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Newport grammar school head in challenge to old boy Jeremy Corbyn

Telford | News | Published:

If one believes the adage that all publicity is good publicity, then Gary Hickey should this week be a very happy man.

The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader has thrust Adams' Grammar School into the national spotlight like never before, as commentators have pored over his time there in the 1960s.

Mr Hickey, who took over as headmaster at Adams 12 months ago, was quick to congratulate the former pupil on his appointment, which he says has been a talking point among current students.

But his message of goodwill also came with a challenge – an invitation for Mr Corbyn to return to his old school to see how it has changed.

Mr Corbyn, who admitted he "wasn't a very good student" during his time at the school, has been consistent in his opposition to selective education during his 32 years in Parliament. He has spoken of his dislike of the cadet force programme which he refused to take part in, and when his former wife Claudia Bracchitta expressed her wish to send their son to a grammar school, it spelled the end of their 12-year marriage.

However, Mr Hickey, who has been at Adams' for six years, believes that the Labour leader might change some of his views if he spent a few hours at his old school.

Mr Hickey, who is softly spoken and impeccably polite, is proud of Mr Corbyn's achievements. But he says his outspoken comments are based on outdated preconceptions, and is convinced that if the Labour leader returned to Adams' and met pupils, he would be impressed.

"So far, Labour's education policy has been a little vague – that's not a criticism, it's just early days at the moment - and we're waiting to see how it will flesh out," says Mr Hickey.

"But if Jeremy came back to see how the school had changed since he was a pupil here, I think he would see that selective schools do have a role to play as a force for social mobility."

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Jeremy Corbyn divides opinion like few other leaders in mainstream politics. But there is little doubt that the former Shropshire schoolboy has certainly got people talking about politics again.

But what do the pupils at his old school, Adams' Grammar in Newport, make of him?

Olivia Lowe, Jack Withers and Ben Broomfield, all aged 17, are studying politics and government.

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Olivia, from Newport, says she had never heard of Jeremy Corbyn a year ago, until his surprise elevation to the front bench.

But the fact that he is an Old Novaportan – the collective name for former Adams' pupils – has led to pupils taking a greater interest in political matters.

"The fact that he went to this school has been a bit of a talking point," she says. "I think it makes some feel proud of the school, while others are a little bit worried, depending on what their viewpoint is." Jack, who lives in Dudley, said Mr Corbyn first came to his attention when he was reading the school's page on the website Wikipedia.

As a Labour Party member, Jack took part in the recent leadership contest, although despite his school loyalties, the eventual victor was not his first choice.

"I had Andy Burnham as my first choice, and Jeremy Corbyn as my second," he says.

"A lot of Labour supporters do support many of Jeremy's policies like nationalisation, but if the party is to win elections it will need to attract voters from other parties."

And Mr Corbyn's opposition to selective education?

"He doesn't like grammar schools," says Jack. "I can see where he's coming from, but I can see both sides of the argument, and there are some very good arguments for grammar schools.

Ben, from Shrewsbury, said he first became interested in politics at around the time of the Scottish referendum, and also closely followed the General Election.

"It's quite an exciting time for politics in the UK," he says.

Ben says he had a vague recollection of who Mr Corbyn was from conversations between his parents about the war in Iraq, but knew little about him until he entered the leadership race.

"The first time I heard him speak was on the radio," he says.

"I was initially interested when I heard he was a pupil of this school, but when I read he didn't really enjoy his education here, and didn't really support selective schools, I was a little disappointed."

Ben added: "He has definitely made young people more interested in politics, though."

Mr Hickey, who previously taught at Ercall Wood Technology College, a state comprehensive school in Wellington, says there are many misconceptions about grammar schools today.

"People think we are a fee-paying school, but we are not. People think we are a very rich school, which we most certainly are not," he says. "People think that most of the children go to a private prep school before they join us, but that is not the case, we have children from single-parent families, we have got pupils from families who are on low incomes.

"We are a state school just like any other, with the same battle for resources as any other school in the state sector. In many respects, the differences between us and a comprehensive school are not as great as some people think."

Many people support the principle behind grammar schools: that talented children, regardless of background, should be offered the chance of a more intensive form of education which would allow them to compete with privately-educated pupils.

Critics such as the Labour leader argue that far from being a force for social mobility, selective education tends to favour children from well-to-do backgrounds. There have also been arguments that an 11-plus style entrance exam is a blunt instrument, leading to children labelled as "academic" or "non-academic" at an early age.

Mr Hickey acknowledges that this has been a problem in the past. "There is a culture of parents from relatively affluent families, often from outside the area, paying private tutors and coach their children to get through the tests," he says.

"That is a big bugbear, people who are able to pay for extra coaching are putting their children at an unfair advantage, and that is not what it should be about at all. We have tried hard over the years to modify the test so it is as tutor-proof as possible."

He adds that from next year there will also be a catchment area which will favour pupils in Newport and surrounding areas.

Mr Hickey says much of the opposition to grammar schools is based on outdated perceptions. "By definition, the experiences that Jeremy Corbyn talks about are based on what it was like 50 years ago," he says. "A few decades ago you went to a comprehensive or a grammar, and that was it.

"The perception was, that decided your future, and if you went to a comprehensive you would follow a working-class route through life. But that shouldn't be the case – a grammar school should be a route into social mobility."

He says in recent years the school has put greater emphasis on preparing youngsters for apprenticeships, as well as getting youngsters into top universities.

Mr Hickey says parents today have agreater choice of schools, with grammars playing a complementary role to academies, specialist schools, and comprehensives.

* Adams' Grammar School holds its annual open week from September 28 to October 2. See www.adamsgs.org.uk for more.

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