Background Information & Context
If you are based in the UK and have even a passing interest in news, politics and current affairs, you have probably come across a lot of fairly recent discussion about the possibility of a return to the grammar school system as formal education policy.
In case you’re reading this outside of the UK, or are otherwise not totally familiar with the term “grammar schools” – such schools can be defined as “(In the UK) a state secondary school where pupils are admitted on the basis of ability. Since 1965 most have been absorbed into the comprehensive school system.”
Such schools existed within a segregated education system where a child’s options in terms of secondary education were often significantly shaped by the results of an exam at the age of 11.
The system has been widely criticised as divisive on the basis that it privileges some children and limits the opportunities of others, based on performance in a particular exam. It was therefore largely abandoned across the UK (with some exceptions – such as the area where I grew up). However, the current Conservative government has plans to return to a system of state-run selective schools, which have already attracted a lot of criticism, including within the Conservative party itself (see The Financial Times here, The Huffington Post here – and a defence of the plans reported by The BBC here.).
So what do I have to add to this ongoing debate?
Grammar schools and Special Educational Needs & Disability
Well, one issue that appears to be totally lacking in government policy and discourse around the reintroduction of grammar schools is any reference to Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEN/D) – both in terms of how a selective education system may unfairly discriminate against SEN/D pupils, and of what grammar schools themselves may actually need to do to meet the needs of SEN/D pupils who meet their entry requirements and become their pupils.
This omission led me to seek out any research or reference to the experiences of people with SEN/D who have been educated in grammar schools, and I couldn’t find any.
So I’ve decided to ‘set the ball rolling’ here, by sharing my own experiences as a pupil with SEN/D who attended a grammar school for my entire secondary education (including Sixth Form). Obviously this is one experience – it is anecdotal and the story it tells is impacted by many factors other than SEN/D, as any personal narrative is. I don’t intend it to be representative of anything other than my personal experience – but I’m writing it in the hope that it will make others think, and perhaps encourage those who are in a position to do so to make the topic a focus of some actual research. It seems like such research might make a contribution to the body of literature that already exists on inclusive education (which mostly, in relation to SEN/D, seems to present this term in opposition to the existence of “Special Schools”) – and that given the apparent direction of travel in education policy, a project focusing on these experiences could be topical and timely.
Grammar school & SEN/D – My Experience
As I indicated above, the area where I grew up was relatively unusual in that it clung to its grammar schools (and continues to do so now.) This meant that, particularly where we lived, options were extremely limited for children who didn’t pass the entrance exam for one of the grammar schools or who didn’t meet the faith requirements for one of the (Christian) faith schools in the town. So I sat the entrance exam.
And I passed.
It was only once I was there that I began to find out about disability – about my disability. (I should add for clarity, that although on this blog I focus primarily on autism, my personal experience of disability in school was all concerned with physical impairment, as I didn’t receive my autism diagnosis until I was at university as an undergraduate.)
I began to find out – to have the very first, early inklings of disability (though, of course it wasn’t called that) in my first grammar school P.E. lesson. There’s a long conversation to be had about school P.E. (Physical Education) curricula and how they inscribe powerful normative expectations about what bodies should and shouldn’t be capable of, but I’m not going to dwell on that here. It just happens that this was one of the first times that someone (a teacher) observed that I couldn’t move my arms the way everyone else could. There had been other medical situations – doctors thinking my arms were fractured on the basis of x-rays following injury, then deciding they weren’t, physio from birth for congenital muscle contractures etc – but nothing that really made me feel that I was different from others and that there were things I couldn’t do because of this difference – as a child I always thought the “things I couldn’t do” were because I was lazy and wasn’t trying hard enough. I probably expected that if I had something actually wrong with me, then someone would have told me.
Anyway – P.E. – I couldn’t throw a netball – which, of course, isn’t really a problem except in a situation where everyone else can and where that is what is expected, and demanded by those in authority, at a particular time.
And this – along with lots of other issues and complications that have arisen as I grew and as my conditions progressed, led to a lot of medical attention and to me receiving various diagnoses (the latest of which is about a year old now, and is a result of my body finding new ways to misbehave) and to (rare, complicated) names for the reasons behind the “things I can’t do” – and the related pain, fatigue and personal issues that arise from an unruly body that doesn’t behave like other bodies and won’t do what it’s told.
Anyway – this hopefully gives a sense of background. I was a grammar school pupil, who became medically diagnosed as being disabled (or – “as having a disability” – I was told I shouldn’t call myself disabled as that made it sound serious and bad.)
There are two implications of the grammar school experience for a student with SEN/D that I’d like to explore. The first is concerned with the idea of being “selected”, and what it can mean for an SEN/D pupil, and the second (that I’ll explore in a subsequent post) is about my experience of actually accessing the SEN/D system as a grammar school pupil.
The meaning & institutional rhetoric of being “selected”
One of the things that happens as a result of selection – and of being selected – is that it comes with the conferring of status as a “chosen one”. Certainly my experience of this fell into two categories – a) You are lucky to be here, there were around 5 applicants for every place and you have one of them. You must work hard to meet our expectations otherwise you will have wasted this opportunity, that could have been given to someone else, and b) You passed the exam, you are obviously more intelligent than average students, so if you fail to achieve higher than national expectations it will be because you have not worked hard enough (this was actually said in an assembly the day before my year group took its Year 9 SATs tests – by a teacher who was also an exam board marker.)
The implications of this in terms of coercing conformity and individualising failure FOR ANY PUPIL are, I hope, fairly clear. In the context of my emerging disability, they meant that even with a medical name for my condition (albeit one that no one has ever heard of) and a letter from one of the top specialists in the country, I still believed that the fact that I couldn’t keep up with work, and that I was spending hour and hours – all evenings and weekends – on homework (or asleep, I get so incredibly tired) was clearly my fault.
I worked hard (while people were telling me I was working too hard, but not offering any solutions in terms of how else I might keep up), was in constant pain, and probably contributed to the already accelerated wear and tear of my non standard joints. Consequently, I have no idea how much work is “enough” or how much pain is “too much” – this means that although there are accommodations or adjustments available, (even when these have to be fought for, they exist, in theory or in policy at least) – I can’t accept them because I equate needing them with cheating and being lazy. I’m absolutely sure I could do it if I just tried harder (and accepting where I can’t is quite soul-destroying anyway, without external pressure and stigma).
This needs some further explanation though, because it might possibly be inferred from what I’m explaining here, that I’m suggesting having high expectations of people with disabilities, or encouraging a strong work ethic is wrong. I’m not. But I’d explain the nuance of what I’m describing here by comparing the school rhetoric I’ve described above with what I got from my parents and my upbringing. I was certainly brought up to believe (and was told) that I could probably achieve most things I put my mind to, and was encouraged to try new things and to take opportunities. I was also brought up to feel that education is important (although my family wouldn’t be described as “academic”) and that hard work and commitment are morally good things. The difference though between this upbringing and the school rhetoric is that my upbringing came with a safety net. While being encouraged to aim high, I was never in any doubt that my worth as a person would still be valued, and that I’d still be loved and supported, if I didn’t quite achieve. The encouragement came in a context of unconditional love.
Grammar school rhetoric though can never come in that context of unconditional love.
Certainly my experience was that the school was very aware (and fearful) of its need to prove itself. It took the “top 10%” of children from the area, so it had to be at the top in terms of results, and this meant that it transferred the pressure to its pupils. The problem here though, of course, is that this logic is based on a kind of conveyor belt system that equates effort in with results out. For me though, there was no way to quantify the “effort” of managing chronic pain and fatigue in terms of results (work done, exam results achieved etc.) I think Spoon Theory is a good way of articulating what I’m getting at here – but I’m pretty sure that the problems of this equation (effort in = results out) in relation to grammar schools, and the governmental and social expectations of such schools, means that pupils like me are always going to be problems for them, and consequently that there’s a strong likelihood that, at some times and on some levels, we are going to be made to feel like problems ourselves.
As I’ve suggested before in relation to Mental Health Policy, those who support Theresa May and the current government, and who advocate a widespread return to grammar schools possibly need to be honest in accepting that they are happy for SEN/D pupils (including those, like me, who are “lucky” enough to be the “chosen ones”) to be collateral damage. At least then we’d know what we were fighting against.