Loss of grammar schools has hit education system

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I was in two minds as to whether I should respond to the letters about Burnley’s proposed Free School, but a letter published a week later has determined me to intervene in the debate.

At the outset, let me say I am not in favour of the Free School concept as developed by Michael Gove and the Coalition Government and agree with some of the comments made by some of your correspondents. A Burnley Free School is likely to be wasteful in terms of resources, is not going to be sufficiently different when compared to the existing offer and there is a risk unqualified teaching staff may be employed.

However, that there is a proposal for a Free School is no surprise to me. Its history goes back to 1981 when Burnley Grammar School and High School for Girls were merged to become Habergham High School. Lancashire County Council removed both Burnley’s Grammar Schools and, at the same time, failed to establish a Church of England High School in the town.

The significance of this is twofold. With grammar schools continuing to operate in Hyndburn, Rossendale, Ribble Valley, Blackburn and Craven it was inevitable some Burnley parents would seek grammar school places outside Burnley for their children. In fact, the potential closure of Burnley’s grammar schools became an issue in 1979 when Simonstone, which had been included in Burnley five years before, sought to become part of Ribble Valley. In 1982 all of Simonstone, and part of Northtown, was also lost to Burnley.

The other factor was that though the possibility of setting up a new CE high school in Burnley was discussed by LCC and Diocese of Blackburn, it was not implemented. The consequence was that many parents of children attending Burnley’s excellent CE primary schools sought similar Church schools out Burnley when their children reached 11. The most popular were in Hyndburn and Blackburn.

After 1981 – the year in which the grammar schools in Burnley were abolished – the number of secondary age pupils not being educated in Burnley increased. At one time there were so many Burnley children being educated out of town they could (almost) have formed a high school of their own.

I have long since felt that, if ever the opportunity presented, there would be an attempt to plug the religious if not the academic gap. Whether the proposed Free School will do this is uncertain. The promoters are offering a school with a Christian, though not Anglican, ethos and are aware of the academic argument.

It is not appropriate to claim, as have some correspondents, that Blessed Trinity offers the Christian ethos so significant to some parents. It offers a Catholic ethos, something which is not exactly the same, though I understand not all the children who attend Blessed Trinity are Catholics.

I ought to add that I was fortunate to be educated at St Theodore’s RC High School, in the days of Tom McKie and Gerry Martland. This was the fore-runner of Blessed Trinity and was a comprehensive. However, though St Theodore’s suited me - I was the first of its pupils to go to university - I feel that, given the circumstances that existed in Burnley prior to BSF, parents were within their rights to seek schools outside Burnley if they felt the existing schools were not appropriate for their children.

Lastly, and I was determined not to be political, but Burnley’s problems in secondary education, particularly after 1981, were the consequence of LCC’s botched re-organisation and failure of the Diocese to establish a Church high school in town. Results at 16+ were never as bad as they seemed to be because the relative success of Burnley children not attending Burnley high schools made up for the inevitable shortfall in some of the schools in town.

Roger Barstow Frost MBE, MA, FRSA.