blindly hoping for a better future we instead recognise that everything we need we already have. The diversity and range of schools is our strength. In the same way that Townley’s diversity has become our strength so too does the range of educational provision become an opportunity rather than a threat. Of course, we want high standards and that can be achieved by finding our strengths and sharing them, across schools. The Odyssey Trust for Education embraces this philosophy, recognising that it is collaboration not competition that offers the greatest opportunity for growth and success.
To achieve this though we have to mute the voices of hate and division, wherever they come from, so that we can truly hear each other.