Scholarship – the appeal of grammar schools

Two definitions of scholarship:

“Profound knowledge of a specific subject gained by extensive reading or study”

“Knowledge and learning – the qualities of a scholar”

While watching the BBC’s The Big Questions #bbctbq on the grammar school debate, I started to reflect on the word “scholarship”, as Sian Griffiths explained her daughter’s delight in being able to be in a group of academically minded people – the fact that she could be proud of her serious-mindedness and not have to try to conceal her interest in academic study. My first thought was that you don’t need grammar schools for that. Up and down the country, schools of all shapes and sizes, grammar, comprehensive, independent are celebrating academic success in assemblies with presentations and awards.

Having been in my current school for some period of time, I occasionally ponder taking up one more post before retiring or leaving teaching. Recently, I have gone on to a number of school websites and looked at the school’s “vision and ethos.” There is often great similarity. Comprehensive, grammar or independent, most schools talk about developing independence, creativity, love of learning, preparing students for a future with jobs that don’t exist, education being more than academic study. Only rarely have I seen the word “knowledge” mentioned. And the word I have yet to come across is “scholarship” (other than in the context of an independent school offering bursaries). Schools may talk about “lifelong learning“, “potential“, “success“, “progress” or proclaim their Ofsted “Good” or “Outstanding” rating. They may also talk about “academic outcomes” or “excellent examination results“. I have yet to come across a school which talks about valuing and developing scholarship.

I myself attended a grammar school and sat through countless assemblies where a prefect would read something supposedly profound while most of us thought about something else. Shakespeare’s sonnets, the Gettysburg address, numerous poems and tales of heroic feats passed me by. On doing my teacher training, I was keen to see that school assemblies didn’t have to be like this. Yet I felt uneasy about the assemblies that I witnessed in the various comprehensive schools I visited. The topics seemed very banal and often the speaker’s main aim seemed just to be entertaining. As a serious child, I would have found it patronizing and more suitable for an infants’ school. “Hands up who pulled a Christmas cracker at Christmas! You did? Well done! Now – what was in it?” “Milky Way for the person who can answer the next question!”  I confess even I succumbed to this style of assembly once when I did an assembly, though I altered it on other occasions. As a serious child, I would have found it patronizing – yes – but did all the children there? I don’t think so. And there’s the rub.

Of course, whatever the format of the assembly, most children are thinking about lots of other things, like whether they’ll get into trouble in maths period 1, the fact that Josh sent a rude text, that they must have a go at the new game etc. Ask any child what the assembly that morning was about and you will usually get a puzzled frown. Yet I now realise that the prefects reading profound texts was actually creating an atmosphere of scholarship. The hall was entered in silence, the readings were heard in silence, notices were given and the hall was exited in silence. The subtle message was that scholarship matters and you are all scholars.

I guess that for a parent with a serious, academic child, who is worried about teachers adopting a perceived matey, patronizing approach and worried that their child might be among children who appreciate that style, a grammar school is very appealing. The comprehensive school may achieve excellent results, but they are worried that their academic son/daughter might not fit in. That the child will feel they have to disguise their interest in scholarship. But yes, this is just a hunch, my guess. Maybe someone will do some serious research among parents as to why they chose to put their children through the 11+.

Ironically, I have yet to find a grammar school website that mentions “scholarship” as something worth valuing…..!!!


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4 Responses to Scholarship – the appeal of grammar schools

  1. I’d be very wary about using the term “scholarship” in relation to schools or pupils. Your first definition contains two words (profound and specific) which disqualify school pupils from any idea of scholarship since they are, until they reach university, generalists and simply don’t have time or access to study particular subject areas in such detail.

    Ironically, the current line of “just tell them!” being used by some in teaching would also disqualify those being told from any idea of scholarship since the latter relies on independent and self-motivating study, and access to research in academic libraries not generally found outside universities..

    of course pupils can be exposed to scholarship by teachers but it is highly unlikely this will go beyond popular works – in History, for example, Simon Schama rather than the latest articles in Past & Present (e.g. Worrying About Crime: Experience, Moral Panics and Public Opinion in London, 1660–1800).


    • fish64 says:

      I think perhaps you are looking at this from a primary school perspective. Most secondary teachers I know went into teaching because they loved their subject, wanted to use their subject in their career and wanted to inspire future generations with their passion for their subject. I remember that at the grammar school I attended, the teachers (rightly) regarded themselves as scholars – most had MAs or PhDs and wanted to inspire students with a love of their subject. They regarded themselves as mathematicians, historians, chemists, geographers and linguists, rather than just as teachers. This is very appealing to parents of serious minded, academic children as well as to the children themselves, who may not have specialised yet, but are interested in academic study.

      As for scholars not accepting “just tell ’em” – this is absurd! University lecturers a spend a lot of time at conferences listening to each other giving 60 minute( or longer) lectures. I remember my lecturers sitting down to listen to visiting academics giving lectures on obscure aspects of their chosen field. Their scholarship had given them the discipline and knowledge required to concentrate and engage for long periods.

      I think my colleagues in the history department where I work would say they go beyond populist historians…..developing an appreciation of scholarship does not simply mean getting pupils to read highly specialist academic papers, but giving them the necessary background knowledge and habits of mind to enable them to access them in the future if they so wish


  2. I’m with you. Let’s bring back the whole concept and rhetoric of scholarship.


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