Grammar schools: Why all the fuss?

In the post-referendum shakeup, one of the more controversial plans to come out of Downing Street has been that of re-introducing grammar schools in the UK. It has been a major bone of contention in parliament, and caused much debate among parents who all have their own views on the merits of such a selective schooling system.

What are grammar schools, and why were they previously halted?
Grammar schools are state secondary schools whose pupils are selected based on a specific examination – better known as ’11-plus’ – taken by children aged 11. Those who pass this exam are admitted to their local grammar, while those who don’t are either left with the choice of going to their local secondary modern school, or stumping up for private school.

Grammar schools certainly aren’t extinct, and there are over 160 of them in England (with a further 69 in Northern Ireland – none exist in Wales or Scotland) at the moment. But they are comparatively niche to the comprehensive system, whereby pupils of all abilities are taught collectively.

In the 1950s and 60s the claim arose that grammar schools entrenched class division, and reinforced the privilege of the so-called middle class. As a result, Government ordered grammar schools to be phased out from 1965. In the years since, numbers in England and Wales have plummeted from roughly 1,300 to just 163 today, and in 1998, Labour introduced an official ban on the introduction of any new selective schools.

So why are they being brought back?
As a grammar school graduate herself, the new Prime Minister has indicated a willing to reignite the era of selective schooling. Certainly in previous decades, grammar schools have been looked upon less favourably by those in Labour constituencies as a general rule, with Conservative-controlled areas generally reacting slower to the phasing out grammar schools in the past. That goes some way to explaining the divide across political lines.

But the appeal of grammar schools is also understandable. The performance of state schools, and the trends thereof, are arguably mixed at best. Grammar schools thus offer the opportunity to promote social mobility, with lower-income families not stymied by the extortionate costs of private education, and in turn ‘condemned’ to the alleged inferior quality of state schools.

Counting against grammars
Of course, while the concept of selective schooling might appear to be on side with social mobility, the evidence doesn’t necessarily support this case. In fact, less than 3% of grammar school attendees are on free school meals, which is considerably lower than the average of 15% across comprehensives in the rest of the UK.

There is also the issue of self confidence, with the 11+ exam effectively telling those that don’t make the cut that they’re not good enough. In addition, there is also no correlation between grammar school attendance and performance. Kent – a county which has a fully selective secondary school system - provides a good example here in that results from pupils are, at best, in line with the national average.

Right question – wrong answer?
It’s a controversial topic, and many different parents will have different opinions. Perhaps one thing most would agree on is that change is needed within the schooling system. It would seem that household income and quality of education are becoming more and more correlated, which isn’t a good thing. Costs of raising a child are estimated to be in the region of £230,000 until the age of 21. Added to that, many students find themselves struggling with debt – both during their studies and thereafter.

Clearly costs are a huge barrier when it comes to education across all levels, and it is a growing problem for Generation Y and millennials. But are grammar schools really the answer? Perhaps a better option would be instead turn attentions to investment in state schools, and addressing inequality by increasing funding – rather than cutting it.

This is certainly not to dismiss the merits of grammar schools entirely. But grammar schools will arguably only help a lucky few from lower-income families. By instead focusing energies – and finance – on the comprehensive system, perhaps a wider collective will benefit.
Thanks For Reading
*This is a collaborative post.
  1. Education isimportant. Opportunities need to made available for all children. They should be able to attend their local school, and receive good quality education. How can that be done? Maybe lessons can be learnt from the private sector, I believe they encourage the children through giving them time :- appointment with Headmaster for discussions / chats which are positive. Headmaster and Teachers Praise pupils / students for good work, good effort. Sports opportunities and sports facilities.

    Rachel Craig

  2. Very topical
    11 plus was stopped the year o started secondary school
    I tend to agree with you that there should be an overhaul of secondary state provision -some of my friends got "picked on " in the grammar schools due to being poorer than other pupils which left them feeling inadequate
    Many issues need to be looked at more closely before any decisions are made


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