Is there anything that could make a grammar school system work?

I have written about selection at 11 before, and anyone who has spoken with me about this before will know that I am no fan whatsoever of selection at that age. My general position on secondary education is that all children should receive an academic education up to the age of 16. Claims that grammar schools improve social mobility in places where they currently exist have been thoroughly debunked, although as I understand it the issue is not that children on Free School Meals do badly at selective schools (in fact they do almost as well as their wealthier contemporaries), but rather that they are far less likely to get into a grammar school in the first place.

And yet selective education remains a highly popular policy on the political right and, if the EU referendum has taught us anything, it is that governments are ill-advised to ignore completely a popular demand, even if the majority of expert opinion is against the idea.

So, let’s assume for a moment that grammar schools do make a comeback, and a selective system is rolled out across the country. If the government is serious about its social mobility agenda, then it is quite clear that the system used in Kent should not be replicated. What might it therefore look like instead?

1. The secondary moderns will need to have a strong academic ethos.

The mistake made is always to focus of the grammars: it’s the secondary moderns that need to be the focus of reform. The worst thing that could happen in a new grammar system is that the new non-selective schools become seen as schools for children for whom an academic education is not important. All children are entitled to an academic education, and the vast majority are more than capable of studying an array of academic subjects until they are 16. I think we’re in a much better position on this front than we were in 1944, but there is a very real risk that we might slip back towards the idea that the lower end of the intelligence spectrum do not need an academic education.

2. The secondary moderns will need to have means of incentivising the best teachers to work there.

Teaching in a grammar school is not easy and I would not want to suggest otherwise, but it will inevitably be harder to attract higher-calibre teachers (define as you wish) into secondary moderns. I would suggest that teachers working in secondary moderns need smaller classes, fewer classes and preferably some other sweeteners to attract strong candidates for posts. If this leads me to suggest that funding to grammar schools should be lower than it is to secondary moderns, then it is not that I seek to make the work of teachers in grammars harder: rather it is a recognition that if secondary moderns fail to attract quality teachers, then the very case for reintroducing a selective system (i.e. social mobility) will be undermined.

3. Grammars will have to have a Free School Meal quota

This is already part of the government’s proposal, and I agree that it is necessary for the reforms to work. I would suggest that this quota should be set at the local average: if you local area has 20% on free school means, then that’s how many need to be in the selective school. There are lots of difficulties in making this work. If a child on Free School Meals leaves the school, or is excluded, then the grammar would have to take another student on Free School Meals in his or her place. Parents are very adept at playing the system, and I am sure some people will find ways to rig the system, although no more so than is currently the case with geographic catchments.

 4. Grammar schools will need to go well beyond the curriculum offer of a secondary modern

One of the only cases I can see for grammar schools is that they allow more intelligent pupils to work through a curriculum more quickly. There is absolutely no reason why pupils in a grammar school should not be studying both history and geography at GCSE, at least one foreign language, with perhaps further qualifications in the social sciences. If I think about the top 20% of students I have taught in comprehensive schools, then very many of those got straight A*s and As in their GCSEs in a comprehensive. The only justification for them to be in a grammar school would be for them to be doing a greater number of subjects, perhaps 13-15 GCSEs in total.

5. I would consider making 11+ pass rate an accountability measure for primary schools

Excuse me whilst I put on my sunglasses to shield me from the glare of every primary school teacher in the land. But here’s the thing. Schools can make a difference. Wealthier parents will always be able to pay for tutors, and I suspect this will continue to pay off even if it is possible to ‘tutor proof’ tests (I remain to be convinced). A Free School Meal quota would help alleviate the effect of socio-economic background on attainment, and schools could publish both their non-FSM and FSM 11+ pass rates. It would be in a school’s best interest to enter all children for the test. I get that this adds pressure onto children aged 10-11, but this if you’re going to have a selective system, then this is going to happen anyway.

I think returning to a selective education system is a terrible idea. But if political expediency means it has to happen, then I would start with these things here as way of trying to make it work. At the very least, it would shake up areas which already have a selective system where it does not currently work: a reformed selective system would probably be a good thing for places like Kent where grammar schools are currently limiting rather than enabling social mobility.

As for me, I would continue to work in non-selective schools, provided they maintained an academic ethos. Otherwise the very thing that attracted me to teaching would evaporate.


11 Comments on Is there anything that could make a grammar school system work?

  1. edcadwallader // 11 September 2016 at 12:29 // Reply

    Great post, like you I oppose selection at 11, but you’re absolutely right that if a bad policy is to be implemented it should be done in the best possible way. The only point I disagree with is on accountability for primary schools as I think this would lead them to spend time on verbal reasoning test practice that would be more profitably spent learning something interesting and useful.

  2. Tom Burkard // 11 September 2016 at 13:34 // Reply

    I’m conflicted on the grammar school issue, but on the balance I’m agin. This is despite suffering terminal boredom for 13 years of my life, and emerging from school all but ignorant of the classics or anything that happened outside the good ol’ USA. Were it not for my 9th grade English teacher and A Tale of Two Cities, I doubt I would have ever heard of the French Revolution. Well, that might be stretching it, but not by much. We certainly learned all about Edmund Burke’s support of the American Revolution, but we sure didn’t get his take on the French one (let alone the Warren Hastings trial). OK, we once read Pilgrim’s Progress and bits of bowlderised Shakespeare.

    The argument that postcode selection is even less fair than the 11+ misses an important point: middling middle-class families cannot afford the ‘right’ postcodes. And the social division that concerns me the most is the one between such families and the bottom third–those who will never, ever have a ‘professional’ job or work in an office. Today’s offices are seldom attached to anywhere where the oiks are likely to be employed, as most of them aren’t linked to manufacturing. Think back a generation or so–however much snobbery there may have been, at least people didn’t live their lives in hermetically-sealed class ghettos. When we had National Service, this was another opportunity for people of all classes to learn to function together. The Army still is that way, but there aren’t many such institutions left in England.

    One question: I was completely unaware that there was much popular support for grammar schools–or at least outside the Tory Party. I recall Solihull rejected them by a large margin many years back. Upper-middle class people move to these areas not so much because the schools are so good, but because their children will associate only with the ‘right’ sort. Why trust the lottery or the 11+ (or any other device used for selection) when your wallet can produce a guaranteed result?

  3. Ian Phillips // 11 September 2016 at 14:30 // Reply

    Time Travel – it seems to be a central feature of Conservative Party Policy at the moment.
    Any time know I’m expecting the Government of India Act to be repealed, milk to be infected with TB and brucellosis and a Bill to be introduced in the Commons proposing the re-introduction of the Death Penalty.
    Oh and summers to be endlessly warm and sunny.

  4. I agree with much of what you’ve written, but I think that if we do get a return to grammar schools, we should also look at the possibility of making their alternative closer to the technical schools of the original tripartite system. At the moment everyone is shouting that as soon as we get grammars we’ll automatically get secondary moderns. I don’t believe that’s inevitable. If it happens, it is in some part down to our reticence.

    I believe all children should receive an academic education, but I don’t think all children thrive in our current comprehensive set-up. Too many leave without any qualifications at all, or only very low grade GCSEs, which employers disregard. Often this is due to disaffection caused by constantly being in the bottom set – they don’t bother because they feel they won’t pass whatever they do. Also, bottom set children are make up of those who ‘won’t do’ as well as those who ‘can’t do’.

    Rather than causing these children to leave school with nothing at all, I’d like to give them the opportunity to obtain something of value, alongside the essential GCSEs. So probably fewer GCSEs, but including maths & English, plus whatever else they can reasonably succeed in, alongside a (vocational?) qualification in something that will be of use to them later on. I would expect the standard of teaching to equal that of the grammars across the board. I’d also like these schools to maintain close links with the grammars, so pupils have the chance to move schools if they happen to be late bloomers. Having a ‘grammar stream’ within the non-grammar schools would also enable the pupils there to gain the same qualifications that the grammar pupils would get, but without the pressure of being in a solely academic environment, including taking the same qualifications as a child in the grammar schools. It should be assumed that the majority of pupils who don’t go to a grammar school would take the academic route anyway.

    I hate the idea that some children are basically writing themselves off at such a young age, but I can see that always being at the bottom of a school that lives by its GCSE grade reputation, and knowing that you’re unlikely to contribute to that, can be utterly dispiriting.

    The sort of school I have in mind may be difficult to set up, but it needn’t be impossible. Just because the secondary moderns failed pupils in the past, we do not have to blindly repeat the same mistakes. The impending return of the grammar schools may just be the impetus we need to rethink the way in which we educate those who normally obtain the very lowest GCSE grades, if they get any at all.

  5. “..very many of those got straight A*s and As in their GCSEs in a comprehensive. The only justification for them to be in a grammar school would be for them to be doing a greater number of subjects”

    Aren’t you supposed to deny having a “teach-to-test” mentality?

    • If you care to glance through the other posts I’ve written you’ll realise I’m about as far from ‘teach to the test’ as you can be! But, pragmatically, in the current climate, schools are unlikely to teach something (or teach it properly) if they’re not held accountable for it. Sad times, but this is how things are.

      • Well I gave Amanda Spielman the benefit of doubt because she apparently likes holidays walking in the Alps, so I’ll extend the same courtesy here based on your titchy photo. But there’s a catch…

        Our last five summer holidays have featured mountains. Except this year we indulged now y9 Sprogette’s request to go to a beach, but just for a few days before gaining some altitude for fewer days than usual. On the way home she voted for pure mountains next year, except for more days than usual. The beach was about gaining a bit of common ground to help her fit in with peers.

        She’s one of her cohort’s most ‘most able’ and although parents in my shoes often talk about lack of challenge, many also talk of lack of companionship. Some children at that end of the curve can be a bit quirkier and less sociable e.g. there’s a genetic overlap between autism and high intelligence, but the essential problem seems to be the lack of like-minded peers with their extra-geeky passion for say maths. The relative isolation is every school-day for years and unlike Sprogette some of them are also living with significant peer resentment. This is why some Sutton Trust summer-school blurb somewhere had “I’m not alone!” type quotes and the deprecated G&T stuff tried to hook them up via the net etc.

        In short, I think companionship is justification for some selection. Not as broadly as 20-30% though.

      • You know Theresa May also enjoys walking in the Alps… I sort of agree with your point: I think it can be mitigated to an extent by school ethos (where I work is not bad at geek passion) but you do have to have a critical mass of pupils who are willing to run with it.

        At which point I’ll just direct you to my other blog:, which is all about hillwalking. Must update it at some point…

      • Theresa May also enjoys walking in the Alps

        Ah.. that is tricky, but I suppose we already know our rules don’t necessarily apply to politicians.

  6. Helen Farrell // 12 September 2016 at 14:02 // Reply

    Their is no evidence that grammar schools are wildly popular. In Maidenhead the response to the grammar annexe proposal has been indifference or opposition. They are very popular with people who shout loudly. I live in a town with two wonderful comprehensive schools. There is no reason at all to turn them into secondary moderns.

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