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'The long shadow of the grammar school curriculum has so far seen off all comers'

Grammar schools continue to define the terms of debate around the very purpose of secondary education, writes one leading educationist

Steiner Academy Exeter has been warned by the DfE

Today’s debate about grammar schools focuses on the question of selection, but it is worth considering the very long shadow that grammar schools cast.

Even where they no longer exist, they continue to define the terms of the debate around the very purpose of secondary education.

The roots go down a long way, deeper than the tripartite system established in the 1944 Education Act.

Some schools have their origins in the post-Reformation practice whereby citizens of substance left endowments to support the poor of their home parishes. Usually this involved either "doles" for the indigent, or schools of some sort.

Many such schools grew by taking paying pupils in addition to the foundation scholars. Others atrophied, offering little beyond elementary education.

The transformation came in the late 1860s, when Gladstone’s government addressed the growing call for more school places. Elementary education became the responsibility of new school boards. Secondary education grew by galvanising the resources of the old "endowed" schools, and by repurposing non-educational endowments.

This was a double expropriation, insofar as funds languishing in depopulated inner city parishes were transferred to benefit the burgeoning suburbs.

A further wave of "grammar" schools followed, supported by county councils and offering social mobility through scholarships. Such pre-Second World War county schools featured in Winifred Holtby’s novel South Riding.

These schools were new in fabric and funding, but old in culture and curriculum. They self-consciously aped the ancient foundations in uniform, ethos and mottoes; and they reproduced their "liberal" curriculum, privileging the classics and adding a few more modern subjects.

They reflected the tendency of 19th and early 20th-century England to "invent" its traditions.

A curriculum designed to educate the elite

As the secondary school sector expanded to accommodate the growing middle class, it cleaved to a curriculum originally designed to educate the elite. The idea of a "liberal", academic, general education became the standard for secondary education, tout court.

England was not unique.

In the US, the Committee of Ten set out to standardise the high school curriculum in 1892, asserting that "every subject which is taught at all in a secondary school should be taught in the same way and to the same extent to every pupil so long as he (sic) pursues it, no matter what the probable destination of the pupil may be, or at what point his education is to cease".

Their list of prescribed subjects would be familiar to aficionados of the English Baccalaureate.

In England, alternatives were not just discouraged, they were strangled at birth.

Organic initiatives like London’s higher elementary schools (extending a practical curriculum beyond the compulsory leaving age of 12) were suppressed in the 1900s by legal judgments preventing rate-payers’ money from being used on anything beyond elementary education.

The only route for gifted but poor pupils was the scholarship ladder propped against the academic edifice of the grammar school.

Later attempts to design alternative routes, like technical schools and secondary moderns, have foundered on the failure to secure parity of esteem. The grammar school curriculum has so far seen off all comers. 

Dr Kevin Stannard is the director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust. He tweets as @KevinStannard1

For more columns by Kevin, visit his back catalogue

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