Poor old Grammars – a defence of selective schools

On Friday the Sutton Trust released their latest report, “Poor Grammar” (http://www.suttontrust.com/public/documents/poorgrammarreport.pdf), a critique of the lack of social mobility of selective schools: they are not taking enough pupils with Free School Meals (FSM).  I am not a disinterested party here as I am a grammar school teacher but I did feel that the report, subsequent reporting in the media and discussions on twitter from those involved have been a little unfair.

To begin with, look at the title.  Now I appreciate that they probably sat around trying to find a pun with the word grammar in and that was the best they could find but, and this pun is definitely intended, it’s rather a cheap shot.  It is really not grammar schools’ fault that ambitious, middle-class parents tutor their children for years to gain an edge.

The headline figure is that 13% of grammar school pupils, four times as many, come from preparatory (fee paying) schools while only 3% are on FSM.  I have two responses to this.  The first is that many prep schools are themselves academically selective, which does rather stack the deck.  The second is the percentages of pupils attaining level 5 at the end of KS2.  For example, in a selective LA such as Bucks less than 10% of FSM children get level 5 in English and Maths, which perhaps puts the 3% into a little more proportion.

There is also no mention of the Sutton Trust’s previous report (http://tinyurl.com/o2c3phh) showing that the top comprehensives are more socially selective than grammar schools.  “The researchers found that the country’s top 164 comprehensive schools took only 9.2% of children from income deprived homes although they drew pupils from areas where about 20% were income deprived. The 164 remaining grammar schools, also drawing their pupils from areas where 20% were income deprived, were found to be more inclusive, admitting 13.5% of children from poor homes.”

Lee Elliott Major, the Director of the Sutton Trust, took to Twitter yesterday to draw attention to comments from Bob McCarthy, Chairman of the National Grammar Schools Association (NGSA).  In particular, his comment that “Many, many parents from deprived areas, including what is generally called the dependency classes, are essentially not particularly interested in any form of academic education. Their interests are directed towards pop culture, sports.”  I would hope that quotation makes us all angry.  The NGSA does not ‘represent’ grammar schools and none that I know of will have anything to do with it.  But google “grammar school association” and there it is as the top hit.  It is a fringe, far right pressure group.  I would hope that hard working journos would look beyond the first hit on google, or even ask a few grammar school heads.  Who am I kidding?  If they had looked just one hit lower, at the Grammar School Heads Association, they would find an actual representative body.  Lee Elliot Major’s tweet comes with a heavy implication that the NGSA represents the views of grammar schools.  Now, everything I hear about him says he is a fine, principled man, and I know that in 140 characters it is difficult to get across your complete intention.  Perhaps I am too prickly.  Perhaps others will not infer the same.

Looking at figure 3 on p. 14 of the report, you can see that of those getting level 5 in English and Maths the proportions going to grammar school are less for FSM.  But we are talking about a tiny number of schools here and a small number of pupils.  And I think that is my main problem with this report – it seems to infer a large group of extremely bright but poor students whose life chances are diminished by being denied access to selective schools.  Is there any evidence that a large number of these students exist?  If they have a good, local school, will they not succeed?  If every grammar took one or two more students on FSM, that would change the graph quite a lot.  This seems quite a lot of drama for, say 300 children nationwide.

Changing the curriculum: Performing

I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the reaction to my first blog.  There has been contact from a number of people showing me what is going on in their LA or school.  Perhaps I was a little bleak in my widespread condemnation.  It’s clear that in some areas there is some good stuff going on…but these do seem rather isolated pockets.  It isn’t for want of trying – more for want of funding.  Other programmes have perhaps grown too large and are not getting best value for money.  Clearly we need to look at step two.

Step Two: Change Everything

Now, as a Tory (please don’t close the page yet) I’m not generally a fan of wholesale change but in this case I think drastic action is probably required.

Step two is going to take a few posts.  I remember a Deputy Head who used to begin his weekly briefing announcement by saying, “I have two items.  The second has four parts.”  He was a maths teacher.  I bet you didn’t guess that.  Inspired by that memory I will begin with step two, part 1.

Changing the Curriculum (KS1-3 or ages 5-14)

We’ve come a long way from the days when the music teacher whacked on a record of the Pastoral, while classes copied out of Enjoying Music.  Practical music is in every lesson these days, which is a good thing.  There is a holy triumvirate of Performing, Composing and Listening required in lessons.  I will look more at Composing and its intrinsic value, and the problems of Listening in future blogs but for now let’s examine Performing.  Music is a performance art and performing should be at the centre of what we do.


Performing in classrooms takes place either with singing, or on Orff instruments (xylophones and metallophones), unturned percussion, African djembes, keyboards, ukuleles (give me strength) or more likely a mixture of all.  The main problem is the lack of expression possible on all these instruments.  You can pick them up quickly and for the most part play in ensemble but the experience is rather synthetic.  If music is a means of self-expression then this encounter with it is only ever going to be satisfying in the short term.  I don’t know that music teachers ever give thought to this – it always seems to be a shock to those with whom I discuss it.  Perhaps compulsory music lessons are rather like taster sessions to see if you like it and want to take it further.  If that’s true it’s sad because so many do not.

Children get something like 350 hours of compulsory music education (say, 1 hour a week for 9 school years) and I wonder what really is accomplished.  Primary teacher trainees say that music is the subject they are least confident to teach (http://dro.dur.ac.uk/1974/1/1974.pdf, p. 29).  Having seen for nigh on 20 years what comes into secondary (at a variety of schools) I can say I don’t have much confidence in their ability to teach music either.  Secondary teachers then make the mistake of assuming children know nothing and go back to square one, wasting more of everyone’s time.

And all of this misses the point: that all children don’t get to practise and develop mastery of an instrument capable of expression and ensemble performance to make all the other activities worthwhile.  All they get is a series of disconnected activities, which are more or less enjoyable.

Perhaps the real problem is music’s f-word: fun.  Now I’m a big fan of fun but as Robert Coe writes (http://www.cem.org/attachments/publications/ImprovingEducation2013.pdf, p. xii), it’s a poor proxy for learning.  Music should be fun but where that is viewed as the end rather than the beginning of the process children become culturally impoverished.

Revitalising orchestral music in our schools

Before I start, this is all @redorgreenpen’s fault.  Everybody else I meet accepts my reasons/excuses for not starting a blog: not enough time, would get bored quickly, only agree with others, can’t think of anything original.  But she called me out, so here we are.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The Problem

The Western Classical tradition in Britain is in trouble.  And it’s hard to see.  Concerts regularly fill out the Barbican and RFH in London, Symphony Hall in Birmingham, Bridgewater Hall in Manchester and elsewhere.  The standard of orchestral playing by professionals is as good as it has ever been. So where’s the problem?

I went to see the National Youth Orchestra at the Proms this year.  They were fantastic, as ever but I wondered how many attended comprehensive schools. Very few, it turns out.  Top rate orchestral playing is now almost exclusively the preserve of independent and grammar schools.  And that is a tragedy. Laura van der Heijden, the current holder of BBC Young Musician of the Year, was a comprehensive school pupil but never took her ‘cello to school with her.  And how many pupils on free school meals attend the top music colleges? Well, the last time someone asked, it was none.  Do we think there has been a dramatic change recently? http://www.demos.co.uk/blog/abroadsideofwagnerianproportions

So what is to be done? How do we introduce everyone to the finest musical tradition in the world?

Step 1: Instrumental Lessons for All

Of itself this is not controversial and in many schools, with money from national schemes or pupil premium, all do have access to lessons.  However, it is far from well spent.  So this needs refining, perhaps to orchestral instrumental lessons, taught by competent teachers, learned at the right time, for all.  Given a choice, most children will pick piano, guitar or drums for their instrument.  There is nothing wrong with this of course but these are not ensemble instruments, except drums – and you only need one of those.  Ensemble playing really is the most enjoyable, fulfilling and worthwhile activity in music.  Almost all the educational reasons for learning an instrument can be achieved in ensemble playing and it does matter what instruments children pick.

If I were in charge, every child would learn a string instrument from the age of six.  Strings form the foundation of the orchestra – you usually only need two flutes but a full symphony orchestra has 30 violins.  String instruments come in all sizes to fit small hands and arms (apparently there’s a 1/64 size Stentor violin!) and are very good for teaching pitch – a distance along a string rather than different fingers pressed down.  Posture and high levels of concentration are vital.  They also take years and years to get good; it’s a rare outstanding string player who started their instrument after the age of 10.  Woodwind and Brass instruments could be left until later – 11 is probably fine for most, although instruments like French Horn and Oboe need a bit longer.  But, and here’s the trick, don’t have all the girls playing flutes and clarinets (if, when I die I hear a clarinet choir I’ll know I’ve led a bad life) and all the boys playing saxophones and trumpets.  Spread it out a bit.

My Clarinet and Saxophone teacher at KEGS has one wish: to teach beginners at 11 and not have them at grade 2 or 3, having picked up all kinds of bad habits.  Several pupils arrive, having played the clarinet for two or three years, but have never been taught how to tongue.  That’s like having driving lessons with the instructor working the pedals for you. It takes far longer to correct those errors than to start someone afresh.  Competent teachers are so vital.  In all this recent argument about QTS most have forgotten that there are a group of teachers in nearly every school who are almost all unqualified and who are rarely, if ever observed by someone competent to do it: the peripatetic music staff.  I’m extremely lucky to have a superb bunch of teachers but there are many who are dreadful.  And who knows?  What success criteria do they have?  Who really cares, as long as we can put a tick in the box and have a big concert at the end of term?  Everyone knows that young musicians sound awful, right?

We need to involve two groups – the professional orchestras and the music colleges.  Not to do occasional school days, where all the children shake cabasas or hit xylophones, accompanied by a professional trombonist, but in qualifying and training the instrumental teachers and working with school ensembles.  It would be more fulfilling for everyone concerned, I’m sure.

To illustrate, earlier this week I attended a concert at the Barbican, given by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.  Before the concert, in the Barbican foyer, performers from the orchestra joined together with primary school musicians from schools in East London to perform music based on Brahms’ 4th Symphony, the major work of the concert.  I was inspired as they performed without music for nearly ten minutes.  It was all in tune, the tone was good, the parts were challenging but appropriate and all were concentrating properly.  At the end the conductor informed those listening that it had been put together in just two days and the children had all learned their parts in that time.  Two days?  What could be accomplished with 190 school days?