The Great Grammar School Debate Essay

Posted on by Kahn

Tomorrow's Budget is set to pave the way for a new generation of grammar schools, as part of a £500m investment in education reforms.

At least £320m has been earmarked to fund 140 new free schools with 70,000 new places, which look likely to include the first wave of state-funded selective secondary schools in years.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Prime Minister Theresa May says she wants to change the system so the "most academically gifted children get the specialist support to fulfil their potential regardless of their family income or background".

The proposals will be outlined in a schools white paper, to be published in the coming weeks.

The money will also go towards free travel for children attending selective schools to break down the restrictions for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, says May.

"The brutal and unacceptable truth is that for far too many children in ordinary working class families, the chance they have in life is determined by where they live or how much money their parents have," she writes.

The Prime Minister's mission to bring back grammar schools has proven divisive among politicians. It is almost ten years since the Labour government created a law to stop new selective schools from opening in England, although education policy is devolved in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner told BBC Radio 4's Today programme the project was "disgusting".

Here are some of the arguments for and against selective education.

Pros of grammar schools

They undermine privilege

Supporters of grammar schools argue that they undermine privilege. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who has described the decline in selective education as "a real tragedy for this country", has said they are "a great mobiliser and liberator", helping the "brightest children from poor homes".

Strong exam results

It is argued that grammar schools can deliver good results because teachers can push pupils harder, knowing that only the most able students are in the classroom. Selective state schools have produced some of the best performances in exam league tables. For instance, in 2006, pupils in England's 164 grammar schools produced more than half the total number of A-grade A-levels in "harder" subjects than those produced by pupils in up to 2,000 comprehensive schools, according to the National Grammar Schools Association.

Successful alumni

Selective education supporters often point to the list of high-achievers who were taught at grammar schools, including Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Margaret Thatcher, Anthony Hopkins, David Attenborough and Alan Bennett. Boris Johnson says the "beneficiaries" of selective education can be seen all over the House of Commons. When he was Tory leader, Michael Howard landed a rare rhetorical punch on Tony Blair when he said: "This grammar school boy will not take lessons from that public school boy."

Cons of grammar schools

They are divisive

Critics say that wealthier children are more likely to receive a place at grammar schools because their parents can pay for tutoring. It is also argued that neighbouring schools inevitably suffer. The former chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, has said grammar schools are "stuffed full of middle-class kids".

The 11+ is unfair

Former shadow education secretary, Lucy Powell, is an outspoken critic of grammar schools, which she says are "bad for social mobility and aspiration". She believes it is "wrong in principle to select children at the age of 11".

Rose-tinted nostalgia

Critics say that grammar school supporters are simply overwhelmed by nostalgia for a golden age of education that never really existed. In 1965-66, when the number of grammars was at its peak, only 18 per cent of pupils achieved five O-level passes and 6 per cent achieved three A-levels. By the 1980s, only 25 per cent of grammar pupils got five good O-levels and just ten per cent left with three A-levels.

Grammar schools have been in the news this week – Theresa May’s plans to reintroduce grammar schools is actually one of the most unpopular policies in her party  but despite this opposition, and more opposition from nearly everyone who knows anything about education, she seems hell-bent on bringing the grammar school back into the state system, so it looks like we’re going back to selective state education.

Hands up – I went to a state grammar school in Kent – so I’m a living, breathing example of someone from a working class background who benefited from a state-grammar education.

And get  this for a ‘school motto’ – ‘Knowledge is a steep which few may climb, while duty is path which all must tread’ (talk about hegemonic!) 

Despite appreciating the leg-up, I’m not so sure it’s a good idea to expand grammar schools nation wide, despite widespread parental support for the policy.

What are grammar schools?

In short, they are schools which focus on providing an academic education based on selection by ability, typically through an entrance test at the age of 11.

The term ‘scholas grammaticales’ was first use in the 1500s when monarchs, nobles and merchants founded schools for ‘poor scholars’. In Tudor times, pupils were taught to read and speak Latin by learning classical texts from heart. School days spanned from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. and boys caught speaking in English were punished.

The big expansion of grammar schools came with the 1944 Butler Education Act, which launched the tripartite system – every pupil sat an IQ test at the age of 11 which determined which of three types of school they went to for the next 4-5 years –

  • Grammar schools were established for those ‘interested in learning for its own sake’
  • Technical schools for those ‘whose abilities lie markedly in the field of applied science or art’
  • Secondary modern schools for those who ‘deal more easily with concrete things and ideas’.

There was supposed to be ‘parity of esteem’ between these three types of school – which means difference but equal in principle.

How successful was the system?

Basically it was great if you were one of the 20% pupils who made it into a grammar school,  which tended to have a public school type ethos and prepared students for ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels, there is also  a commonly held view that these schools offered a ‘ladder of opportunity’ to bright, working class students, although this may be a comforting myth, rather than the reality (see below).

On balance, there seem to be more failings of the tripartite system:

  1. There was no parity of esteem because the secondary moderns were poorly resourced and pupils were taught a watered down curriculum.
  2. The system branded anyone who attended a secondary modern as a failure from the age of 11.
  3. The 11+ didn’t measure intelligence – it was easy to coach children to get higher scores, which benefited the middle classes.
  4. There was no equality of opportunity – In the 1940s and 50s few secondary modern pupils took public exams and when they started to take them, they were typically limited to CSE exams rather than O levels.

Why was the Tripartite System Abolished?

The county of Leicestershire was the first to experiment with a new comprehensive system in 1957, to placate the parents of children who had failed the 11+, and by the late 1950s, there was mounting evidence that the 11+ was a flawed measure of intelligence and that secondary moderns provided a sub-standard of education.

In 1965 the then Labour government issued a circular requesting that all Local Education Authorities abolish  the 11+ and move to a non-selective, comprehensive system – effectively meaning they had to abolish grammar and secondary moderns and establish comprehensives.

However, it was only in 1976 that Labour brought in an education act that formally required all counties to go fully Comprehensive.

How did some grammar schools survive? 

Some local authorities dragged their feet and clung on until the Tory election victory of 1979, when Thatcher repealed the 1976 act. England today has 164 state grammar schools – Kent is one of the few which is wholly selective.

Arguments for reintroducing grammar schools 

  1. Proponents say they will provided a ladder of opportunity for poor, bright kids.
  2. Possibly the best argument – we’d see the withering away of private schools – whose going to pay £10K a year when you can get a similar quality of education for free?
  3. Comprehensives are not good enough – we need more, quality education to prepare our brightest kids to compete in a global job market.
  4. We already have selection by mortgage, grammar schools may help remedy this.
  5. There is strong parental support for more grammars.

Arguments against grammar schools

  1. Number 1 is a myth – the reason so many bright working class kids seemed to benefit from a grammar school education in the 1960s was because of a change in the class structure at that time – basically the decline of working class jobs and the increase in middle class jobs meant there was more opportunity to go up the class ladder. This no longer applied.
  2. It’s unfair on those who don’t get into them.
  3. The 11+ favours those who can afford private tuition – so all we’re going to see is the reproduction of class inequality, then again, if we have quotas, this may not be the case (fat chance of that actually happening fairly though?)
  4. Standards are currently improving, so do we need to disrupt schools AGAIN with ANOTHER policy upheaval?


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