It took me a few years to get used to teaching in a grammar school after teaching in a UK comprehensive. I remember a lesson when I suddenly realised that every pupil without exception was silent, apparently listening to me. What were they up to, I thought? Were they about to do something nasty, play a practical joke? Actually, no. They wanted to learn and trusted me to teach them.
My first parents’ evening at a grammar school was also an eye opener. No threats to get me the sack, no accusations of incompetence. Just quiet, respectful parents who trusted me as a professional to do my job.
Before teaching in a grammar school in the UK, I had taught abroad in both selective and non selective schools. On returning to the UK, I taught in a UK comprehensive. It was a very traditional school in many ways. The head believed in setting children early on and whole class teaching. What I did find astounding was the initial lack of trust in my capability to teach, from both pupils and parents. The view seemed to be that I was new in the school and in my twenties, therefore I obviously did not know what I was on about.
When I started teaching at a grammar school, what I liked most was that from the outset the children realised that my teaching them things was not saying that I thought I was a better person than them, superior in some way. Unlike in the comprehensive, none of the children took umbrage about my telling them what to do. So many times in the UK comprehensive, I got the impression that most pupils felt they had to pull the teacher down a peg or two. To win the trust of those pupils, you had to humble yourself, teach in a very conversational, self deprecating style. I resented this, not because I was completely arrogant (perhaps I was a bit!), but because it wasted valuable lesson time. All that time taken up with my making jokes about my battered briefcase, my poor dress sense, my terrible handwriting, etc, while remembering to praise the accomplishments of individual pupils in recent sports, music or drama, was time well spent, in the sense of it slowly winning the trust of these pupils. But target language went out of the window (I teach MFL) and what was accomplished in one lesson was far less than what I got through in the grammar school.
All this is anecdotal I know, but it may help to explain why research from the Sutton Trust says that more able children do better at grammar schools than in comprehensives. It is not just that there is less classroom disruption, but also that more lesson time is spent on teaching, rather than coaxing, cajoling and jollying pupils along to get them to participate or put pen to paper. You get through more. Simple as that.
So should we have a comprehensive system or a selective system? Germany and the Netherlands have selective systems. The Scandinavian countries have comprehensive systems. Outcomes are broadly similar. Perhaps what is needed above all is an education system where children expect and trust their teachers to teach – nothing more. My experience teaching in schools in other countries (both selective and non selective) was that children there only became disruptive if they perceived you as being bad at teaching. You started out with pupils’ trust. If you were reasonably competent you kept it. My experience in teaching in non selective secondary schools in the UK is that you start out with pupils’ distrust. A lot of valuable time is therefore spent getting the pupils in your classes to trust you, setting out rules, explaining what you expect in terms of classroom etiquette, giving self deprecating anecdotes about yourself to foster relationships, before you can begin teaching them. Maybe this is what needs to change if UK schools are to match the best in the world.