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Myth: A return to grammars would improve standards

Analysis | Published in TES Newspaper on 27 November, 2009 | By: Adrian Elliott

Adrian Elliott questioning the assumptions behind attacks on comprehensive education

Original paper headline: Myth: ‘A return to grammar schools would improve standards and social mobility’

Despite all three main political parties now broadly supporting non- selective education, the issue remains controversial with many commentators who claim the return of grammar schools would raise standards and social mobility. In my view, the evidence suggests neither would be improved.

Supporters of selection usually ignore secondary modern schools, while taking the excellence of grammars for granted. That aside, exactly how good were grammar schools in that “golden age” from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s, before the arrival of comprehensives supposedly wreaked social and academic havoc?

One common error is to portray the results of high-achieving direct grant schools, such as Manchester Grammar School and Bradford Grammar School, attended by fewer than 10 per cent of selected pupils, as typical of all grammars.

In 1959, grammar school pupils represented the brightest fifth of their age group, yet nearly 40 per cent failed to pass more than three O-levels. Complacency seems to have been endemic. In one Dorset grammar inspected by HMI in 1956, a third of pupils left with no O-levels, yet the report concluded that this school, which took only the brightest 17 per cent, was “good”.

Nevertheless, concern about underachievement was present, even then. A supporter of grammar schools, GH Bantock argued that “they had to pay more attention to their lower streams”, a remark clearly relevant to my own Sheffield grammar, which was described as “a good school which has put its house in order” by HMI, but where fewer than 15 per cent of the “B” and “C” streams (still the equivalent of today’s top comprehensive sets) passed five O-levels between 1957 and 1961. This had nothing to do with early leaving: they relate only to pupils who had stayed on and passed at least one exam. No strident claims about exams being harder can explain away these results.

If exam results hardly support claims of academic excellence, neither did HMI’s comments at the time. In researching my recent book, I examined hundreds of inspection reports, and discovered that the proportion of grammar schools in the 1950s that inspectors found unsatisfactory (around 20 per cent) was as high as that of secondary moderns. Although most grammars and secondary moderns were good, the proportion of poor schools was far higher than today.

“Years of difficulty lie ahead” was the inspectors’ view of a Cheshire grammar, while they found that “problems with education in the widest sense remain” at a Liverpool school. Above all, the low expectations and wastage of talent in secondary moderns - where at least 15 per cent of children were capable of taking O-levels, although only 4 per cent were entered even for one subject - was appalling.

Supporters of selection point to standards in today’s grammar schools, at home or abroad, as proof of the superiority of the system. But the performance of grammars cannot be judged in isolation. Selective areas such as Kent and Lincolnshire have large numbers of poorly attaining schools and here, as elsewhere, many so-called comprehensive schools have their intakes skewed by neighbouring grammars. Nor do international comparisons support the selective case. The PISA study of school performance across the world found in 2006 that “early differentiation of students by school is not associated with better results overall”. Finland, the highest-achieving country in most international studies, is fully comprehensive.

The argument that, in the past, selective education provided poor children with a ladder of opportunity compared with comprehensives today is equally dubious. The percentage of the population deemed working class by the Registrar General 50 years ago - 75 per cent - was three times that of today. So to accurately compare the academic achievement of working-class children today with those in the 1950s, the performance of the poorest third from then, those from unskilled and semi-skilled families, needs to be analysed. In reality, only a very small number went to grammar schools and many who did ended up with no, or few, qualifications.

A 1950s Ministry of Education study found that fewer than 0.3 per cent of pupils leaving with two A-levels were from the unskilled working class. Even among the top grammar school streams, a third from the poorest backgrounds left without an O-level. Many poorer children left even before taking public examinations.

Even before the 1944 Act, a child at grammar school was often a sign of an already upwardly mobile working-class family. Rhodes Boyson, a minister under Margaret Thatcher, was portrayed as the archetypal poor boy who succeeded solely as a result of his grammar school education. But what was cause and what effect? His father was a full-time union official and councillor who, unusually, owned his house before the war. He was even chairman of governors at Rhodes’ school.

In 2005, a report from the LSE claimed that British society had become less equal since the late 1950s. The researchers looked at two cohorts of boys, born in 1958 and 1970 respectively, and claimed that social mobility was more limited for those born in 1970 than for those born in 1958, in marked contrast to Germany, Canada and Scandinavia, where mobility across all income groups had increased.

Many commentators blamed this on the abolition of grammars. Nick Cohen wrote “long live grammar schools” in The Observer, while Tim Luckhurst in The Times argued that “only a blend of ideological zeal and intellectual dishonesty” could now defend the comprehensive system.

The report suggested that a key issue in social mobility was the decision whether to stay on at school or not at 16. So the crucial dates were not the years the past pupils were born but when they received their secondary education and when they decided to stay on after the fifth form. For the 1958 cohort, the year they turned 16 was 1974.

By then, more than 70 per cent of pupils were in comprehensive schools. The neat assumption that those born in 1958 would be educated within a selective system and those born in 1970 a comprehensive one is simply wrong. Both groups were highly likely to have attended comprehensives.

Those who use the report to attack comprehensive education also ignore the fact that the countries said to have the greatest social mobility, the Scandinavian nations and Canada, are all fully comprehensive.

The debate will continue and, of course, there are outstanding selective schools and poor comprehensives. But those who dismiss supporters of comprehensive education as dishonest or zealots should revisit the evidence before rushing to judgment.

  • Adrian Elliott is the author of ‘State Schools since the 1950s: the Good News’ (Trentham Books)

Final myth next week “Teachers today neglect the basics to peddle left- wing, PC propaganda”

Selective return?

  • People who have argued for a return to grammar schools this year include former shadow home secretary David Davis, who said they were “the greatest instrument for social mobility ever invented”.
  • A 1950s Ministry of Education study found fewer than 0.3 per cent of pupils leaving with two A-levels were from unskilled working class.
  • Among those in the top grammar school streams, a third from the poorest backgrounds left without a single O-level.
  • Research published by the Sutton Trust this year, which gathered data on the top quarter of academic achievers at 11, found under 2 per cent of children in grammar schools received free school meals, compared with 5.5 per cent in non-selective schools.

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Comment (12)

  • While I agree with Mr Elliott that there should not be a total abolition of the comprehensive system, I would argue that parents should be able to have selective grammar schools in their area if they want them. The article also makes a number of dubious claims. First, the argument that O-Levels were harder than GCSEs has nothing whatever to do with grammar schools. The reason Finland tops the PISA table is primarily because the Finnish government made a great emphasis on coaching its pupils for the PISA tests. His point about social mobility being lower than Germany now also ignores the fact that German has far more selective schools than the UK. Finally, his argument that Scandanavia and Canada are wholly comprehensive makes no mention of the education vouchers available in Sweden and Norway or the fact that Canada has traditional private schools like we do!

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    27 November, 2009


  • I attended Manchester Grammar School and frankly it wasn't a great education for me at all. If you weren't Oxbridge material or interested in a 'good' university then they weren't bothered.

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    28 November, 2009


  • Being someone who has seen an appalling drop in teaching standards over the last 20 years, I do believe that teacher training in this country needs a serious overhaul if the state of education in this country is to improve. However, it doesn't matter how brilliant any education system is - grammar or comprehensive, private or state, or how brilliantly teachers are trained, how hard everyone works to fulfil their legal obligations, when children are continuously allowed to claim so many rights and are allowed to blame eveyone else for absolutely every aspect of their negative behaviour that they ride rough shod over everybody else's rights, i.e. those of other children in the class, those parents of these other children, those of the teacher (yes, I realise it's as good as a crime to even suggest that teachers have rights) then the farce that is called education in this country will continue. While children's rights are absolutely necessary, only chaos can result from blindly dishing out rights left, right and centre like sweets at lolly scramble with no consideration to children's obligations to consider anybody else but themselves.

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    29 November, 2009


  • Roving teacher - some of your points may be valid but I take exception to blaming teaching standards!

    Perhaps my memories of being taught 20 years ago are faulty. I had good teachers but I remember a couple who would probably be in prison today, many who were boring, many who were weak and a couple who obviously spent most lunchtimes down the pub (they were entertaining at least...). If I taught every lesson by dictation or by getting people to work for 60 minutes from a textbook today, or taught the same lesson three times because I couldn't remember we'd done it before, I would be rightly be in trouble.

    I also remember the poor trainee teacher who was given no support but just thrown into a classroom - and who committed suicide a few weeks later. Perhaps we're a little better in supporting each other now?

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    30 November, 2009


  • I went to one of the top girls' grammars in the south (in Bucks), leaving after A levels in 1982. I have a mediocre set of qualifications. Some of my friends left without any. I have often thought about why I achieved so little. Clearly I must take on some of the responsibility, but there is no doubt, that from the day I started, I found it boring. I was not a difficult child or a trouble-maker. However, I had been in a primary environment that had encouraged children to be independent learners. This was the complete opposite of what was on offer at grammar school, where everyone had identical sets of notes dictated by the teacher. My own children are now both at secondary school and I believe are provided with a much more inspiring education than I was offered. Whilst improvements can always be made, I don't believe that going back to a system that creates failures at every turn (like the 11+ or the O Level quota system) is a good one either.

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    30 November, 2009


  • I went to Brighton, Hove & Sussex Grammar in the late 1960's. The standard of teaching was good though almost entirely didactic.
    The one thing that the grammar's had was a standard of discipline that would be the envy of most teachers today. All the students knew that if you stepped too far out of line they would kick you out!

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    30 November, 2009


  • I get really fed up with this argument. Isn't it the case that grammar schools still exist in Kent? Isn't it the case that Kent's academic results are roughly the same as other areas of the country? Isn't the evidence that grammar schools make no bl**dy difference at all? They don't make it better; they don't make it worse. It's just different. We are always being encouraged to embrace diversity. How come the same people who want diversity in all other aspects of life want homogeneity in education? Incidentally, isn't it funny that nobody working in a grammar school militates for their abolition? The only people jumping up and down and getting excited are those who work in non-grammar schools. It couldn't be a case of sour grapes, could it?

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    1 December, 2009


  • Grammer schools do make a lot of difference. The fact is that those grammer schools that do and I have worked in a few need more challenging work. The GCSE and "A" is not taxing enough. A look at the league tables will indicate that grammer schools do a lot better and so they should if they end up in schools where there is less disruption and pupils of their ability.

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    2 December, 2009


  • Hi Janeattes,

    Can we assume you didn't teach English?

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    2 December, 2009


  • Selection will return with the next government. At 14 pupils will be able to choose to go the academic route to university or to a vocational college. This change in our education system will provide a sensible route for the many non-academic 14 year olds, who would be far better off learning skills for the job market, rather than causing disruption during lessons of the boring national curriculum. Since 1998 the curriculum has ignored the future artisans of our country and focussed on the Blair fantasy of every young person getting a university degree with no job at the end of it. Ken Baker

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    3 December, 2009


  • Grammar schools waste enormous amounts of talent and only fuel elitiism in the system. I went to a boys grammar school in the 1970s, only the top 15% of the 11+ cohort were selected and, as Adrian Elliot points out, many pupils left with less than 5 O level passes. Grammars, and independent schools in my opinion, do nothing for our economy other than perpetuate our stifling class system. Abolish them and independent schools, parents should not have a choice about where their children are schooled. Our education system should be be freed from this reductive consumerist model and be founded on principles that benefit the economy and wider society, not just the middle classes. School cohorts should be engineered to create a broad social mix. There should be no place for priviledge. We may then be able to create a society that is fit for the 21st century.

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    19 December, 2009


  • >parents should not have a choice about where their children are schooled< This might work mukiwa.
    If a mixture of children were obliged to go to every secondary school we'd be able to say many pupils left without GCSEs from all schools - sorry, I forgot, that happens already.
    We need schools where the well behaved children, whether bright or not, can learn without fear of reprisals from the yobs.
    For me, Grammars were often populated with some of the nastiest, snobbiest pupils and parents I have ever met.. You could deal with it two ways; have a face that fitted or keep your head down.
    The local secondary was a terrifying place for children who wanted to learn. Being a worker meant that you couldn't afford to join after school clubs unless you were lucky enough to be good at sport as well. Otherwise you had to leave with the crowd to ensure safe arrival at home.
    Let's not think big city here either. this was semi rural Cheshire and then later small town Lancashire.

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    23 January, 2010


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