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