River Wissey Lovell Fuller


July 2007

Ron explores some new topics to further debate in the community.

Grammar Schools

David Cameron put his foot in it rather with his Party when he implied that he would like to abolish selective grammar schools. It is a matter about which I have difficulty in coming to a clear view. There was a time when I espoused the comprehensive school and, to some extent, I still do but I have been somewhat disappointed with the results. I am not convinced that the comprehensive school achieves the best result for the academically able or for the academically weak. Many pupils in comprehensive schools do achieve remarkably high standards, thanks to the effort and endeavours of the staff, but sadly many others do not come near to reaching their true potential.. Many teachers who try very hard are often tested beyond endurance by the disruptive behaviour of a minority of pupils.

The academically weak often find themselves unable to cope, lose interest, become bored and are more likely to drift into disruptive behaviour. Trying to teach the academically strong and the academically weak in the same class is a major challenge. The relative success of the independent schools is often unfairly cited as a criticism of the teaching in state schools. There was a suggestion recently that teachers from independent schools should do some teaching in state schools as if these teachers possessed some form of magic. The relative success of the independent schools derives primarily from the different ethos that exists in the school where all the pupils are motivated to learn. They are further helped by the smaller class sizes that permit more time to be given to the weaker pupils. Grammar schools, where pupils are selected on the basis of their early academic prowess, establish a similar ethos and achieve results almost as good as those from the independent sector. As a result grammar schools offer excellent opportunities for children from less advantaged backgrounds.

The new 'Academies' or 'Specialist Schools' so favoured by the present government are proving to be expensive and, so far, are not achieving particularly noteworthy results. Most of these schools have some form of selection process and, furthermore, unlike state schools, they are not required to take pupils with special needs. Some select on the basis of an interview in which the sponsors of the school apply their own criteria. They claim to look for particular aptitude (what does that mean?), talents or skills but to select on the basis of academic ability is taboo. Why? The worst criterion for selection that is used, in my view, is the religious belief of the pupil's parents. The power given to the sponsors of these schools is totally disproportionate to the contribution that they have made towards its establishment. These schools with their selection procedures will take us back to a two tier system once again. If we are to have some form of selection then academic ability would seem to be a very valid criterion for selection and on that basis I would argue that we should not only maintain the present grammar schools but should increase their number.

If we do have selective schools it is very important, of course, that the schools for those who are not selected adjust their teaching and their subject matter to retain the interest of their pupils. They should strive to make the most of the talents of those children so that they might achieve their full potential. We must not go back to the worst of the 'secondary moderns'. Perhaps the ideal would be a very large comprehensive school, not necessarily on the one site but all under one capable head. Such a school could have streams divided on the basis of abilities in academic work, art and design, practical skills, musical ability etc, with specialist teachers for each stream and the facility to move pupils between streams as their abilities change and develop. Pie in the sky?

Where will it all end?

Worries have been expressed recently about the way in which the switch to growing crops for bio-fuels will lead to a shortage of food. It is difficult to tell whether or not such worries are justified but it does seem probable that farmers will tend to grow crops that will generate the best financial return. The likely consequence is that food crop prices will have to increase in order to compete with fuel crops - this may then put the price of food beyond the reach of many of the world's poor.

Conceivably a worldwide ban on the production of bio-fuel crops could be introduced, not very likely, of course. Would such a ban achieve anything or would it just put off the inevitable? Currently the world population is growing at the rate of 80 million a year - that is like adding another country the size of Germany every year! In my short lifetime I have witnessed the population grow from a little over 2 billion to over 6 billion. Present trends will mean that before 2050 it could reach 9 billion. Unless urgent action is taken this growth will be limited ultimately by famine and wars with associated suffering on a grand scale. We have to realise that the planet is finite; there must exist a limit to the number of people it can support without human suffering, perhaps we are already at that limit. Every additional person means more demands for food and minerals, more waste disposal problems, more pollution etc. Members of the G8 group are making a show of attempting to eradicate poverty, especially in Africa. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown deserve much credit for their efforts in this regard but it is like trying to walk 'up' on the 'down' escalator, all the effort is negated by the increasing population.

The Chinese have grasped the nettle by putting a strict limit on the number of children a woman can have and have gone to the extreme of enforced sterilisation. Such moves may be regarded as draconian and are condemned by many people but what is the alternative? With the exception of the Chinese, politicians are turning away from the subject, burying their heads in the sand. The Catholic Church continues to preach against contraception. When will the world wake up?

Ron Watts

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