I had the fortune/misfortune (depending on your stance) of attending 2 grammar schools so I thought I’d talk about my experiences of attending a grammar school. It’s a long one because trying to sum up seven years of your life is pretty hard so get a drink of your choice. Maybe a snack too. Also I can’t speak for every single grammar school; these were my experiences and they will be different for other people and other schools.
For context I attended an all girls school for 5 years and then an all boys school with a mixed sixth form. Although I had different experiences at these schools, the fundamental values were the same: get good grades and go to uni.
From the start, you have pressure put on you. On the first two days of school, we had to sit a test to determine how well we would do in the next seven years. We were instantly pitted against students that we were trying to form friendships with. There is always pressure put on you to achieve, to the point where you are told to write a script for your speaking exams for languages so you don’t get caught out. It doesn’t matter that you can’t speak the language because you can pass a test.
It’s not just students that have a lot of pressure placed on them. I had one teacher that sent me an email pleading with me to get 100% in all my exams because the rest of my class were struggling with languages and it was making them look bad.
Although it sounds awful, it’s not always bad. Honestly, it’s pretty nice to be told that you are in the top 5% of the country for your ability and constantly being reassured that you can have any job or go to any uni you want, simply because you go to a grammar school. This joy, however, comes at a price. You are under immense pressure to achieve; to be the best. That any grade lower than an A was pointless and that you need to resit your exams until your grades are at that exclusive A*. The worst part was, I thought this was normal. It was only when I was questioned about my grades during my work experience that I realised how wrong I was. I was ashamed to tell her about my B in science expecting her to be disgusted. Instead she responded with, “In my school that’s a really good mark, I wish I got B’s in all my exams.”
We were taught to compete against our friends and to look down on those who didn’t choose STEM subjects and instead opted for ‘soft subjects’. We were told that without a STEM subject and good grades we had no chance of getting into university. Oh and don’t get them started on students who don’t want to go to uni. These students were treated as lost little lambs whom teachers would frequently express concern for when they refused to fill in a UCAS form.
Because of this, I completely ignored my mental health in order to achieve high grades. This got worse when I changed schools. I went from comfortably being amongst the top of the class to competing with others for those top spots. It got to the point where I stopped going to school because I believed I was a failure. Again, I was wrong. And arrogant. Horribly arrogant. All the problems I had bottled up all erupted at once just before my exams.
Luckily, it didn’t have the worst impact on my grades. I may have got onto the course that I wanted but I also got left with depression and anxiety and I was incapable of dealing with failure. But who cares because I got the grades I needed.
I can’t say if these schools caused my mental health to deteriorate or not but I can say that it taught me a lot about what I don’t want to become. I don’t want to look down on people for making different life choices. I don’t want to be that girl that thinks she should get everything handed to her on a plate because of my education. But mostly, I don’t want to put anything before health and happiness.