The big debate: the case for and against grammar schools

12th August 2016 at 11:22
It's one of the biggest talking points in the profession at the moment: should the government allow the launch of a new generation of grammar schools? Here, two teachers ague both sides of the selective schooling debate

‘Reformers can’t ignore what parents want'

With reports that Theresa May is preparing to usher in a new era of grammar schools, teacher John David Blake explores the case in favour of selection. Scroll down to read the argument against

It is no secret that the new government is giving serious consideration to permitting grammar schools to expand. A return to the selective principle has been metaphorically verboten in English politics since the late 1960s, and literally illegal since the late 1990s. So why, then, would the new prime minister Theresa May be considering this?

One reason, with which I have growing sympathy, touches on how the political class engages with the majority of parents across the country. As the recent EU referendum result has shown us, beyond the bounds of the London tube network lies a whole world that has gone unrecognised and unrepresented for a political generation.

According to a recent ComRes survey, fully half the population of England supports the reintroduction of grammar schools, and only 10 per cent oppose it. Many will be shocked by that statistic (I know I was) since education policy discourse, on both the Left and the Right, does not even remotely reflect it.

Instead, both parties have fought for educational reforms – school autonomy, greater choice of provider, curriculum change – which I consider worthy, but which were never as popular with the hard-working families of provincial England as selection. While these parents are not on the breadline, they have neither the money nor, actually, the inclination to buy their children private education, yet the political class will not offer them the state schools that they want.

The revolution falls short

Both parties might object that instead of grammar schools, these parents have been provided with great non-selective schools. Recent reforms have focused on delivering schools with knowledge-rich curriculums and strong discipline: hallmarks of grammar school education. Certainly, it is true that exceptional individual schools and whole multi-academy trusts (MATs) now exist that deliver this ethos without the need for selection.

But this revolution has not gone far enough, nor fast enough, to satisfy the demand for traditional schooling in the country at large. The borough in which the Palace of Westminster stands has a total of eight “outstanding” secondary schools for a population of 226,000. The county of Hampshire, where I grew up, has a population of 1.32 million people and a mere 13 “outstanding” secondary schools.

The message that there are great non-selective schools is no use if those schools are all in London and you live in Basingstoke. When it’s your child stuck in the coasting comp with poor behaviour, it is cold comfort to be told that distant politicians think that this is the best system overall and that improvement will come eventually.



If school reformers accept the need for continuing improvement in England’s education system, the evident parental demand for grammar schools ought to necessitate consideration of their possible value, in which – for at least a moment – doubts about selection are put to one side.

The government certainly needs experienced educational partners if it is to realise its dream of an all-academy system, and there is not yet sufficient capacity among non-selective MATs. To be sure, not all grammar schools are currently achieving strongly enough given their advantages, but many of these schools have the experience and capacity to expand and to deliver high-quality education.

A shock to the system

Potentially of greater impact is the “system shock” that permission to expand grammar schools would bring. The introduction of academies and later free schools broke monopolies in the provision of education, but, perhaps as importantly, they also broke the complacent mindset of those providing schools who found they had new, innovative and challenging neighbours.

Just as the threat of forced academisation of failing schools, or the imminent arrival of a new free school, was a strong incentive to poor providers to improve their own schools, so the challenge of introducing selective schooling into an area should spur on those who have taken for granted the support of local parents. If those who deliver schools wish to keep their area “free” from selection, they had better ensure that their non-selective schools are delivering the education that local parents want and children need.

Undoubtedly, grammar school expansion raises serious questions: who gets into any given grammar school and what happens to those who do not can be genuinely problematic, and no government considering expansion could afford to ignore access and alternative provision. Equally, the government should not be in the business of undermining those successful non-selective providers it has helped to build.

Necessary safeguards

If the government were to pursue this course, I’d suggest the following safeguards. To begin with, when creating new schools or allocating improvement partners for failing ones, neither selective nor non-selective providers should receive preferential treatment. The criteria should relate to capacity to deliver improved education for the affected children.

The expansion of grammar schools should not herald a return of “secondary moderns”. Poor curriculum provision, lack of access to qualifications and bad behaviour should be a thing of the past for all students in all schools.

The strong accountability systems that now exist in English education assist with this and new grammar schools should also have a role: any grammar school given permission to expand should be required to form a MAT with one or more local non-selective schools, and their continued running of the selective school should be conditional on the success of all schools within the MAT.

Tests for access to grammar schools should follow nationally agreed criteria and be overseen by the exams regulator Ofqual. As part of any settlement involving the expansion of grammar schools, the pupil premium should be reworked to favour not simply those children on free school meals, but the children of (crudely) the upper-working and lower-middle classes in order to incentivise all schools, including grammars, to avoid domination by the wealthy.

Permitting the expansion of selection is fraught with risks, politically and educationally. It is certainly no silver bullet. But nor was comprehensivisation or many other reforms pursued in the past 40 years. Given the strength of feeling, it seems to me that education reformers cannot ignore parental desires simply because it makes them feel uncomfortable. Wherever possible, sensible and democratic government should go with the grain of the people and not against it.

John David Blake is a history leading practitioner in a non-selective multi-academy trust and a writer on education. Find him on Twitter @johndavidblake


‘To win the battle, let the numbers do the fighting’

It’s a moot point whether grammar schools provide a leg-up to poor, ‘bright’ pupils, because too few actually get in, argues former ministerial adviser Tom Richmond

“A unique and irreplaceable educational ladder for the bright children of poor parents”, Margaret Thatcher once wrote of grammar schools. Seeing as selective education had catapulted her from being the humble daughter of a grocer to prime minister, her enthusiasm for grammar schools was understandable. Ironically, she oversaw the closure of more grammars than any other education secretary during her tenure from 1970 to 1974, although, in truth, this was the result of regulations introduced by the previous Labour government to expand comprehensive schooling.

So here we are, almost 40 years after Thatcher became Britain’s first ever female prime minister, debating whether the country’s second female prime minister is about to pick up the grammar school mantle. To assess whether Thatcher’s assertion still holds true today, we need to consider two questions. First, do grammar schools focus on bright children? And second, do grammar schools side with poor parents?

With regard to the first question, the situation remains unclear. The extent of private tutoring means that the entrance tests used by grammar schools have become highly controversial. The often mechanistic nature of the tests mean that those pupils who have benefited from additional coaching and practice papers (at a cost of up to £60 an hour) can hold a considerable advantage over their less fortunate peers, irrespective of whether they are “brighter” or not.

A quick show of hands at the grammar school where I used to teach consistently revealed that about 80 per cent of my pupils had been tutored; some for several years prior to their entrance test. Attempts to introduce a tutor-proof entrance test in Buckinghamshire appear to have produced mixed results thus far. The idea that grammar schools contain bright children is therefore questionable, as “bright” has long since become entwined with “tutored”.

The second question of whether grammar schools help poor parents delivers stark results in many directions. Research in 2006 by the University of Bristol found that “those educated in grammar schools do substantially better – around four grade points more than pupils with the same key stage 2 points in similar, but non-selective, areas”. This was equivalent to raising four GCSEs from a grade C to a B – a huge and potentially life-changing uplift if you are from a poorer family. However, the same research found that “overall there is little or no impact on attainment” because other children within selective areas who do not gain a place in a grammar school perform slightly worse.

A separate analysis in 2013 by Chris Cook – then a journalist at the Financial Times – of the overall performance in local authorities that still housed grammar schools similarly noted that “as a way to raise standards or to close the gaps between rich and poor, it is hard to find evidence that they are effective”.

If a child from an underprivileged background can get into a grammar school, the benefits can be considerable. Sadly, this is no longer a common occurrence. Only 2.6 per cent of pupils at grammar schools are eligible for free school meals compared with 14.9 per cent across all schools.

Less than 0.1 per cent of grammar school pupils have special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) with a statement or education, heath and care (EHC) plan, compared with 1.8 per cent nationally, while the proportion of pupils with SEND that is not sufficiently severe to be statemented or have an EHC plan is 4.2 per cent at grammar schools and 12.4 per cent nationally. Research by the Department for Education in 2008 also found that grammar schools had about half the number of pupils from low-attaining ethnic groups compared with their local area. As researchers at the University of Bristol had already deduced, “the paradox is that grammar schools bestow greater advantages to poor children than more affluent children, but very few make the cut”.

Understand the bigger picture

In light of these figures, it is easy to wave a fist at those who support the continued existence or expansion of grammar schools. Yet the statistics, as ever, tell only part of the story. In my experience, the most fervent supporters of grammar schools have typically been beneficiaries of them. If the research evidence is correct, grammar schools can deliver a transformative impact on the life chances of someone from a low-income background.

I can imagine that having a school propel you from a tough upbringing into a long and successful career is an enormously empowering journey. Nevertheless, even Thatcher understood the bigger picture: “The real thing about education is not the arrangement or organisation of it so much as what goes on in the schools and whether or not you are succeeding in teaching the young people what they ought to be learning, teaching them lessons and experience suitable to their talents, equipping them for life outside and bringing out all of the many facets of talent that each and every child has within him.”

Rather than leave you reeling from the thought that you just agreed with Margaret Thatcher, allow me to offer some advice. Assuming that the government is not brave enough to repeal the 1998 legislation banning new grammar schools, they have a few other levers at their disposal, such as free schools (“parents in this area want a new selective school”) or the rules on school expansion (“all good schools should be allowed to expand, including grammars”).

Such measures, even if they require some legislative tweaks, are certainly plausible. Should we find ourselves in the coming weeks and months faced with a prime minister or education secretary claiming that more selective education is the way forward, don’t argue with their motives or sing the praises of comprehensive education or criticise them for harking back to years gone by.

Instead, ask one simple question: how many disadvantaged children attend grammar schools these days? In the end, this is a battle between what grammar schools were and what they have become. As the Iron Lady once said: “You may have to fight a battle more than once to win it.” My advice is to let the numbers do the fighting for you.

Tom Richmond is a teacher and former adviser to ministers at the Department for Education @Tom_Richmond

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