A debate about grammar schools is currently dominating the UK's public sphere. PM Theresa May seems willing to take Michael Gove's "education reforms" even further, by letting already established schools become grammar schools. For those unfamiliar with Grammar Schools, do read the clarification: in theory these are schools that put academic achievement at the top of the agenda.
The UK also has a well reputed private education system. As with many things in this country, they've taken the definition of public and turned it into its head, so when someone is referred to as a "public school" boy / girl it actually means privately educated. Most senior UK politicians, regardless of ideology, were educated in private schools. And then went to Oxford or Cambridge, something the vast majority of students in this country will never be able to do.
Comprehensives is the name given to schools that are neither grammars, nor private. It has been claimed that as much as 90% of children in Britain attend comprehensives.
As a father of comprehensives' pupils, I can attest to the monumental failure of primary and secondary public education in this country. It all started many years ago, when our eldest made a comment about the unfairness of handing homework "...when such and such never hand in any..." We then found that, as a matter of standard practice across all comprehensives, pupils are classified broadly in three groups: those who do well, actively participate in class, learn, do homework, etc.; those in the middle that scrape by; and those who while going to school everyday never hand in any homework, hardly participate in class, and so on. We also found that when it came to homework, assignments were given according to perceived capacity: that is homework for the first group was different than that of the other two groups. This government-sanctioned discrimination wasn't something we were expecting. Even coming from a developing country, where every pupil gets exactly the same homework / treatment, and it is down to the student and its parents to either perform, or seek extra help in order to progress to the next level.
This issue brought the second, monumental, failure of the UK's public education system into perspective: no pupil repeats a year. Ever. Not learning what is supposed to be learned at a given year according to the national curriculum has no consequences for the "less able" groups. They are all herded along, taught about "fairness", about how it isn't about winning but about "taking part", and other such PC nonsense that, basically, squanders their potential and causes almost irreparable damage to their life expectations. Thus, a huge amount of students "progress" along primary and secondary school. Progress itself is impossible to quantify, for exams are never taken. In primary school, only once we heard about some kind of academically rigorous tests being taken (SATs). Only once, in six years, and only in the case of our youngest due to changes in policy. In the case of our eldest, no meaningful test were ever imposed during the entire primary education period. How are parents then supposed to know whether children are learning, and where they're at in the learning process related to different subjects? This brought the third dramatic realisation into view: school reports were never about academic performance in maths or geography, but about whether children participate in class, whether they are kind to their peers, respectful to their teachers, wear the uniform correctly and show up on time.
Our eldest went without proper school exams until she was 16 years old, when GCSEs had to be taken. For 16 years, in none of the schools she attended, anyone ever thought appropriate to prepare pupils for GCSEs. No one in the Ministry of Education ever thought that, perhaps, it'd be good to introduce in the curriculum some kind of exams technique subject. Not even as an extra curricular class. And so, after 16 years of getting meaningless reports about how she was "a pleasure to teach", nearly 40 different tests were crammed into a three-four week period. The stress, on millions of teenagers, is almost unbearable. Fear of failure is, all of a sudden, shot into their young lives, for without a successful performance in GCSEs no progress into AS and A levels can be contemplated. Having heard for 16 years that "it's OK to fail", that "life is fair", that regardless of academic performance "you'll be OK", the prospect of not making it becomes all too real. An example of this are schools in whose prospectuses one can read claims like "over 90% of our students attained A grades in at least two of the chosen subjects..." What no school will print is that such levels are, in some cases, product of a brutal policy of throwing out non-performing AS students, rather than the result of good teaching. In a case known to our family, a third of a class of AS students were dismissed. The dismissal took place late in August, leaving students about a week to either find a new school on their own (old school doesn't bother with finding suitable places elsewhere), or dropping out, which is what most do.
I remember we went to a school meeting once, when secondary school was about to start, and we were given this spiel about how parents, teachers and pupils were to communicate to each other through a notebook that was to be shared by all three parties, and in which all impressions, information and comments were to be made, as a form of record keeping, so that parents could know, at any given time, how children were performing academically. When shortcomings about certain topics of a particular subject became evident, we called for a meeting with the respective teacher who had the chutzpah of informing us that repeated questions during class, something we have always encouraged as the best way to clarify doubts whenever these arise, was "disruptive". When we explained to our daughter, during the meeting with the teacher in question, that she was actually getting paid to teach by taxpayers, and that her primary responsibility was, indeed, to teach, this cause a further public humiliation taken on somebody who was simply trying to understand something. So it's OK to "actively participate", just don't do it too often because it's "disruptive".
Having missed any potential issue written in the infamous notebook, we asked one of the nice teachers whether seeking private tutors would sort some of the shortcomings. "Noooooo!" he said, adding "she'll be alright I'm sure". How can these idiots tell whether a student will be alright, or not, considering the above? The fact is they can't. Predictions of performance are made on the basis of the three-tier group system described, a system that starts early in primary school and carries on to end of secondary. The possibility of improvement is a consideration that has no place in such long-termed system. For another wicked aspect of this irrational system is that application to next level, once students reach end of secondary school, is based on predictions rather than actual marks. Students willing to get onto university upon conclusion of AS and A levels (pre university), get to apply for universities based upon predicted rather than actual grades. University applications need to be sent through a system called UCAS. Applications for entry in September of following year must be made in October of previous year at the latest. Candidates must choose topics of study as well as universities. Conditional offers are made on the basis of predicted grades. Predicted grades are given before October deadline, while actual grades are given in August, by which time is too late to apply for entry in the coming month. Predictions-beating students have to either go through clearing (basically pick left over vacancies), or contemplate a gap year. Needless to say that a life can change in nine months, but such probability is of no one's interest. Students are condemned to apply based on the very subjective criteria of a bunch of teachers that can't be bothered to do their jobs properly.
The system is so dysfunctional that we have actually got reports claiming proficiency in German, to give one example, when children aren't capable to even count one to twenty in that language. Sports, music, and foreign languages aren't given any consideration in the public education system. German teachers don't speak German, sports teaching is done by people who once ran a sack race, and if parents want their children to learn any instruments, or even the basics, they have to go private. Then one hears politicians talking about foreign language shortcomings, or the alarming obesity and increased risks of heart diseases, but none seems prepared to improve the education of 90% of children in this country. As far as Central London is concerned, no comprehensive inter-school leagues, in any sport, are organised, and apart from a once-a-year sports day, sports education is largely letting children lose in a large space for half an hour at a time, so they can shout, run about and play. No systematic approach exists to get children into football, or cricket, or any athletic discipline.
When comprehensive-educated children get into university largely thanks to committed pushy parents, they immediately realise that nearly everything taught at primary and secondary level is useless. Life is but a competition. Fairness is an utopia. Winners take all and rule the world. It's not OK to fail. Lack of education condemns most people to a lifetime of poverty and misery, apart from ill health.
The ruling class in the UK is incapable of seeing this reality. It's completely alien to most of them, regardless of party affiliations. The saddest thing is that discrimination is, effectively, a government-sanctioned policy. In the current setting, comprehensive students, all 90% of UK's students, belong to the "less able" group. Privately educated and grammar students have a clear and obvious advantage. The best universities fill their quotas with the first two groups, and the third is left pretty much to their own devices. It'd be impossible to argue that every student is capable of gaining a place and shining in Oxbridge, but every student should compete on an equal basis. As it stands, the government's policy is to ensure that the system will always favour the 10%. An Eton-educated, "less able" son of a Russian thug will always be favoured over a bright comprehensive pupil by UK elite universities. Employers in the City of London can clearly tell the difference...