Return of the 50ft Grammar School

by Anne Archist

What’s up?

I imagine by now that many of our readers will have already seen the news about Crown Woods college. For those of you that were too disgusted by the Guardian headline ‘School colour-codes pupils by ability’ to read the actual article, or who have been on holiday somewhere nice or at a festival or something, here are the key points:

  • The college is split into three ‘mini-schools’, to which students are allocated based on streaming, so they will be in roughly the same ability-group for all classes and will socialise with people of the same ability group and so on. (There are actually 4 mini-schools, but one of those is essentially the sixth-form, so I’ll ignore that one)
  • Each mini-school also has a slightly different uniform, such as different coloured ties, so pupils’ ability-level can be determined at a glance. Each has about 450 pupils, its own staff, a different lunch time and fences around their separate play areas to prevent mingling of different ability groups in recreational time.
  • Streaming also happens within the schools, so that some students will be unambiguously at the ‘bottom’ of the more mixed-ability groups, while others will be told they are at the ‘top’ of the gifted+talented group, etc.

The college is as vomit-inducing as one might expect in a myriad of other ways; they concern themselves with following the trends of ‘youth culture clothing’ so as to better ban woolly hats and coats with hoods, and demand that the school tie be worn “as prince Charles wears it”. No, I didn’t make that up, they actually wrote it in a letter to parents. They also wrote ‘prince’ in lower case.

To what end?

The figures floating around in the mainstream press are actually those achieved last year, before the college reorganised itself into the mini-school system, so we have no data on which to judge the changes – even this year’s data will be inadequate since the school only reopened two months ago, so any improvement shown would be due mostly to the old system. The school has also seen increased investment over the last 6 years, including both a huge grant to rebuild, facilitating the segregation, and specialist status in ‘English and the Humanities’ (which is a single specialist status, from the looks of things, not a double-specialist covering two distinct areas, as some schools are).

Disentangling the effect of this investment and redevelopment from the effect of reorganisation and so on would be practically impossible. On that basis I don’t think that getting into arguments about whether exam results have improved or not is the way to go, as so often happens with debates over academy status and similar educational reforms on a broader scale. For once we can all but ignore the statistics, and deal more directly with issues like the student response. This has been mixed, with the general tone of quoted comments suggesting that they like the smaller mini-school environments but not the enforced segregation between them or the streaming element to that segregation.

Arguing and fighting appears to be as common among the mini-schools as it would often be between entirely unrelated local schools in other areas. Perhaps most worryingly, the different mini-schools seem to be offering different curricula tailored to the perceived ability of the people allocated to them. One pupil was disappointed and frustrated to be told that she couldn’t study ‘triple’ science despite her desire to pursue a career in science (neuropsychology, to be precise). Apparently this particular issue will be rectified next year but there doesn’t seem to be a wider realignment of curricula instigated as a result of this timetabling clash.

The college are apparently open to moving people between sets to some extent, but nobody has yet done this and the different timetables, uniforms, etc will no doubt make it difficult. Crucially, the college seems to be relying on children or parents to formally object to their allocation rather than introducing any ongoing systems of assessment or monitoring to pro-actively intervene and move students between the ability streams as appropriate; the fixity of these arrangements only adds to the feeling that different groups are being kept apart as effectively as possible and given very different messages about their potential and ambitions.

What do I think?

This is one of very few occasions on this blog that the facts speak entirely for themselves and I have very little to say about how people should read them. I think we can all agree, regardless of our feeling about specific educational policy, that this amalgam of  inflexibility, differential provision, physical and social segregation, visible ‘marking’ of difference, and so on is appalling and sinister. Streaming is an old-fashioned system rejected by the NUT and other progressive educational institutions and researchers in favour of the much more logical system of setting (where ability group varies by subject rather than being the same for all subjects so that people who are good at maths are assumed to be good at English) or even (shock horror) mixed-ability groups.

As someone who performed very well at school, I know the frustrations of students whose abilities are stagnating, but I also know that this can be avoided perfectly well even by inexperienced teachers without social segregation and stigmatisation. Perhaps the millions of pounds spent on colour-coded buildings, fences between playgrounds and different coloured ties could have been invested in smaller class sizes, more training for teachers, and so on. Instead, the school played the game of catchment – trying to attract ‘better’ students with a highly-visible gifted+talented arrangement and modern buildings, rather than dealing with the business of actually teaching – that is, improving the skills and knowledge of the students it was already charged with.

The justification given by the headmaster for these plans was that he had to ‘respond to the market’ – that is, work out how to ensnare more students who could be relied on to do well in exams without too much help. As long as the education system is built around attracting the ‘best’ people and weeding out the ‘worst’, there will always be very highly-performing and poorly-performing schools, and it won’t necessarily have anything to do with how or what they teach, but rather who they teach.

Hold on… what?

In a perverse pseudo-socialist twist, all of this is justified by naming the design centre (among many other things) after William Morris. One wonders whether perhaps it shouldn’t have been the Aldous Huxley Centre instead.

But one of the students was fool enough to ask where the advantage lay.

“My good boy!” The Director wheeled sharply round on him. “Can’t you see? Can’t you see?” He raised a hand; his expression was solemn. “Bokanovsky’s Process is one of the major instruments of social stability!”


Filed under Current Affairs, Sociology, Student Issues, Uncategorized

2 responses to “Return of the 50ft Grammar School

  1. Peter King

    Just came across your article whilst looking for current news articles relating to Crown Woods College.
    I should start out by saying that I am a Labour supporter and voter and that I have a child at Crown Woods College who is in the high ability mini school.
    Whilst I generally disapprove of selection, having attended a grammar school in New Cross myself, I have to say that when looking for a secondary school for your children, selection was not my main concern.
    Looking at schools within the Borough of Royal Greenwich, it soon became clear that most were failing our children and that any choice was just going to be the best of a bad bunch.
    I was delighted that Crown Woods was now offering an alternative and that the mini school system gave me a genuine cause for optimism.
    This has proved correct, whilst my daughter attends Delamere, she mixes with children within the other two mini schools at clubs and extra curricular activities.
    I just don’t recognise the arguing and fighting that you refer to and in respect of school uniform, I’m from a council estate, but I still like my children to attend school looking smart and presentable in a uniform and not like they have just stepped off of the set of some American gang related drama.
    The first full years figures have now been released since the change at Crown Woods and as far as I am aware they have achieved their best ever results.

    • Anne Archist

      Hi Peter,

      As I noted in my article, improving results doesn’t really mean very much, even given that we’ve now had the first full year since the change – one year’s statistics mean very little on their own, what matters is a trend, and if we look at the trend, the improvement started long before they changed how the school was set up, and has come after a trend of several years of improved investment and the awarding of specialist status, etc.
      Therefore it’s very difficult to trace cause and effect between the various different factors, especially over longer periods of time (we also don’t know to what extent the student intake and, perhaps more importantly, teacher recruitment, has been affected by these various factors, which in a sense forms a factor in itself inasmuch as it has a knock-on effect on other factors, etc).
      If the school’s doing well, that’s good, and I’m glad it’s working out for your child as well as sad to hear that the other schools in the area aren’t up to scratch – but all that doesn’t tell us very much about social stigmatisation, bullying, the values or attitudes being instilled in students, or anything like that.
      The statements about fighting and arguing were taken from news reports at the time of writing the article, and if it’s been under control since then, that’s a good thing, but again this doesn’t tell us much about more subtle forms of bullying or stigmatisation – however, the fact that you haven’t heard about it also doesn’t mean it hasn’t taken place. When I was at school none of the parents knew about the bullying and fighting, or the rivalries with other schools, but they certainly happened. The parents were just sufficiently removed from them and the children sufficiently implicated or intimidated that these things didn’t get talked about.
      I think you also somewhat missed the point of my references to uniform in the article – I made one comment about how I thought it was stupid to ban woolly hats and hoods and so on (I mean, what effect does that have in the middle of winter, exactly?), but the main point was to do with the marking of supposed ability through uniform (the different coloured ties and so on).
      The main point here is the negative effects of this kind of stratification, visual marking and reinforcing of perceptions about ability, inflexibility of movement between groups, restrictions on the potential of mixed-ability groups by vetoing their ability to follow a curriculum deemed beyond their ability, etc. Of course if your child is in the top ability group, you’re unlikely to see a lot of the downsides, just like the rich are unlikely to understand all the fuss when jobseekers complain about how they’re treated, for instance. The negative effects are disproportionately weighted away from your child, and affect those in the ‘lower ability’ groups, particularly those who nonetheless have high aspirations, or perhaps those who have already been stigmatised on other grounds such as appearance, etc. I don’t really think that good results would excuse this, even if we could be sure that they were entirely as a result of the reorganisation of the school.

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