A thing of the past?
Grammar schools first became popular in the 16th century. Most towns established one, providing places for non fee-paying pupils. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, some became fee-paying public schools and others were absorbed into the growing state system. But it was not until the 1944 Education Act that the grammar schools' most distinctive feature, the 11-plus exam, became entrenched. The act established the principle of free education for all, but dictated that those passing an exam at 11 would have access to the better-funded grammar schools, while those who failed would be taught at secondary moderns or more vocational technical schools.
During the next 20 years or so, selection at 11 remained controversial and by the mid-1960s there was concern that testing was taking place at too early an age, that "failure" labels were damaging to children, and that the odds were stacked against working-class pupils making it into grammar schools. And girls were spectacularly outperforming boys in the 11-plus. So much so that most authorities introduced quotas; it is now estimated that without these quotas, two-thirds of places in mixed grammar schools during the 1950s would have been taken by girls.
Or a topical issue?
Many authorities moved towards a more inclusive comprehensive system during the 1960s and 70s. It was often, perhaps surprisingly, Conservative councils which led the campaign against grammars; when she was education secretary during the early 1970s, Margaret Thatcher closed more grammar schools than anyone before or since. But grammars didn't die. Although there are no grammar schools in Scotland or Wales (and the grammar school system in Northern Ireland is being phased out by 2008), 15 English LEAs are still fully selective, and a further 21 have some grammars. In recent years, the issue of selective education has become a political football.
Tory leader Michael Howard, who went to Llanelli grammar, has pledged that the Conservatives will reinstate a selective system. The Liberal Democrats want to abolish selection all together. Meanwhile, the Labour government, which promised in 1997 that there would be "no more selection" - and which says in its new five-year plan that it "will not allow an extension of selection by ability" - has kept existing grammar schools, while phasing out the "one-size-fits-all" comprehensive system in favour of specialist schools. Then, in late July, the cross-party Commons education select committee directly clashed with the Government when it accused it of presiding over the "continuing expansion of selection" in schools. In its report on school admissions, the committee says the Government needs "to explain how it reconciles its insistence that there will be no return to selection with its willingness to retain and increase selection where it already exists".
After all the arguments, 164 grammar schools remain, educating almost one in 20 of children in England, with numbers continuing to rise: in 1983, pupils taught in grammar schools represented only 3.1 per cent of the total; by 2004 this had risen to 4.6 per cent. Although some of the rise can be put down to the redesignation of eight schools as grammar in 1997, most is due to the expansion of existing grammars because of high demand.
The case for grammar schools
Parents, especially middle-class parents, seem to like them. In 1988, the Government introduced a ballot system which allowed parents to decide whether to keep them, or swap to a non-selective system. So far only one ballot has taken place, in Ripon, north Yorkshire, in 2000 when parents voted overwhelmingly to support the local grammar school. Earlier this year in Gloucester, the county council proposed halving the number of selective places by closing and merging schools. But during its public consultation, 82 per cent of parents voted to keep the existing four grammars and only 9 per cent voted for abolition. Supporters say that expanding selective education would boost the whole state system, by winning back affluent, well-educated parents, many of whom currently send their children to independent schools. At the other end of the social scale, they also claim that bright children from poorer backgrounds would get better opportunities, and that, because children are selected on ability rather than narrow catchment areas, grammars ensure a good mix of children from across geographical, social and economic boundaries. "Grammar schools give youngsters who are keen to learn, the chance to do so," says Brian Wills-Pope, chairman of the National Grammar Schools Association (NGSA).
"Because they tend to be smaller and have an ethos which really supports learning, they give more individual help to those who struggle, while stretching the brighter pupils." The NGSA points out that abolishing grammars and reorganising local authority structures would not only be costly but would mean more covert selection by high-performing comprehensives which would draw pupils from families able to afford inflated house prices in prime catchment areas.
And the case against
Many of the arguments against grammar schools are focused on selection at the end of primary education. Critics point out that, because children develop at different rates, it is hard to be sure about a child's abilities and potential at 11, and that passing an exam may come down to something as simple as whether or not a child is a summer baby, and so a few months younger than their classmates. They also argue that selection benefits children from wealthier backgrounds: many middle-class parents pay for coaching to get their child through the 11-plus, while evidence suggests that children from poor homes have often fallen behind the targets for their age group as early as seven. The Campaign for State Education (Case) argues that "there cannot be selection for the few without rejection for the many", and points to the difficulty in raising self-esteem in the majority of pupils who fail the exam. "Too often, the arguments look at schools rather than at children," says Margaret Tulloch, spokesperson for Case and secretary of Comprehensive Future, a group of Labour members, councillors and MPs who want to abolish selection. "If we just talk about the number of children who are in grammar schools, we're neglecting the effects on all the others who fail the test, probably three times as many.
This is not a marginal issue."
Supporters of non-selective education claim that abolishing grammars would create a better mix of ability and social backgrounds across all schools.
They argue that a well-managed, well-funded comprehensive can boast as good, or better, results than a grammar while teaching inclusivity and diversity.
So which is best?
The evidence for and against is often confusing and contradictory. At the end of 2003, supporters of selection were celebrating the publication of the "value-added" league table of key stage 3 test results which was dominated by grammar schools: they filled 44 of the top 49 places. Then a month later, when the key stage 4 "value-added" tables were published, it was the comprehensives' turn to crow: this time only three grammars featured in the top 100 ranked secondaries. Just to make it even more confusing, research also shows that selective areas outperform their comprehensive neighbours when it comes to making progress from key stages 2 to 3, but that the reverse is true at GCSE. Supporters of selection claim that if children perform well at key stages 2 and 3 it is almost impossible for them to improve enough at key stage 4 to make a dent in the "value-added" criteria, but the DfES points to a 2002 study by the National Foundation for Educational Research which shows that the most able pupils make more progress in comprehensives. The same studies, however, suggest that for "borderline" students, who just squeeze through the 11-plus, grammars are best.
Making the decision
With such a baffling body of evidence, it's probably no wonder that the Government has shifted the responsibility for deciding the future of grammar schools on to parents by allowing them to vote on selection in their area. But even this is far from straightforward. To trigger a ballot, at least 20 per cent of parents have to sign a petition. To be eligible, they must have a child attending a feeder school which has sent at least five pupils to a grammar school in the past three years, but only parents with children at or under the normal age of entry (usually 11) can sign. In addition, petitions are only valid for one specific grammar school (or group of grammar schools) and for the school year in which they are held.
If parents vote to maintain selection then no further petition or ballot can be held for five years, but if they vote to abolish selection, the new non-selective arrangements come into force two years after the result is announced.
Critics of the ballot system claim the complex eligibility rules often exclude those who would most like change and that voters get little information about what a different local system would actually be like.
They also suggest it is unfair to leave such a big decision to parents.
"The difference in academic results between selection and non-selection is not huge, but there are bigger national issues about staying-on rates, about the differences in attainment between rich and poor, about transport," says Margaret Tulloch. "It's too much for parents to have to take on." Meanwhile, many grammar schools are also unhappy with a system which makes future planning difficult. "We need some stability," says Brian Wills-Pope. "The whole question has become too political. We need the Government to acknowledge that grammar schools are working hard and doing a good job, and that they need a stable future and capital injection to build on this."
Who's choosing who?
Supporters argue that the key to a successful selective system is ensuring that all schools in an area work together closely, to provide every child with a school which suits his or her needs. "When it comes down to it, parents whose children don't get a place aren't upset at missing out on grammar school," says one selective head. "They're just frightened by the school they'll have to turn to next. It's not the quality of grammar schools that's at issue, it's the quality of the alternatives." The ideal of children choosing between a highly academic education, or a strongly vocational one, or something in between, depends on the alternatives being seen as "different" rather than "worse". At Homewood school in Tenterden, Kent, a comprehensive in a selective LEA, headteacher Derek Adam decided to respond "radically and positively" to the problem of being seen as "a school for those who aren't good enough". A five-term calendar, with the academic year starting in June, the division of a large campus into mini-schools, and a "unique range of diversity" in the 14-18 curriculum have more than doubled the GCSE pass rate, ensured a thriving sixth form, and, he says, has led to several "defections" from nearby grammars. "We don't select students, but students are now actively selecting us. They see we offer excellence and flexibility and they realise that we're the right school for them."
All or nothing?
While most grammar schools select all their pupils, a handful are a hybrid of grammar and community comprehensive, with a quota of total pupils chosen by academic selection. This can make for a complicated admissions procedure, and, since the quota is re-determined each year, long-term uncertainty. "We're much more closely scrutinised than full grammars, and much more vulnerable to interference," says Martin Post, head of Watford boys' grammar school, which selects 35 per cent of pupils on academic criteria. "Other schools can appeal against our quota: in 1997 our level of selection was at 50 per cent but it's been chiselled away. So now we have 600 applicants for 180 places, and dealing with all the appeals is hugely time-consuming. But we wouldn't defend it unless we thought it was important." Supporters of partial selection argue that it gives the best of both worlds: a fully inclusive, comprehensive ethos but with a critical mass of able students who create a good learning environment. They claim partially selective schools are attractive to staff, parents and pupils because they can rival top independents while avoiding academic hot-housing. "We're consciously academic and inclusive. Our school is always being attacked from afar on a matter of principle," says Martin Post. "But anyone who comes here sees that it works."
By the back door?
While grammars have been around for years, the growth of specialist schools and technology colleges has raised new questions about selection. There are 1,686 specialist schools, of which around 6 per cent use their right to select up to 10 per cent of their pupils on aptitude for a particular subject. Specialist schools can only select pupils on the basis of skills in, say, music or sport, whereas grammars usually select on the basis of academic achievement. But, as some observers point out, the difference can be slight. "Who can say that some reasons for selection are more morally right than others?" argues Martin Post. "In some ways grammars are just specialist schools that specialise in all-round academic excellence."
In addition, there are other schools in the state system which can choose the basis on which to admit pupils, including voluntary-aided and foundation schools. Research published in 2003 by Professor Anne West at the London School of Economics looked at the admissions procedures of 95 per cent of English state secondaries, and found that "a significant minority" use admissions criteria "designed to select certain groups of pupils and so exclude others". Professor West's research found that while 6 per cent of specialist schools operate some kind of selection, compared to 1.7 per cent of non-specialist schools, almost 9 per cent of voluntary-aided and foundation schools select their pupils, compared to only 0.3 per cent of community schools. As well as choosing pupils on academic ability, schools prefer children of former pupils or those with a family connection to the school.
The opportunities for "overt and covert selection" were shown to be greatest in London, where more than a quarter of schools had admissions criteria that were related to religion, and almost half of voluntary-aided and foundation schools commonly interviewed pupils as part of the selection process. With the Government's plans to extend foundation status, even more schools will get the right to set their own admissions criteria over the next few years.
But does it matter?
Fifty years ago, most children's futures were decided at 11. Failure to pass the entrance exam to a grammar school dictated much longer-term career routes: the chances of going to university from a grammar school were one in eight, but only one in 22,000 secondary modern pupils made it to the freshers' fair. Now grammars, comprehensives and specialist academies all send a large proportion of their students to university, and, while pupils from the most deprived communities are still under-represented, around 12 per cent of them do go on to higher education, with a quarter of students being drawn from working-class families. The Government's new plans to phase out the comprehensive system may mean that selection of one kind or another is here to stay, and that what matters is not the details of the system, but making it work for the individual child. "People say it's unfair to choose at 11, because some children develop later. But the fact is, people develop throughout their lives in different ways and at different times," says Martin Post. "So universities choose, and employers choose. All we can do is the best for the children we have at the time that we have them."
Main text: Steven Hastings
Pictures: Phil O'BrienHenry Grant
Additional research: Sarah Jenkins
Next week: Mental health