This much I know about…an eloquent, authentic argument against the reintroduction of Grammar Schools

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about an eloquent, authentic argument against the reintroduction of Grammar Schools.

Wisdom is priceless. The author of this letter is a retired judge and a retired governor of Huntington School. I am hugely grateful to him for allowing me to publish his email.

Hello John,

I read of your reaction to the proposed new policies on education and wonder if my experiences might help.

I went to my Grammar School from 1948 to 1955 and was fortunate to do so. The teaching was generally to a good standard (sometimes outstanding) with the result the School was high achieving.  It took me and many of my friends to University and into the professions and on this basis I ought to be a supporter of the eleven plus selection. However, as the years have gone by I have realised none of this happened without enormous cost to the community.

From the outset there was an unbridgeable gap between us and the majority who had not passed the exam. Those of us who passed were immediately regarded (and self-regarded) as superior to those who failed and there was a corresponding dejection and feeling of inferiority in those who had not made it. In later life I have spoken to some who failed and they tell me these scars lasted well into adulthood. As our schooling progressed this division between those who passed and those who did not increased. Those superior/inferior feelings were always there and at every level the Grammar Schools ignored the Secondary Schools and accentuated the division. We played sport against other Grammars in (e.g.) Manchester, Bolton and Bradford, but there was never any contact with another school in the City. As individuals socially we stayed with our school friends and our paths never crossed those of the other schools.

Inevitably those in the Secondary Moderns never had the benefit of the stimulus the more able pupils might have provided. But equally the Grammar School boys were deprived of any meaningful insight into the social and developmental problems of the less fortunate, so reducing the maturity and devaluing the intellectual benefits the Grammar School education had brought to those who enjoyed it.

Any comparison with fee-paying schools is not really appropriate: we live in a free society and we all use our means to finance the lifestyle we choose. If some choose to bear the cost and spare the community the expense of educating their children that is a matter for them. But grammars and comprehensives are each financed from the public purse and it does seem basically wrong that that purse should be used to establish the huge inequalities and unfairness selection at so early an age brings.

I am sure you will receive a mountain of comment from others in the City. My view is you know about these things better than most!

My kindest wishes to you and to everyone at Huntington…

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This much I know about whether stopping extra revision sessions after school works (and why we don’t need Grammar Schools)

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about whether stopping extra revision sessions after school works (and why we don’t need Grammar Schools).

Less is more. Back in February I wrote a post about how I had told colleagues that I did not expect them to offer extra revision sessions after school in the run up to the summer examinations. I just wanted every single teacher to teach the best lessons they possibly could during the normal contact time they had with students. Truly great classroom teaching is the only thing which secures genuinely great students outcomes. The post went viral and made headlines nationally. We are now analysing our students’ 2016 GCSE results which will, to some extent, reflect the success, or otherwise, of resisting the urge to offer extra revision sessions. Overall, our students’ results are very good. At GCSE the attainment levels are the highest we have known and we wait optimistically for our Progress 8 score from the DfE. At A level our ALPs score is yet again in the red, suggesting our students’ progress between GCSE and A level is excellent. Subject Leaders have each written a report on their students’ results and I am in the process of meeting with them to chat about how we might tweak things to improve, at the margins, teaching and learning in each one’s subject.

History is a complex subject at GCSE. Success in History depends upon students knowing a huge amount of historical content and those students’ literacy skills. It is an Ebacc subject, to boot. It is, perhaps, a good barometer of a school’s performance overall. The History GCSE and A level results at Huntington this summer were pretty damned good and owed much to the out-going Subject Leader, John Titmas, who, over eight years, had stuck resolutely to improving the quality of teaching in his department above all else. His GCSE cohort this summer was truly mixed ability. Unlike the previous few years, where there were two History GCSE cohorts with one taking the History GCSE and the other taking the Applied History GCSE, this was a single cohort taking the History GCSE. Here is the analysis of the KS4 outcomes for History:

Year No. of cands %A*-C target grades Mock exam A*-C % Actual A*-C %
2011 129 97% 62% 60%
2012 113 88% 50% 67%
2013 79 96% 59% 77%
2014 78 98% 79% 86%
2015 81 100% 83% 91.4%
2016 82 98% 73% 83%


Year No. of cands %A*-A   target grades Mock exam A*-A % Actual A*-A %
2011 129 47% 19% 18%
2012 113 37% 19% 32%
2013 79 39% 32% 32%
2014 78 53% 46% 45%
2015 81 66% 26% 51%
2016 82 56% 46% 46%
  • A strong set of results in 2016, and although we were 6% down on 2015 figures for both A*-C and A*-A, we largely matched the strong performance of 2014, despite the lack of Applied History groups in 2016.
  • 83% A*-C compares well to the 69% national average. Previous high A*-C from a whole cohort (i.e. without an Applied History course running) in the last 10 years was 68%.
  • 0.2 residual against FFTD. 0.14 residual in comparison to other subjects at Huntington.
  • Significant increase in A* conversions, however A*-A total 5% down to 45% from 50% last year. It does compare favourably to the national average of 29%.
  • It was our best A* numbers in recent years – 28% compared to 17% last year. Two students achieved 200 UMS and three others were above 195.
  • Paper 2 performance (historically the weakest element of the assessment) was strong, particularly at the top end with 44% of students achieving an A* in this paper. Our modal grade in every unit was A*.
  • Increased ‘tail’ of 10% E-U may have its cause in having no Applied History course this year. This is something to look at carefully in 2016-7, given our tracking data for our Year 11 2017 cohort shows a similar pattern.
  • As with the two previous years, the significant increase in attainment from mock to actual grades achieved is encouraging, suggesting that the identification and implementation of minimal, targeted interventions was effective. We followed school guidance and did not provide pre-exam intervention outside of the timetable; we found focussing on teaching in lessons and a measured, planned revision process within those lessons successful.

GCSE Attainment against Huntington targets 2016

Student Target Number of students Above On Below Avg target residual
A* 22 N/A 16 6 -0.4
A 24 7 7 10 -0.3
B 19 5 8 6 -0.36
C 15 3 5 7 -1.1
D 2 2 -3
Total 82 15 35 32  
  • Targets met or surpassed with 61% of the cohort in 2016, an increase on the 56% rate achieved in 2015, and considerably above the 51% figure in 2014.
  • We remain strong at converting A/A* targets in particular. Improving the percentage of C-target students meeting their targets remains a crucial focus.

The world is for the discontented. The results aren’t perfection, but…what I like best about this analysis is the sense of wanting to do better next year, especially for the C/D grade target students. And of course the line, We followed school guidance and did not provide pre-exam intervention outside of the timetable; we found focussing on teaching in lessons and a measured, planned revision process within those lessons successful.

York has no grammar schools and no selection by ability. Huntington School has a truly comprehensive in-take. Houses around Huntington are relatively cheap. If you live near our school you can get a tremendous education irrespective of your academic starting point or socio-economic background: that is the case for all the secondary schools in our City. We all have genuinely high expectations of our students. Why replicate Kent’s school system? Why not try to replicate what is going on in York or London, rather than re-introduce Grammar Schools and selection by ability? In York we have a city that works for everyone…

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This much I know about…my researchED 2016 presentation (with video!)

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about my researchED 2016 presentation (with video!).

Slides: john-tomsett-red-10-09-16



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This much I know about…the Grammar School debate

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about the Grammar School debate.

Even Toby Young admits that Grammar Schools do nothing to help social mobility. The Government’s Social Mobility Tsar Alan Milburn says that more Grammar Schools would accentuate class divisions. Michael Gove’s Special Advisor, Sam Freedman, is set against introducing greater selection of students by ability, as is the editor of Schoolsweek, Laura McInerney. The erstwhile Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, voiced her disagreement with her own Prime Minister’s proposed new policy only hours after it announced. In his researchED 2016 speech today, entitled – according to the programme – “Upcoming Education Policy”, the Minister for School Standards, Nick Gibb,  failed to mention selection of Grammar Schools once; the subsequent Q&A session was dominated by the Grammar School issue and all his usual assuredness seeped from his face. As Sam Freedman tweeted, it’s unlikely Nick Gibb agrees with the introduction of more Grammar Schools. With Young, Milburn, Freedman, Morgan and, probably, Gibb (as well as, allegedly, 100 Conservative MPs) arguing against May’s new Grammar School/Selection policy, there’s no need for me to repeat their arguments.



Dr Becky Allen is worth reading on the Grammar School policy too, because, back in June, she wrote a blog post which gets to the heart of a key issue in this debate which has had little consideration thus far: teacher recruitment. One of her many illuminating, but, I suppose, obvious, findings is that students in Grammar Schools, “seem much more likely to be taught by someone who has an academic degree in the subject”, especially in mathematics and science. I know of a school whose Science department comprises 17 teachers, but only two have science degrees. The school is in one of the most deprived wards in the country. More than most, its students need the very best teachers. New Grammar Schools would compound the teacher recruitment challenge for schools whose students need the most effective teachers we can possibly find. I wrote in July that, “If May really does care about the ordinary working class family then sorting out the teacher recruitment crisis should be a priority”. Grammar Schools may well rob the vast majority of secondary schools of the top end of the ability range of students, but, as Becky Allen’s post suggests, they would surely do the very same to the top end of the ability range of teachers.

What now for the EEE White Paper? A question I wanted to ask Nick Gibb, but failed to before he was whisked away. The brilliant Robert Hill has answered my question, however, in his blog on the ensuing education policy carnage, in which he says that “it feels like Theresa May’s chief of staff, Nick Timothy, is the de facto Secretary of State for Education”.

Ah, yes, Nick Timothy… When I was preparing the slides for my researchED talk today I came across an old slide I had used last year. It was a quotation from Nick Timothy, taken from a New Schools Network blog post when he was the organisation’s director. He was arguing for a “parental trigger” which could lead to a head teacher’s dismissal; seems like the perfect way to entice would-be head teachers to apply for the top job. As we face not only a teacher recruitment problem, but a head teacher recruitment crisis, it’s good to know who’s driving education policy in this country.


Probably wise, now, to wait and read the Green Paper; it will be one of the most important education policy publications for a generation.

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This much I know about…my favourite Growth Mindset moment of the Rio Olympics!

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about…my favourite Growth Mindset moment of the Rio Olympics!

Chris Langridge and Marcus Ellis won Bronze in the Men’s Badminton Doubles in Rio…


…and here is what Langridge said when they won through to the semi-finals…

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This much I know about…unfettered teaching

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 51, this much I know about unfettered teaching.

As I approach three decades in the profession, teaching English still thrills me.

When I began teaching at Eastbourne Sixth Form College back in 1988 I taught five A level literature classes in my NQT year. It was blissful. I coaxed the students into becoming active readers of texts and spent the rest of my time modelling how to write literary criticism.

When I moved to an 11-18 school in Hove and began teaching lower school classes I could not understand why we waited until the sixth form before we taught students how to write analysis of literary texts. To me, the skill of making a point, backing up your point with evidence from the text and then explaining what effect upon the reader the author intended when choosing one or two individual words or images, seemed teachable to any student of any age.

Over the years, as I was promoted and found myself teaching different subjects and fewer lessons, I ended up no longer teaching lower school English. This year, however, whilst the bulk of my timetable is Economics A level, I have an hour, first thing on a Friday morning, when I teach a Year 7 class of 30 students. It is my favourite hour of the entire week, bar none.

I enjoy teaching this one hour of Year 7 English for a number of reasons. Our Year 7 scheme of learning is more challenging than it has ever been and I am teaching Macbeth, the first taste of Shakespeare for every single student. We have stopped assessing using National Curriculum levels; instead we are using our professional judgement as to what standard of work we expect of students by the end of Year 7 considering their starting points.

Whilst it is a group of students with mixed KS2 starting points, I have ignored any inherited assessment data about the students and instead I have taught relentlessly to the very top, expecting that everyone in the class can write literary analysis of the Scottish Play. It has been liberating.

Another couple of things. We begin most lessons by reciting aloud the first scene of Macbeth by heart, which is great fun. And occasionally I share extracts from my next book which has encouraged half a dozen students to share their own writing with me; we are close to launching our own writers’ blog.

Macbeth as a text helps. It’s so great. When I asked Olly to come up to the front of the class and, with an imaginary sword, unseamed him from the nave to thchops, the whole class was groaning in fascinated revulsion. The Fair is foul and foul is fair metaphor is woven so deeply through the text that the students were highlighting examples I had never noticed. It is fair to say that every single one of us has had great fun for that hour every Friday morning since September.

At the heart of my teaching has been the insistent modelling of the Point-Evidence-Analysis (PEA) paragraph. I have taught the PEA paragraph structure explicitly, made good use of formative assessment as the students have tried, failed and tried again to shape effective paragraphs, and convinced the whole class that they can write GCSE quality essays.

These slides are typical of how I have modelled PEA paragraphs, transforming the students’ relatively shapeless efforts to ones which are sharply analytical:



This slide could be the guidance slide for A level literature students:


My expectations of what the students can do have been higher than ever before. In essence, my single expectation has been that the Year 7s will be able to write analytical essays if I teach them well.

Here are some examples of what the students have written. In this first one, James makes an astute point about Lady Macbeth:


Writing is a real challenge for James, yet the shape of the PEA paragraph is intact and the comparison of Lady Macbeth with the devil is all his. James, it turned out, is a secret writer at home. He is working on a short story which he wants, eventually, to publish on our class blog.

This next paragraph sees Anna, who is one of the class’s highest starters, relish the writing of literary criticism:


What we must not do is rob Anna of her distinctive style as she moves through the school by dictating exactly how to write PEA paragraphs. She has understood my basic model and yet retained her tangible enjoyment of the writing process.

Sometimes, irrespective of the PEA model, students write something which surprises. William drew this perceptive general conclusion about the play:


William’s intense engagement with Shakespeare’s language has required every ounce of his concentration. His resulting essay was a highlight of my teaching year.

One of the things I explained to the whole class is that there is no point me setting them work they find easy. I have to challenge them with activities beyond their current capacity, teach them well and believe, without a shred of doubt, that they can meet the challenge.

I love teaching unfettered by expectations. Ignoring students’ minimum expected grades is a subversive joy. At the recent Year 7 Parents’ Evening, parent after parent reported that their child loved the Shakespeare lessons; apparently, one or two have been reciting random extracts from the play at home. I stunned the parents by reading some of the critical analysis written by their sons and daughters. It is no exaggeration to say that it was the most enjoyable Parents’ Evening of my career.

Only one parent enquired about the grade her son’s essay would have been awarded. I told her it didn’t matter. I explained how she had been comforted by her son’s SATs level in primary school without ever knowing what it meant. What I told her was more important – that her son was making above expected progress. What I want her son to do, I told her gently, is to come home and tell her what he has learnt in English today and what he needs to do to improve his writing skills.

Dismantling students’ own modest perceptions of what they can attain seems to me to be one of the most important priorities for classroom teachers. If we can set the level of challenge at a high level early in our students’ secondary career, the better equipped they will be to tackle the increasing demands of GCSE and A level.

Those of us who learn at Huntington School do so in a culture of the possible. We do not believe that anyone can achieve anything; rather, we believe that with dedication, industry and know-how individuals can make progress beyond what anyone, including themselves, could have imagined.

What dismays me slightly is that it has taken me the best part of thirty years to teach how to write literary criticism to Year 7 students. My only comfort is that my job continues to surprise me and I am still learning.


This article was first published in the Summer 2016 edition of The Use of English magazine.

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This much I know about…the inequality bred by the educational divide

Before you read my post, click below to have a peek at a cartoon that illustrates the cumulative effect of privilege…



Joyce Bell’s letter in the Guardian this week reminded me of my speech two years ago at the Oxford Union when I was asked to speak in support of the motion, “This House Believes That Private Schools Do More Harm Than Good”.

The impact of private schools is very similar to the impact of grammar schools. What I said in that most famous of debating chambers resonates loudly this week…


In June 2014 my argument was crafted to support the motion provocativelywhat better place that the Oxford Union to challenge the nation’s ruling classes?

The Oxford Union Debate, 12 June 2014

This House Believes That Private Schools Do More Harm Than Good

Thank you Mr President for inviting me to debate an issue that is very close to my heart.

Private schools produce some wonderful people and truly great leaders. That’s not for debate. And those great figures have contributed a huge amount of good to this country. Of course they have. It would be silly to say anything to the contrary. One of the greatest leaders the world has ever known, Winston Churchill, went to Harrow. Wellington and Gladstone – both Old Etonians.

Even if you just take York, my home city, the roll call is pretty impressive – Christopher Hill, Joseph Rowntree, Judy Dench and Margaret Drabble: all alumni of York’s private schools.

But, the debate tonight is not whether Private schools do good, it’s whether they do more harm than good.

And I would argue that private education has a profoundly harmful effect upon our country. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer and the private school system contributes significantly to our nation’s growing inequality.

At a basic level, parents believe they are buying an advantage for their children in sending them to a private school. They believe that smaller class sizes, more diverse subjects, wider learning experiences: all these factors will help their children get ahead.

And in terms of measures like educational attainment and Oxbridge entrance, the data suggests that they’re getting their money’s-worth.

So, given the critical importance of educational attainment to success in later life, we could have a straightforward debate about whether we want to live in a nation where a small percentage of the very rich can buy a fast track to success that the vast majority of families cannot possibly afford.

The thing is, I believe our system of private education does something more pernicious: it separates a privileged elite from the rest of us, with some devastating consequences.

Of course some state schools are more ‘comprehensive’ than others, but go to any state school and you will find students from a wide-range of socio-economic family backgrounds.

In state schools children grow up alongside fellow pupils who have different social roots. Just by rubbing shoulders with their peers in the lunch queue they learn that our lives vary.

And most importantly, children form friendships across the social divide.

They experience school, in other words, as they will experience life – where our social groups aren’t predetermined by parental income and where society is actively working against segregation rather than instilling it as acceptable.

This experience for children is absolutely critical to developing a society that has the potential to be inclusive, to empathise, to seek fairness.

And the crucial thing is, such a social mix is missing from the leadership elite in our professions. Certainly our judiciary, our legal profession, the media, medicine, the City’s financial institutions, all largely led by people who were privately educated.

Just visit the diversity web site and the very first page reads: A common description of a judicial office-holder is “pale and male” – a white man, probably educated at public school and Oxbridge.

This stranglehold on positions of power has proven extraordinarily hard to break. There is a ‘club’ that exists at the top of many professions, which leads to the continual appointing of “people like us” to senior positions. If you are a state school child, you have to beat extraordinary odds to become, say, a judge.

Exceptional opportunities, unshakeable confidence and the ability to exploit a network, they combine to give the children of the privileged a powerful head start in life. And the children from less fortunate backgrounds are kept outside that ‘club’.

And some positions of leadership have particular influence: those of top politicians. The way a nation is steered is hugely influenced by the backgrounds of those sitting around the Cabinet table.

Go back to what I said about children in state schools forming friendships across social divides. If you went to prep school, and then Eton, and then Oxford, when do you connect with someone from the local council estate?

Here’s Michael Gove’s view of the huge number of Old Etonians in David Cameron’s inner circle, “It’s ridiculous. I don’t know where you can find a similar situation in a developed economy.”

People like George Osborne and David Cameron have missed the opportunity to move in a social circle that could include the son of the local postman, someone like me.

And I ask the question, how can the privately educated elite who run this country have any genuine sense of what it is like to survive on the average UK salary of £26,500 a year, when their annual school fees alone are over £30,000?

How are they able to empathise with the challenges of family life in current Austerity Britain? Can they hug a hoodie? Can they? Really?

No wonder the electorate are losing faith in the political classes.

And is it any wonder, then, that they have chosen to press hard on the poorest by cutting vital services – services they and their families have never needed – whilst offering tax cuts to the wealthiest?

Private schooling adds to the curse of inequality and inequality harms us all. In 2009, in his Hugo Young memorial lecture, even David Cameron admitted that, More unequal countries do worse according to every quality of life indicator.

The thing is, income inequality in this country is at Victorian levels. In the last 100 years, our country was at its most equal in 1975, the very year I began my secondary school education.

State school educated Harold Wilson presided over a Government which enforced an 83% income tax rate on the super-rich. 83%. Think of that. When I began university in 1984 I received a full grant and tuition fees were unimaginable.

And income inequality only grew under Tony Blair, who, according to Neil Kinnock, was always impressed by wealth, aided by Peter Mandelson, the man who famously said that he was intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.

Now, in 2014, I see the harmful impact of the vast divide between rich and poor manifest itself starkly in my job as Headteacher of Huntington, the largest school in York.

It is a truly comprehensive school. We have the full range of students, from Professors’ daughters to students from some of the worst socio-economic backgrounds in the country. Proper poverty.

As the gap between the rich and poor widens I see more students on free school meals, more students whose parents buy second-hand uniform and more parents who need financial support for school trips.

And in the biggest school in York, a wealthy city in the sixth biggest economy in the world, when it rains hard, we put out 17 buckets to catch the water because the roof leaks and I can’t afford to repair it.

When it floods on the Somerset levels, money is no object… when it floods in our school it’s a different story.

In one of the most unequal societies in the developed world, it is tougher than it has ever been for a council house boy like me to make it to the top of the professions.

To conclude, our country doesn’t have to be like this. The world’s top-performing jurisdictions don’t allow those who can afford it to barricade themselves behind educational enclaves.

Private education is virtually unheard of in Finland, in Shanghai, in most of Canada. These are societies striving to establish a meritocracy, to create social cohesion, to provide opportunity for all. And, as our society splinters further, on social and racial and religious grounds, we should be aiming higher too – for all our citizens.

The final words on our country’s harmful educational elitism go to ex-Prime Minister Sir John Major who said last year:

“In every single sphere of British influence, the upper echelons of power in 2013 are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle-class.”

He continued, “To me, from my background, I find that truly shocking.” Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, I couldn’t agree more

I beg you to propose the motion.

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