We Should Revisit The Issue Of Grammar Schools

Britain has a long history of fine education. We can lay claim to two of the most famous higher educational institutions in the world, Oxford and Cambridge. Universities which are themselves two of the oldest Universities in the world. By the middle ages, scolae grammaticales were set up by the Church to teach its languages: Latin and Greek, and by extension, they became an entrance point to the Church-dominated city-Universities of the country for those students who showed prowess.

It was early meritocracy, and grammar schools were increasingly set up throughout the 16th and 17th centuries as acts of charity by wealthy noblemen and merchants for the sake of boys in their local area who were able to get a place for what was then a rare education. Throughout their history, such schools were always selective, taking only boys who demonstrated a certain level of aptitude for ancient languages and core subjects.

Grammar schools were early British meritocracy

In the 1940s the first vestiges of fully funded state education were introduced. With it came a so-called “tripartite system” consisting of maintained (fully state funded) grammar schools; grammar schools which charged fees and received a local government grant; and secondary modern schools – the precursor to the modern state comprehensive. Upon the abolition of the tripartite system in 1970s, (as an attempt by the then Labour government to standardise education and eliminate what they saw as an elitst education system) some grammar schools were closed, the majority merged with other local schools to create non-selective state comprehensives.

Some grammar schools were allowed to become independent, and became what are now referred to as fee-paying “private schools”. 164 grammar schools remain, and as a compromise, retain their selective status despite being state-funded. The majority are part of the new “academies” scheme with greater control of management of the money they receive. In 1998 Tony Blair’s Labour government banned any new grammar schools from being founded in an attempt to prevent the comprehensive system, as he saw it, from being undermined. David Cameron refused to touch the issue during his time as Prime Minister.

In 1998 New Labour banned expansion of grammar schools

Now we have a new Prime Minister, and a new Education Secretary. Many have speculated that Theresa May is sympathetic to opening new grammar schools and repealing the ban. Justine Greening also recently gave an interview claiming to have “an open mind” on the issue. But what does this mean for our education system? Already the crows of leftism are circling and preparing to come down hard on any attempt to expand the grammar school system. They, however, as I believe they are so often wont, misguided in their opposition to grammar schools. With a grammar school being my own alma mater, I suppose I must be at least a little biased, but I shall present my arguments forthwith, and leave the reader to interpret what he or she will from them.

Could Theresa May open more grammar schools?

Grammar schools are wonderful things. They fit in with the state education system nearly perfectly, since their curriculum is still governed by the same regulations as other state schools, and hence, the basics of education itself are not compromised. However, by having a selective system for both boys and girls who perform above average in eleven-plus exams, we not only allow for greater social mobility within our society, but also fundamentally improve the education system itself. Just as is the case with society as a whole, natural inequalities will always exist – since every human is born different physically and mentally it is ridiculous to suggest that every child is the same clean slate. There will always be some people in society who are not conventionally “clever”, there will always be those who are of average intelligence, those who are above average and those who are genii.

Grammar schools allow for greater social mobility

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Let’s put all these people into the same classroom in a state comprehensive. Those who are not interested in the slightest in learning begin to cause trouble, as they always do, and the teacher takes time out of the lesson to deal with them. The lesson is disrupted, the education damaged or unnecessarily postponed. Those who were willing to learn are denied what they wished for, and suffer for it in their own work. Let’s take the top 25% out of that class and place them in a grammar school, where some of the best teachers are present, they succeed and listen in class, are able to form good relationships with their teachers, and secure for themselves the futures that they dreamt of. Which sounds more successful to you?

Not everyone in society is conventionally “clever”

There is of course the argument that grammar schools encourage good teachers to leave state comprehensives for grammar schools – but this is somewhat null. A good teacher cannot teach well if his or her time is constantly being wasted or delayed by large quantities of students who would much rather “doss around” than learn the subject matter presented to them. Now, there will always be some intelligent people in state comprehensives, just as much as there will always be some students who wish to “doss around” in grammar schools, but the selective system greatly reduces the problem by filtering the system into two manageable wholes. Perhaps most importantly, it creates aspiration – both in intelligent children who seek to strive for the best schools and universities and in teachers who wish to show themselves to be of good enough quality to educate some of our brightest students.

If we did not have selective state schooling, the best teachers would in all likelihood defect to the private sector, where bright children from low income backgrounds could not access their expertise, and the state system would stagnate into a quagmire of children from all ends of the spectrum of intelligence, struggling to advance in their studies due to bad pupil management.

The speed of the slowest student is just too slow

Many of our state comprehensives succeed in passing their students through their GCSE and A level exams – and that’s exactly what they need to do. The majority of students go on with the prospect of finding a job somewhere, perhaps not the most academically rigorous, but that was never what they were cut out for in the first place. There will be more behavioural trouble than other schools perhaps, but we have systems and disciplines for dealing with such problems. We should not sacrifice the education of the best and brightest for the sake of a few who are not cut out for higher-level education.

Many on the left claim that the grammar school system undermines the state comprehensive system, as they want everyone to have the same level of education, since they see it as more egalitarian and “fair”. I do hate to break it to the left, but it is rare in functional societies for everyone to have the same. We need to be moving forward in education, as the word itself means “leading out” our children, not dragging them all down to the same level for the sake of meaningless and impractical egalitarianism.

We should not drag all students down in the name of egalitarianism

By seeking to remove grammar schools from the system, the left are in fact removing the very thing that offers clever children a chance for a good education in the first place. The glory of grammar school selectivity is that, since there are no fees to pay, the poorest child can be educated by the best teachers, regardless of their parents’ financial situation. It is, if anything, one of the most beneficial schooling systems for the working class, and every child should have the chance to try for one.

As a final note, it is interesting to note that Justine Greening has remarked that the Tories’ new grammar schools may not be “old fashioned” grammar schools. It’s quite a baffling statement and I am not sure what to make of it – the academy-status grammar school derives from an ancient history, but does not itself follow particularly “old fashioned” methods of teaching today… It seems to me to be a wholly unnecessary statement, which only sows anxieties in my mind as to what the exact nature of these potential new grammar schools may be. This policy suggestion is something worth watching closely. I will be doing so with great interest and scrutiny.

2 Comments
  1. Tig says

    As someone who lives in a grammar school area I see the harm it does to divide children using a test at age 10. Kids learn together successfully in mixed ability primary schools, and almost all the teachers I know in those schools tell me the test is inaccurate and unfair. The idea of ‘filtering the system into two wholes’ sounds very organised, the reality is quite different.

    The ‘filtering’ is heavily influenced by winning points in a test using paid-for tutors. This means poorer children have less chance of a school place. I suspect this didn’t use to go on, but parents these days Google pass rates and swap tips on 11+ forums. The buses of Kent drive around with ads plastered on them for for Prep schools boasting of their Kent Test results.

    The 11+ test itself has no science to it. No one has ever proved that age 10 is the best time to judge a child’s ability. Nor has anyone ever proven that a few hours of multiple-choice papers is an accurate way to prove anything about future success. Hard work and a good attitude are not even considered by this odd test. Many children develop late, many fail the test because they excel at maths but have poor literacy skills, many don’t even take the test because their parents don’t like it. So this neat filtered divide you talk of is actually very messy and imperfect.

    I am not on the left, I am a Conservative, and I agree with your point that children are not the same, and they do not always need the same education. However all the evidence I’ve read suggests ability and strengths are better judged in the teenage years than at primary school, and a test score based on one day is an awful way to decide a future, and it’s not at all right to consign a child to a school with worse teachers based on this.

    We have rigorous testing of every child throughout their school life these days, SATs are a good thing. We don’t need an 11+ and to put ‘clever’ children in a separate building at age 11. We just need to hold schools accountable for the results and outcomes for bright children. We should see that any school that fails its brightest pupils gets an Ofsted fail. Bright children should not be underachieving, and we can set clear rules to stop that happening to any child, in any school.

    In Kent there are as many bright childen in the secondary moderns as the grammar schools, due to the imperfections of the test itself. Those children are underachieving in a completely grammar school county. Disadvantaged children in Kent achieve worse results than almost any other county, and we have more failing schools to boot.

    The argument that every child is different is a good one, but you say this and then assume every child can be judged into two types to fit your system. Do you want them to be ‘different’ on the test day, or are there just two types of child then? You generalise about the behavior of ‘less clever’ children, who you’ve deemed worthy of schools with worse teachers. I hope you will look at evidence from grammar school areas. These schools are not bringing about great educational change in counties like Kent, our results are average, our poor children do worse. The only thing that’s different here is that we have a major industry in tutors and grammar school appeal advisors who charge £1000 a day.

    1. Ben Mackenzie says

      I don’t think he’s arguing for a second that every child can be judged into two types. I think he’s making the argument that everyone should be given the same opportunity, but those who are better placed to take the opportunity be offered it.

      As he said, not everyone is meant to be academic, it would be far better that they spend more time doing what they are good at, rather than trying to make everyone into academics.

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