“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