In selective Bucks, an academy goes comprehensive

Stephen Ball

Brian Jackson and Dennis Marsden’s seminal study of grammar schooling in Huddersfield, Education and the Working Class, was published by Penguin books exactly 50 years ago. Focused on the experiences of 88 working class children, it is about class mobility, class inequality and social waste, and what Jackson and Marsden describe as a “blockage” – selective education. The authors had both attended the grammar school which is at the centre of the research and Alan Bennett, another “local lad”, has acknowledged that the book provided the basis for his play The History Boys, which is set in Cutlers’ Grammar School, Sheffield, a fictional boys’ school.

What Education and the Working Class demonstrates is how thoroughly and insidiously – and damagingly, for some young people – the grammar school is a middle class institution, a “natural extension” of middle class home life as the authors put it. The grammar school was, and remains in a few places in England, a conduit of class advantage, a privileged site within which middle class cultural capital and economic investment in coaching and tutoring could be readily converted into qualifications and symbolic capital.

All of this has been rehearsed again this month in the admission by Buckinghamshire County Council that their 11+ examination carries an inherent bias which works in favour of “the affluent”. Perversely the Buckinghamshire revelation came about as a result of the insertion into the county system of a conversion academy, Highcrest, which will become the first comprehensive school in the County, with control over its own admissions policy.

Education Secretary Michael Gove announced in December that parents will be stripped of the right to object to the expansion of grammar schools, under a new school admissions code laid before Parliament. So it is ironic that one bit of government policy – support for grammar schooling – is being called into question by another bit – the extension of academy status to more, perhaps all, schools.

We might think about whether this says something about the lack of “thinking through” of policy by its makers or wonder how the support for grammar schools relates to the government’s other commitments to social mobility and tackling social disadvantage through education, or ponder what Jackson and Marsden might think about the fact that Buckinghamshire is getting its first comprehensive school 50 years after they argued in their book that the first step towards creating “open”, “bold and flexible” schooling would be “to abandon selection at eleven, and accept the comprehensive principle” (p 246). Who would have thought that the academies policy would be a vehicle for comprehensivisation?

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