The problem with the grammar school debate

Grammar schools, those schools in England that select pupils on ability at the age of 11, are once again in the news due to the government allowing an existing grammar school to open an ‘annexe’ in Sevenoaks, effectively bypassing existing legislation that prevents the opening of new selective schools. Unsurprisingly, and despite protestations from Nicky Morgan that the door is not now open, other areas are looking at using this loop-hole to open up new selective schools. Whereas a few years grammar school expansion seemed something of an archaic interest supported by a handful of devotees, it is now very much once again part of the contemporary education debate.

I should set out my position here clearly: I am no fan of the 11+ and academic selection for secondary school. I have spent many years arguing with friends who like the idea of selective education that grammar schools are part of the problem and not part of the solution, and I have rolled out every argument in the book. Grammar schools do not support social mobility. Grammar schools are mostly full of middle-class children whose parents pay for private education and tutoring. Grammar schools unfairly write-off around 80% of children as non-academic. And so on and so on. I still support all of these arguments: there is simply no evidence that grammar schools, at least in their current form, help to rescue ‘bright kids from poor backgrounds’. What data we have are highly complex and resistant to simple generalisations, but it would seem to be the case that more children lose out than gain in regions where selection at 11 continues.

And yet grammar schools remain popular with parents and children, not to mention large numbers of political and media commentators. Why is this?

I do not doubt for a moment that social class plays an important role here. When you hear that girls in one grammar school refer to the other school as ‘oop comp’ then you know that social elitism is alive and well. There always will be some parents for whom getting their son or daughter into grammar school will give them years of middle-class-bonus-points at dinner parties, family get-togethers and Christmas card catch-up letters. I hate the way that a child’s education gets used in this way. But, equally, I think nearly all parents want a decent education for their children, and many see grammar schools as offering this. To write off all of the arguments in support of grammar schools as elitist snobbery will always fail to deal with the fact that parents are naturally ambitious for their children.

So what is it that parents like about grammar schools?

This I think is the question that is too rarely asked. Too much of the debate about grammar schools is about ‘social mobility’, but I do not think many parents or children factor this in when making their choices. I would suggest that the following – whether real or perceived – are what attracts parents to grammar schools.

  • Good behaviour
  • An academic curriculum
  • Traditional school structures
  • Consistently high examination results

I know. I generalise. Of course I do. Factors affecting school choice are incredibly complex, and will vary based on local environment and particular circumstances. But I would wager that – if asked why they wanted their son or daughter to go to a grammar school – then these are the things that would come up most consistently. It is also a list of things that encourages parents who can afford the extortionate cost to send their children to fee-paying schools.

And here is the thing. Grammar schools (and fee-paying schools) will always be popular while non-selective schools do not provide these things or – perhaps more importantly – show that these things are central to their mission.

The fact of the matter is that – currently – pupil behaviour in grammar schools is likely to be consistently better than in non-selective schools. Obviously I am making no claims here to absolutes – there are non-selective schools that have much better behaviour than grammar schools. But, in general, grammar schools are seen as places where ‘bright’ children can study without distractions. All non-selective schools offer academic subjects, but many are cautious about selling themselves as an ‘academic school’. I have lost count of the number of times where my blog posts or comments on Twitter about making non-selective schools more academic have drawn criticism from other teachers and educationalists, but these kinds of views simply feed the perception that selective schools are ‘more academic’. And academic education is not about getting pupils a Grade C in Maths and English. It isn’t even about entering pupils for the EBacc. It’s about the very culture of a school and what it sees as its primary purpose. If non-selective schools aren’t singing from the roof-tops about the rich academic experience they are offering their pupils, then it is hardly surprising that parents will see selective (or private) education as offering a better route.

To be clear, every time a teacher or school leader says that an academic education is elitist, they are giving ammunition to those who want a selective education system.

Traditional school structures – such as house systems, prefects, traditional uniforms, particular sports (rugby, hockey, cricket), widespread instrumental tuition, large orchestras – are the trappings of a private education, and this certainly attracts parents to selective schools which offer these things but without the eye-watering fees. Whether you like these things or not, there is a demand for them: there are a significant number of parents who like it. You may disagree (and of course there are many parents for whom these things are not important) but, again, every time you speak out against these things you should not be surprised if some try to look elsewhere for schools that do provide them. You do not need to be a selective school to offer these things, but many grammar schools do, and thus the link between selective education and traditional education is cemented in the minds of parents and pupils.

And then we come to exam results. Selective schools – by their very nature – will nearly always get better results than non-selective schools. Value-added measures are confusing, all the more so given that there is a ceiling on attainment both at Key Stage 2 and at GCSE which makes it difficult to say whether selective schools are any better at pushing their pupils than non-selective schools. But, to return to the previous point, it is difficult to make the case that a pupil will get the same level of academic education in a non-selective school as a grammar school if the school is bashful about pushing a rich academic education. We are not going to win the grammar school argument with reference to complex progress measures because a large part of the argument is based on provision as much as on outcomes. Until non-selective schools show that their academic provision is as good (or indeed better) than selective schools, then it is very difficult indeed to argue away the disparity in results.

This post will anger and upset some people, of this I am sure. Selective education is a highly sensitive issue that brings out strong emotions in people. I personally do not like academic selection at 11, but that is because I think that an academic education is an entitlement for the vast majority of children. A grammar school curriculum for all children is our best bet of winning the argument over selection at 11.

The implications of this are stark. If you argue against an academic education for the vast majority of children, then you are prolonging the existence of grammar schools. If you argue that academic education is elitist, then you are prolonging the existence of grammar schools. If you argue that there are some children for whom an academic education is not appropriate, then you are prolonging the existence of grammar schools. If you argue that children should have the choice to pursue vocational subjects at age 13 or 14, then you are prolonging the existence of grammar schools.

If you want to see an end to selection at 11, then you need to be arguing that the majority of children are academic, and that – up to the age of 16 – a stretching academic curriculum is what is right for them.

An academic education is not elitist. It ought to be for everyone.

Further Reading

The following are some of my other posts on the importance of an academic education for all.

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13 Comments on The problem with the grammar school debate

  1. Tom Burkard // 24 October 2015 at 16:56 // Reply

    It’s not often I disagree with you, but I grew up in the US where all schools have always been comprehensive. My main memory is of the clocks. The minute hands advanced in jumps of one minute. These were the longest minutes of my life, and there were an awful lot of them in those 12 years. My grades weren’t perfect–they always hovered between B+ and A-. To be honest, I simply could not be bothered–at least until just before my 16th birthday and hence my driver’s license. My mother was convinced that my grades would drop even further if I were allowed to buy a car (I worked hard out of school and could afford one), so getting all A’s was the condition for being allowed to have a car. It didn’t require any additional work–rather, I just had to pay a bit of attention in class rather than daydreaming, so I had no trouble getting my car.

    At the U of Michigan, we had an lecturer from the UK who was quite frank: British students were much better prepared for HE. And when I immigrated to England, I was embarrassed at the gaps in my education compared to friends who’d been to grammar schools. I’ve always been a voracious reader, so I hope that by now I’ve caught up!

    Otherwise, the arguments you make are compelling. We will always have social stratification, but what’s a bit scary about the modern world in the lack of contact between the extremes, and especially between the lowest classes and everyone else (except for a few teachers and social workers). On one hand, the welfare state could be viewed as the price the rest of us are prepared to pay to keep the lumpenproletariat out of sight. On another, the modern office block–divorced physically as well as socially from the rude mechanicals who actually produce the goods and services we all consume–is a concrete a symbol of this growing isolation. The only time I’ve ever seen close contact between social classes was when I served in the Royal Pioneers.

    I’m not sure what the answer is, but not that long ago I watched my step-son follow an even more perilous trajectory through secondary school and 6th form. He’s one of the brightest kids I’ve ever met, but is he ever ill-educated, even after doing a BA in Politics. University has now been dumbed down to accommodate the expansion of higher education, and even Oxbridge and Russell Group universities have been affected by the emasculation of the curriculum.

    Whatever the answer may be, it certainly is not ignoring the plight of the brightest and best. From what little I’ve seen of G&T provision, it’s such a pale shadow of a traditional grammar school education as to be a joke. Let’s face it: without the competition from other bright kids, there’s less incentive to work hard. Even if grammar schools have very few pupils from C-D-E families, at least they generally give a good education to a lot of bright kids who would otherwise suffer very much as my step-son and I did. And we will still have the frantic bidding for houses near good comps which are at least as socially stratified as a grammar, if not more so. Until we can think of a better solution, I would be very loath to take selective schools off the political menu.

    • I think I’d say that we should be doing all we can to get comprehensive schools pushing the same level of academic education as a grammar. Same for universities – academic posts are so competitive that nearly all universities have exceptional staff in mainstream academic disciplines. No reason why the curriculum offered at Oxbridge (for example) shouldn’t be taught elsewhere.

      • Tom Burkard // 24 October 2015 at 20:08 //

        Schools can be no better than their teachers. The notion that our teachers can be ‘pushed’ to produce more is worrying–who’s going to do the pushing? On past form, Ofsted is the only logical candidate, and they are far better at creating more pointless work for teachers than raising standards, even by the degraded subjective criteria that characterises so much of our assessment.

        I’ve visited Michaela school and I know that children from disadvantaged homes can achieve quite amazing things in the right school. But how many people are there in England who have the drive and determination of Katherine Birbalsingh? And what are the chances that Michaela could ever become a training school pumping out teachers totally unpolluted by the kind of nonsense that we are fighting? With upwards of half a million teachers in England and an intransigent system of ITT and CPD, there is no way that any but the most intelligent policies could significantly improve the quality of the workforce in less than a generation. Already we have primary school teachers who have no more than C grades at GCSE English and Maths–teachers who couldn’t calculate a simple percentage or write a grammatically correct sentence of more than ten words. It’s a bit of a death spiral, and at best Gove managed to halt it. Where will we find another Gove to reverse it?

        Another point which worries me: the 11+ is not an inevitable feature of grammar schools. It should not be beyond our wits to create more flexible criteria, and to provide additional support for pupils who want to go to a grammar school. I’m afraid that there’s no getting around it: opposing grammar school is going to condemn a very significant number of highly-able children to suffer the kind of boredom and waste I wrote about earlier. England cannot afford to waste its most able children.

  2. Warren Valentine // 24 October 2015 at 17:09 // Reply

    I have a few concerns. A few disclaimers of my own. I work in a state grammar school. I am of working class origin and benefited enormously from a grammar school education. I have an open mind, and I’m aware my views are just that, views, and not facts, and welcome persuasive responses that challenge my views.

    1) “Grammar schools are mostly full of middle-class children whose parents pay for private education and tutoring”

    This is palpably untrue. Our intake is not perfectly representative of all of society. However the use of the word “mostly” is a gross distortion of the truth. Our intake represents the many, not the few, with a significant number of students from a huge variety of social, ethnic, socio-economic, linguistic backgrounds. The families that make up our intake include families with students in both academies, LA Comprehensives and our grammar school. Our intake is incredibly varied.

    2) ” Grammar schools unfairly write-off around 80% of children as non-academic”
    “When you hear that girls in one grammar school refer to the other school as ‘oop comp’ then you know that social elitism is alive and well”

    If students are able to look down on the offering of a “comp” school then let us look at how we might improve comprehensive education to a standard where they cannot be looked down upon but valued with equal success. If you want an even society, we need much more drastic change than playing with grammar schools. Society will always be divided, and the provision of education will always be a part of that. The culture of grammar schools is wonderful for some, but not all. Why deny students’ this style of education if it fits for them. Lets instead see how we might give all students a fair shot at achieving it.
    I’d also take brief issue with the characterisation of grammar students. From experience they look fondly upon the offering of academies in our area, and rightly challenge us as teachers and a school to provide them with the best experience. Lets ensure all students get that, within grammar and without. The issue isn’t selection, I suspect.

    3) “All non-selective schools offer academic subjects, but many are cautious about selling themselves as an ‘academic school’.”
    All of your comments in this vain seem to challenge the issues with secondary modern schools and run counter to ‘what parents want.’ These are different debates entirely. I am intensely aware that your post is not an attack on grammar schools but the debate surrounding them but the logical conclusion to your thoughts seems to be that we should not have grammar schools. I, again, would like to see rigorously academic non-selective schools. This could and should be achieved.

    4) “A grammar school curriculum for all children is our best bet of winning the argument over selection at 11”
    On this, we agree. Perhaps I have, at all too young age, lost the faith that it might ever be achieved, and therefore – given my own experiences – naively cling to grammar schools as the best half-way house we can do towards achieving this.

    • Common points in the debate here. In brief, for (1) I was referring to the FSM proportion. Is it closer to national average in your school? (2-4) I’m afraid I would like to see grammar schools go, but only if the curriculum offered in those schools became the norm for all schools. If a grammar school offers same curriculum and level of academic rigour as non-selective, then there’s not much argument left for the existence of the former.

      • Warren Valentine // 24 October 2015 at 17:23 //

        Closer to the national average but I admit we have problems here. However I have problems with speaking solely with reference to FSM. I will – hopefully – proudly one day send my children to a grammar school, without the FSM label, having attended myself in the days preceding such a classification. I was helped by a quality primary education (scratch that, one quality primary teacher who supported me through years five and six). Shouldn’t we put the spotlight onto primary schools for this – I know many refuse on principle to back their students to have a shot at going to a grammar school. This is morally indefensible.
        On your latter point, it is at such a point that I would become a willing convert. My experiences though are that in too many schools, the behaviour, culture, academic standards, curriculum and aspiration in state comprehensive schools are fundamentally lacking. I would never support turning over the excellent, bright, academic students who compete with each other for success into such a system. There is a gaping moral hole in that argument about the fate of other students – but I think you would agree with me – losing grammars tomorrow would not fix the quality of their education.

      • Agree on latter points. Do you not feel a moral obligation to those you reject at 11?

      • Warren Valentine // 24 October 2015 at 17:31 //

        “Agree on latter points. Do you not feel a moral obligation to those you reject at 11?”

        Excellent, challenging question. Absolutely, I do. How to support such students is not something I have an answer to. I’m also emotionally invested in the system which saw me succeed, provides me with a job that I love and supports the students I see day in and day out. If it helps my moral credibility our school is increasingly working with local primaries to give all an academic experience for all students and to support more for the selection tests.
        Any other ideas what I could do, other than being a Turkey voting for Christmas, are gratefully received and would be acted upon as far as practically possible!

        I would also point out that I don’t envisage a career solely in grammar, and would willingly transport my views on a comprehensive, thorough, academic history education to another local, comprehensive school at the appropriate times in my career where schools can be found that foster and support such a culture.

      • Sadly I think it will be some time before that culture is widespread.

  3. Requires Improvement // 24 October 2015 at 19:33 // Reply

    I think the important (but hard) thing is to separate the type of education provided by grammar schools from the admissions process. The argument in the Butler era- that each type of school was right for its intended clientele- didn’t convince for long.
    In practice, the 11+ exam allocated a scarce expensive resource to those best placed to benefit from it. That was reasonable in the 1940s, but is more problematic now.
    A big remaining question is whether academic secondary education is still a scarce resource. It’s hard to see why it should be. In practice, though, the sort of education provided by good comprehensives isn’t seen as matching grammar schools. Hence the scramble away from comprehensives.
    So-
    1. How can the bulk of comprehensives get to a position where they offer a seriously academic education?
    2. What if it isn’t possible?

  4. I think the arguments you make here are important ones Michael. The notion of dividing kids on ability at 11 is concerning at the very least because it frees like a point when so many have not yet begun to approach their educational potential. Equally I think your point about a lack of parity in provision is a crucial one. I do however believe that a high quality technical education from the age of 14 might be appropriate for some students, but only if their access to a traditional curriculum was not removed. One of the most striking things about demands for education in the historical context (especially from socialist revolutionary movements) is their demand for a high quality academic education for all students. There is no reason that this could not be dovetailed with a high quality technical education with the correct investment.

  5. I live in a village which has some high achieving state comprehensives, some low-middling state comprehensives and a well regarded private grammar school. I have 2 Primary school children and the majority of my friends in the village have similar families.

    When we talk of secondary schooling – some are just 1 year from that decision – it’s rarely the curriculum that is discussed (all the schools offer the full range of academic subjects); very occassionally school structures (and only ever about sporting opportunities, never ‘houses’ etc.).

    The vast majority of discussion is based about student behaviour and the fact that ‘disruptive children’ and ‘disengaged children’ getting in the way of their child progressing well in class (wasting time, eating teacher time and, perhaps, peer pressure to not work themselves).

    In terms of results the notion of ‘value added’ is easily understood as being more representative than headline results but the view, almost unanimously, is that the grammar school will get higher VA from the ‘bright kids’ than the comps get from similarly able kids because of not having to deal with the multitude of behaviour issues.

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