The Great British Grammar School Debate: 5 Things You Need to Know

For most people in the UK, grammar schools are associated with the past, belonging to an age of black-and-white TV and children playing with a hoop and stick.

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But now there are moves in the English political system to end the ban on new grammar schools and fund their introduction. (This is only the case in England, as education is a devolved matter in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). There are still 164 state-funded grammar schools in the UK, but that’s compared to nearly 1,500 in their heyday. Whether or not grammar schools should be reintroduced is now being hotly debated across British politics. While the Conservatives and UKIP are broadly in favour, and Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens are broadly opposed, there are many dissenting voices on both sides. In this article, we look at why the issue is so controversial, and what the possible outcomes mean for parents, students and teachers across England.

What is a grammar school?

A grammar school in the sense that it’s being used in the current debate is a selective state school for students aged 11 to 18. At the age of 10, students who wish to apply for the grammar school sit an exam called the 11-plus, and those who pass are accepted into the grammar school. A typical 11-plus exam consists of Maths, Verbal Reasoning and Non-Verbal Reasoning questions, the latter two types of questions resembling IQ test questions. The pass rate varies depending on the grammar school in question; some grammar schools will calculate who is accepted depending on how close they live to the school and how many applicants they’ve had that year as well as the raw score that the applicant gets on the test.

Grammar school entrance focused specifically on verbal and non-verbal reasoning.
Grammar school entrance focused specifically on verbal and non-verbal reasoning.

When what’s usually referred to as the ‘grammar school system’ was at its height, from the 1940s to the 1970s, grammar schools existed in a three-part structure alongside technical schools and secondary moderns. The idea of a technical school was to focus on training for science and industry, but the idea never really caught on, and at most 3% of secondary school students in the UK attended one. Secondary moderns were much more widespread, taking in the vast majority of students who had been rejected by grammar schools. They offered fewer opportunities for students to take exams, and traditionally only taught pupils from 11 to 15, as after that age, secondary modern students were expected either to go to a grammar school for sixth form education, or go out to work.  
Going further back, the reason why they’re called grammar schools in the first place dates to medieval times, where they were schools (usually attached the monasteries) in which the main focus was the teaching of Latin. The earliest schools along these lines date back to the 6th century, though they weren’t referred to as grammar schools until the 14th century. While the curriculum widened from its focus on Latin to cover subjects such as logic and rhetoric as well, Latin remained priority. Following the reformation, the desire to be able to understand scripture in the original languages caused Greek and Hebrew to be added to the curriculum of some grammar schools.

Grammar schools are so called because of their historic link to the Classics.
Grammar schools are so called because of their historic link to the Classics.

From the 18th century onwards, the desire for an education in classical languages waned. Good teachers of the Classics became harder to come by, and schools began to add subjects such as arithmetic and English. And alongside grammar schools, a huge variety of other schools were established; no nationwide system of education existed until 1947, so schools were set up along a variety of different lines in a system that served some areas and some groups of students much better than others. Yet the existing grammar schools, some of which had medieval origins, were seen as a model of good educational practices when the 1947 reforms to education were designed, leading to their name being retained for the new nationwide system.


Why do some people want the system back?

A key argument made in favour of grammar schools is that they aid social mobility. Because they are supposed to select students solely on the basis of academic merit, rather than on the basis of family wealth, religion or anything else, bright students from poorer backgrounds get a chance to succeed. The proponents of grammar schools believe that they give students from disadvantaged backgrounds a better chance of succeeding than an equivalent comprehensive (i.e. non-selective) school would do. But it’s worth noting that this claim has been strongly contested – see later in this article for the opposing perspective.
What is not usually disputed is that the students (poor or otherwise – more usually otherwise) who are selected into grammar schools do better there than they would do in an equivalent comprehensive. This makes logical sense; brighter students are usually better behaved, and a school full of bright, well-behaved students is naturally going to end up with good results. Grammar schools fill the top places of most league tables of school results, including against private schools that may also operate their own form of selection. As Theresa May noted in her speech, 80% of existing selective schools are rated outstanding, compared with 20% of state schools overall.

Brown attended a comprehensive, unlike Major, Blair, Cameron, and May.

Looking at the Prime Minister offers a neat case study in what people hope grammar schools will achieve. Of the five prime ministers who went to school after 1947, one attended a comprehensive (Gordon Brown), two attended private schools (Tony Blair and David Cameron) and two attended grammar schools (John Major and Theresa May). It’s long been argued that the dominance in leadership positions of people who went to private school can only be beaten by grammar schools, which act to propel the most promising pupils to the top in the same way that private schools enable access to an outstanding education for those who are lucky enough to be able to afford it.
Put bluntly, for some advocates of grammar schools, it seems as if the elite in British society can either be private-school educated (there because of their parents’ wealth) or grammar-school educated (there because of their own academic ability). Many people support grammar schools on the basis that the latter seems more meritocratic than the former. It’s worth noting that at the same time as Theresa May announced her support for more grammar schools, she also threatened the funding of private schools by suggesting that they would have to meet much more stringent requirements to obtain charitable status.

Why are others opposed to grammar schools?

You might have noticed words like ‘seems’ cropping up quite a bit in the point above. That’s because a lot of what has been claimed or assumed about grammar schools is far from settled.

Eligibility for free school meals is often used as an indicator of low household income in the UK.
Eligibility for free school meals is often used as an indicator of low household income in the UK.

Take the point about social mobility. One measure used in the English education system is the percentage of pupils at a school receiving free school meals. Children are eligible for free school meals if their parents are receiving various benefits associated with low income; it’s a handy, if imperfect, proxy for poverty levels. Less than 3% of students currently at the handful of grammar schools left in England receive free school school meals, compared with 20% across all other state schools. That suggests that grammar schools are not helping poorer students currently, as poorer students very seldom get accepted into grammar schools.
Why might that be the case? One reason is that the 11-plus, like almost any test, becomes easier to pass with tutoring. Wealthier parents can afford tutoring for their children to boost their chances of passing, while poorer parents can’t. In fact, some parents see their choice as not grammar school versus comprehensive, but grammar school versus private school; and paying for a tutor for a couple of years is a lot cheaper than paying private school fees for seven years. Then there’s the fact that disadvantaged children may not be getting the same encouragement to even attempt the 11-plus as their wealthier peers.
The statistics on grammar schools and social mobility are not promising. Research from the Financial Times suggests that despite the claims made about grammar school education, poorer children actually do worse in areas where there is still a strong grammar school system in place, and the real beneficiaries in terms of improved attainment are the children of the rich. If you look at all school students in areas with a selective system – without separating them out by wealth – compared with areas with a non-selective system, there’s no indication that a selective system improves average attainment, and it may have the opposite effect (with so few grammar schools still remaining, there are issues with sample size).

Far from increasing social mobility, grammar schools often end up leaving the poorest students behind.
Far from increasing social mobility, grammar schools often end up leaving the poorest students behind.

The problem is that while it’s generally agreed that a full grammar school system is good for the 15-20% of the population of students who pass the 11-plus and get into a grammar school, it has a negative effect on the chances of the remaining 80-85%; and that’s the group that poorer students are more likely to fall into. Lots of people favour bringing back grammar schools, but scarcely anyone has a good word to say for secondary moderns.

What’s actually being proposed?

The current proposals are more symbolic than anything else; they don’t currently amount to a return to a fully selective system, with a full grammar school/secondary modern split. Instead, the suggestion is that the ban on new grammar schools that was imposed by a Labour government in 1998 will be lifted, and £50 million per year will be provided in order to fund the expansion of existing grammar schools if they are rated good or outstanding.

May is keen to foster variety in the education sector.
May is keen to foster variety in the education sector.

It’s worth noting that £50 million per year, in terms of education funding, is not a lot of money. The average secondary school spends £5,200 per pupil per year, so £50 million represents just under 10,000 pupils – or the funding for roughly 12 schools for a year. There are over 3,000 schools in England, so it doesn’t seem likely that the impact of 12 extra grammar schools will make much difference.
Also noteworthy is that Theresa May has explicitly stated, “there will be no return to secondary moderns”. Instead, she promised “to build on our increasingly diverse schools system”. As noted above, many people oppose grammar schools not because of the grammar schools themselves, but because of the students left behind and told that they have failed, being sent to underperforming secondary moderns. May’s idea is that there will be an ever-greater range of schools in England, including faith schools of various different kinds, comprehensives, free schools with divergent curricula, and grammar schools – but the range of schools available will mean that students who don’t get into grammar schools shouldn’t feel like they are getting a second-rate education. To help overcome the issue of social mobility, new grammar schools would have a quote in place to take a certain number of students whose parents are on low incomes.
But while the ideas currently on the table represent a very gentle commitment to selection, that is more of an acknowledgement of a particular group of voters than a radical change to the education system, the removal of the ban on creating new grammar schools could herald a return to a fully selective system if a subsequent government decides this is a route they would like to go down.

What’s likely to happen?

The House of Lords could prove an obstruction to the bill.
The House of Lords could prove an obstruction to the legislation.

Theresa May’s Conservatives have only a narrow majority of 12 in the House of Commons, but any change in the law is likely to get through all the same, barring a significant and unlikely rebellion by her backbenchers. This could yet happen if, for instance, recently sacked ministers on the backbenchers decide to revolt, but there have been no strong suggestions that they would.
Getting the legislation through the House of Lords will be more of a challenge, as the Conservatives do not have a majority there. The House of Lords traditionally don’t block government legislation that comes from their manifesto, but as this idea was not in the 2015 manifesto, that tradition doesn’t hold. There are 255 Conservative Lords, 209 Labour Lords and 105 Liberal Democrats, alongside crossbenchers and those from other parties – and with Labour and the Liberal Democrats both firmly opposed to grammar schools and prepared to unite against them, the government may yet face an embarrassing defeat.
Image credits: notepads; swings; calculator; ancient greek temple; gordon brown; canteen; piggy bank; theresa may


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