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  • Alan Bainbridge

The Grammar School Fetish: the ‘magic’ of selection

Updated: Jul 13, 2020

I shall start by making the provocative observation that the current debate on grammar schools, in Marxian terms, represents a fetish.

If we can put aside the stale debates of left/right wing ideologies and take an adult stance, the thinking of Marx has something to offer us. Briefly, in ‘Capital’, Marx declares that when an object becomes a commodity it also ‘magically’ takes on the properties of a fetish. For Marx (and also Freud) the fetishised object distracts from attention what the objects useful role is and replaces it with an exchange value: for example a simple tee-shirt that cost 20 pence to make now becomes the desirable ‘hipsters’ £20 must have fashion item. Tables have been turned here. The wearer no longer perceives cotton, printed logo, or ‘someone’ being paid a pitiful salary. What they experience is the ‘must have item’ that will ensure maximum hipster-ness.

It is has become the same with education, particularly in the modern world where the increasingly smorgasbord-esque variety of schools guarantee choice and endless possibilities for social mobility hoping and a ‘happy ever after’ future. Education has become a commodified product – no more so than in the recent clamor to spend £50 million pounds on more grammar school places. The grammar school debate provides a clear example of a fetish as it offers a distraction, where what has been lost sight of, in a search for academic success, is the thorny issues of what schools are for and even what a good school might be like.

What the discussion of a fetished grammar school debate allows us to do is to identify the features of the fetish and to think about what we are being distracted from. The rationale for the re-population of grammar schools is fairly simple – bright children need to be taught in separate schools that focus on an academic curriculum, as it is only here that their talent can shine though. Now you might be surprised to know that I am not against a grammar style education or the delivery of a challenging academic curriculum.

Supporters of grammar schools focus on the possibility of high academic achievement, some even suggest that this is the route to social mobility (I’m assuming upward only). But just as the cool hipster tee-shirt hides from awareness the cheapness of the cotton and the conditions under which it was made, so the support for more grammar schools hides the reality of the process of selection and a paucity of educational vision and imagination. Here the fetish has made its home. Education, particularly a grammar school one, is seen to provide a lifetime of success via a hatful of epic qualifications. But this is not what happens and neither is it only what education is about. I know it is possible to empty the kitchen at a party by opening up a conversation on grammar schools … but the really useful thing about the grammar school debate is that it allows us to return to the ancient debate ‘what schools should be for?

Education is not just about qualifications – of course these have an important role but there is so much more about education that we have became distracted from. Education is also about all children being exposed to traditions and cultures and ultimately for young people to become autonomous decision makers. Education settings are places where young people are exposed to new ideas and encouraged to think about how we can make the world a better place. The existence of a formal selection test that is taken when most children are 10 years old hides from awareness that such possibilities exist and only serves to further embed the fetish – that education success is measured by qualification only, is predictable and best served by segregation.

The return of the grammar school debate has allowed the fetish to run rampant. Decades of evidence continually show that:

· School type has little impact on academic achievement.

· Segregated schooling only serves to harbour further social inequality and damage social cohesion.

· Quality early years education changes the lives of families for the good

· Adult education has the potential to transform lives after formal education is completed.

But, like the cheap tee-shirt, this evidence is magically hidden from view, while the fantasy persists that simple tests taken when a child is 10 years old, allowing access to a proper ‘good’ school will ensure the health and prosperity of our nation. This is a nonsense, the Emperor’s New Clothes, an elephant in the room, a whooping deceit – it is the work of the fetish where what a good education could be has been replaced by a ridiculous test and a socially destructive schooling system.

A good education is not based on a quick test at 10 years old followed by years of segregation. Education can be better than this but at present the fetishists are in control and continue to drool at the alter of mythical excellence. Marx told us this would happen!

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