I’m not sure that this constitutes a ‘weird thought’ for two reasons. Firstly, it isn’t particularly weird, and secondly, it’s not particularly unusual (weird implies unusual), as it is a thought that every parent has every day (and not just parents, pet owners too, in fact anyone who has a dependent of some sort).
The subject of this thought though has been going around my head for months now and I feel the need to write about it. This blog isn’t just a blog, it’s my not-so-secret diary. So I think I am allowed the odd ‘Dear Diary’ entry. This is one of them.
This thought is actually specifically about education. Have I done The Right Thing by encouraging my child to get into a grammar school?
A couple of years ago we decided to ask our oldest boy whether he would like to take the 11+ exam for the grammar school his cousin goes to. This grammar school is 19.2 miles away from our house (or so google tells me). He gave this some thought and after about half an hour, he decided that, yes, he’d like to give it a go. So to this end I arranged for him to see a tutor once a week to help him get up to speed and practice the sorts of questions he’d be expected to answer on the exam. He loved these sessions. We went to see the lovely Sarah every Friday after school. At the end of Year 5 of primary school, he took the exam. He passed. He didn’t just pass, he passed very well. I know this because in March this year he was offered a place at the school. He accepted it with much enthusiasm. We were all happy. He trotted off to school that day to show the letter of acceptance to his teacher, the head, his teaching assistants and anyone who might want to see it.
When we first decided to put him forward for the 11+ I largely kept this decision to myself. If I am honest, I did this because I was scared of being judged negatively. I was worried that by aiming for a grammar school education for my son it would be seen as a rejection of the non-grammar alternative (it wasn’t, I don’t think). When I did tell people about it, I was very pleased that only one person reacted negatively (and I completely understood that person’s reaction – it was a very normal response). Everyone else was extremely positive and encouraging. My fears of judgement were not at all justified, for which I am still very grateful.
However, this doesn’t mean I haven’t had doubts about this decision and questioned and judged myself almost every day. I don’t think I was rejecting the local school (my son and I actually both loved it when we went to visit). I believe I’d have been very happy for him to go there. I myself went to a state school (the first three years were hard going but I cam away with a string of GCSEs and A Levels and ended up at a Russell Group university so it wasn’t all bad). Also, I’d describe myself as a bit of a wishy washy liberal who dips her toes in the labour camp. Surely a grammar school education is for the conservatives amongst us? This last issue does bother me quite a lot. However, the grammar school seemed to offer an opportunity for him that was too good to pass given that he was academically capable of getting in. If he is capable of getting in and willing to work to that end, who am I to stand in his way of trying? As a wishy washy liberal I believe in giving children a degree of freedom of decision. If he’d decided he didn’t want to go. The discussion would have ended.
I digress, for anyone not sure what the difference is between state, grammar and private, this explains:
State schools are government-funded and any child between the ages of 11 and 16 can attend. Some state schools have a sixth form attached and therefore cater for children up to 18 years of age (my school had a sixth form). A top state school will be heavily over-subscribed and families have been known to move house or obtain a fake postcode to get their children a place. There are about 24,000 states schools in the UK.
Grammar schools are also government-funded but only children who pass the entrance exams are offered a place. There are 164 grammar schools in England. The exams for entrance tend to cover the following areas: verbal reasoning, non-verbal reasoning, English and maths. Grammar schools are selective and have a strong emphasis on academic achievement. The standards and expectations at grammar schools are high.
Private schools are not government-funded – although some private schools give bursaries and scholarships to a select number of students each year. Only 7% of the population attend private schools (interestingly, 57% of MPs are privately educated). There are 2,500 private (or independent) schools in the UK.
There is a lot of debate on whether a private education is better than a state education. Private schools attract the children of well-off, highly educated parents who will probably sporn high achievers (its in the genes and the environment – if you are surrounded by copies of The Times and books then you will read). So can the measure of private vs state be based on exam results? No, not at all. Private schools have more money and resources to provide for the willing to learn. State schools have to make do with what they get to try to provide for both the willing and unwilling to learn. Grammar Schools are something in the middle. They are state schools so they are without fees. They attract the children of poor high achievers. Although these parents need a at least some disposable income to pay for exam tuition – as I know! Perhaps this fact puts a grammar school education beyond the means of many families. If so, that’s a shame. My son’s school is actually trying to work to encourage a broader intake. If my son is a high achiever, I would be an idiot not to encourage him to the best of my ability to get into a high-achieving school.
We are now at the point where is he about to start his new grammar school (and the place is fantastic – I am very envious). He is visibly very nervous about it. The majority of his friends from primary are going to the local state school. He is the only one from his primary going to the grammar school (it isn’t close to our home). He will have to catch a bus every day to get there. So to return to my not-so-weird thought: have we made a huge mistake? Today I dropped him off at his new school for a three-day rugby and language camp. He was incredibly nervous. As was I. He has been tearful for the last few days. I am now sat at home wondering what he is doing. Is he talking to anyone? Are they being kind to him? Is he happy? Is he sad? This morning he was subdued. Have I done the right thing? I ask again. Is this all too much for him? He’s not naturally sociable. He can be an easy target (as was I at school). He struggles with change. Would he have been better off going to the local school with his friends who he has been friends with for seven years? Who’s to say he wouldn’t have faced these issues at the local school?
I don’t know the answer and probably won’t for at least 12 months, but I think we (the collective we, including him) would have been fools not to try. I will be by his side every step of the way and I will wipe away any tears he sheds.
My doubts, though, also relate to his two younger brothers. What if they don’t get in (assuming they both want to go, they might not)? I’m not sure how they or I will deal with that. So far my middle son wants to sit the exam and he’s just started seeing the lovely Sarah once a week. Watch this space. Life is never easy.