How can supporters of grammar schools win the debate?

This might seem an odd blog title to be written by someone who disagrees with grammar schools. But, if the explosion of edu-blogging has done anything, then it has been to raise the quality of the debate about education. Arguments about education are these days better informed and more carefully argued. It is always frustrating therefore to read a blog post that trots out a low quality argument, and, if anything is going to draw that sort of argument out of the woodwork, then it is the grammar school debate.

For an example of the sort of poor-quality argument supporting grammar schools, have a look at this post:

For an example of a far more carefully reasoned argument in favour of grammar schools, take a look at the following:

I am therefore going in this post to have a little exercise in cognitive dissonance by setting out what I think supporters of grammar schools need to argue if they want to win the grammar school debate. If this is seen as contributing to a cause with which I disagree, then I hope it might be understood as moving the debate on from its tired old positions.

Case 1: Grammar schools help the kids on free school meals who get in.

Mr Spock might have logically reasoned that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, but if you are willing to justify the opposite case, then grammars are just the ticket. We know that pupils on Free School Meals do much better in selective schools than they do in comprehensive schools and that the attainment gap is very narrow. As long as you are happy offsetting the outcomes of a relatively small proportion of pupils on free school meals against the a larger number who do worse under the selective system, then you won’t have too much difficulty winning your argument. You are in short arguing from different premises to your anti-grammar-school campaigner: whereas they want to focus on social mobility for all children (on average), your premise is that it is better for a small number to excel.

If you are not comfortable starting from this premise, however, then you have a few other options open to you.

Case 2: It’s not the job of a school to advance social mobility.

To make this case you can pull the rug out from under the feet of all those pesky anti-grammar-school acolytes who come armed with statistics showing that, on average (see Point 1 above), children from less well off backgrounds get worse outcomes in selective areas than non-selective areas. If you do not see the purpose of schooling as social mobility, then you do not need to worry about these figures, for you see them as irrelevant to the debate.

This does of course mean that you yourself will not be able to play the social mobility card, which is a bit annoying as it is one of the things supporters of grammar schools most frequently argue. If you do want to argue that grammar schools can help social mobility, then you have another option.

Case 3: The grammar schools of the future need not be like the grammar schools of the past and present.

Theresa May is sensible enough to recognise that she needs to make this point (“no return to the 1950s” etc.), but it is surprisingly how rarely this argument is explicitly made. I would not bother trying to defend selective education in places like Kent, at least if you’re not willing to make either of Case 1 or Case 2 above: here the system has been shown very clearly to hinder rather than help social mobility. Your best bet (if you’re not willing to argue Case 1 or Case 2) is instead to argue that the grammars of the future need not be like the grammars of the past. It is possible that maybe there are ways of running a selective system that do not come with the disadvantages pointed to by the Green Paper and most of the data-nerds in the field. Perhaps your model of selection will work differently: a good example of this is those arguments based on a more valid and reliable 11+ test. On the plus side, this undermines the arguments against you based on data, for those data refer only to systems of selection already in existence, and not the new system you propose. The downside is that you may have difficult winning the argument with nothing but prediction on your side.

To my mind these really are the only three options available to you if you want to win the grammar school debate in favour of selection. All three are valid positions on which you can make a case. I’ll quick refer now to some of the arguments I think do not work, and which are likely to hold you back.

  • Grammar schools, as they currently exist, improve social mobility – no, we know on average they do not. Your best bet here is Case 1 above.
  • Grammar schools defend a rigorous academic curriculum – this is a good argument, but rather undermined by a new education ethos that has emerged over recent years which is explicitly and unashamedly focused on academic curricula in comprehensive schools – have a look at Michaela Free School, West London Free School, East London Science School, Inspiration Trust, Bedford Free School, and so on.
  • Grammar schools give parents choice – No, they do not. If a grammar school selects the top 20% of the ability range, then 80% of parents do not have the choice to send their children to a grammar school. What you really mean is grammar schools give parents the right to the hope of a grammar school education.
  • Those who went to a grammar school should not withhold this from young people today – did I mention I attended a seaside comprehensive? But why does this have any effect on the validity of my arguments? It is nothing more than a veiled ad hominem argument to say that those who went to selective schools should not be able to argue against them.
  • Education is currently a disaster – grammars will sort it out – education has always been a disaster since the days of Socrates. No one is every happy with the system and it has always been in a state of near collapse. Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know that I am more than happy to point to the major flaws in our system, particularly regarding behaviour and curriculum. But if you believe that competition raises standards overall, then all schools have to be able (in theory) to achieve the same outcomes. Grammar schools undermine competition for they make it impossible for the non-selective schools to compete. To claim that grammars will solve our problems, you’re going to have to do some magic with Case 3 above.

It is about time the grammar school debate moved on. I would argue it is not going to move on until advocates of selection adopt one of Cases 1-3, or otherwise give up on selective schools all together. Of course, there might be alternatives between selection vs comprehensive schools (e.g. grammar streams, partial selection), and I’m hoping to write some more on that in the near future.


17 Comments on How can supporters of grammar schools win the debate?

  1. Question – what is your position on private schools vs grammar schools? I’m genuinely interested to know and not assuming anything.

    • They don’t get government funding (if you ignore tax relief), and as the parents pay for a state-education place, independents are pragmatically helpful for having more per-capita funding in the state sector. I am not sure I would keep tax-relief for independents unless they are making significant contributions to state education. I certainly wouldn’t move towards a voucher system or assisted places or something like that. Also the proportion educated independently is small, particularly if you strip out the international contingent. So I guess I’m indifferent – I wouldn’t work in an independent, I would look closely at their tax status, but I think their impact on the state sector is not significant. Your view?

      • I’m not sure. I struggle with the idea that having money should allow you access to a potentially better education. Having said that I also struggle on the grammar issue – I went to a grammar school and am not from an affluent background. I do believe that if I had gone to the local comp instead my life may well have been markedly different. But I also acknowledge that that isn’t a compelling argument for grammars per se. I just know what a benefit my education was to me.

      • Quite – no one disputes that those who go to grammar schools get a good education. The crucial questions are (a) are there, for every child at a grammar, four children getting a *worse* education, (b) is that a problem? and (c) if that is a problem, can we do anything about it?

      • Yep, all fair questions to ask – and ones that those in charge of education policy, as well as educational professionals, should think about carefully.

        Another question (not for you to answer but one to consider) – if those that go to grammar schools get a ‘better’ education and those that don’t get a ‘worse’, how much better is the education for that one child and how much worse is the education for the four? If the positive difference for the one was greater than the negative difference for the four you could arguably make the case on utilitarian grounds. Not that that’s the case I’d make, just a thought to consider.

  2. Tom Burkard // 19 September 2016 at 19:25 // Reply

    On the whole, I’m against bringing back grammar schools, but I find the social mobility issue rather trivial. I don’t think schools can do much to help or hinder it.

    The unspoken assumption here is that middle-class kids will succeed in any case, so we don’t have to worry about them. I find this infuriatingly philistine. All bright kids, irrespective of their social class, suffer when they are as bored as I was for 12 crucial years of their lives. I believe that anyone who thinks of education as a credentialing system shouldn’t be let anywhere near education. Any nation that lets their brightest kids wallow in idleness instead of teaching them as much academic knowledge as they can absorb is decadent.

    This is not to say that less able pupils should be ignored–far from it. Virtually all children can learn vastly more than they do now, but this depends upon them being taught the same curriculum by the same teachers who teach the most able (Gamoran has published some interesting reports on this). So this leads us back to non-selective schools, which in any case can be justified on the grounds that people from different social classes have much less contact with each other since grammar schools were last around. Institutions like National Service ensured that we all rubbed together for a few years at least.

    There aren’t any easy answers to this conundrum, mostly because we are woefully short of good teachers. The mass expansion of HE has had the effect of producing a lot of graduates whose knowledge of their subject is inadequate to teach it to GCSE, let alone A-level. Exam boards are producing PowerPoints to help such hapless NQTs struggle through topics about which they know little more than their pupils. Worse yet, the energies of all teachers–including our best– are being frittered away with pointless activities like marking workbooks. Even CPD designed to teach subject knowledge fails to address the demands of the new GCSEs. I doubt that many changes or reforms will make much difference so long as they are imposed from above and Ofsted is passing judgment on teaching and learning.

    Perhaps the most telling argument against grammars is that the 30 years of education reform ushered in by Kenneth Baker have created massive upheaval, but no positive results. Robert Coe at Durham’s Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring has concluded that standards have not improved despite a doubling of spending in real terms. Indeed, there is a lot of evidence that standards have dropped, especially in STEM subjects.

    • Agree with all of this. I would not be against ‘grammar streams’ in every school – it attracts stronger staff, it gives you the ‘critical mass’ described in Heather’s blog, and it means teachers don’t lose sight of the top end. But if they’re not doing 15 GCSEs then it hasn’t been worth it.

  3. Back in 1997, in the aftermath of the Blair election victory, to my great surprise I found myself being driven by the poor thinking and shallow arguments of government spokesmen (one of whom came to Hills Road, where I was working) into a defence of the hereditary principle in politics – which, incidentally, I still regard as infinitely less corrupt than giving peerages to political cronies. By a similar process I am finding myself being driven by the very narrow arguments being put forward against them into a defence of Grammar Schools.

    The argument about Grammar Schools is a decidedly curious one, because it is not, in fact, about Grammar Schools at all; it is about Secondary Modern Schools (just as the debate about ‘faith schools’ is not actually about education at all but about opposition to religion – but that’s a debate for another day). It is certainly true, as I have often said in conversation, that, while I have often heard people calling for the return of Grammar Schools, I have never heard anyone call for the return of Secondary Moderns. I hesitate to write off an entire class of schooling, as I know that many devoted teachers worked in Secondary Moderns, but there is no pretending otherwise: they had a pretty dire reputation – I suppose the film ‘Kes’ gives a fairly good picture of how they were generally seen.

    It is also a curious one, especially for historians, who are meant to have a sense of the passage of time and the changes it brings, because it is couched in explicitly exaggerated (and frankly ridiculous) terms of ‘No return to the 1950s’ (there is no such thing as a ‘return’ to any time in the past – can’t be done). In fact, to listen to some comments you would think that Grammar Schools were some evil malign force – indeed, I think opponents of Grammar Schools are more vocal and more extreme in their language on this subject than they are about Independent Schools.

    So, let’s do what good historians are meant to do and go back to look at the sources and the facts, and to look at the origins.

    Grammar Schools as we know them were born in the 1944 Education Act – it is worth remembering that before 1944 Secondary Education was not available for all and poor children had no hope of it at all unless they won a scholarship to a fee-paying school – my own mother is a good example. The 1944 Act introduced a tripartite system, based on Secondary Technical Schools, Secondary Modern Schools, and Grammar Schools. A tripartite system was always perhaps rather ambitious, and the Technical arm never really took off; it was largely incorporated into the Modern. But it is worth stressing, because the point has been lost sight of, that the system of selection for one branch or another was NOT supposed to be on the basis of ‘ability’, by which is always meant ACADEMIC ability, but on APTITUDE. The intention was that the Secondary Modern was to lay more of an emphasis on technical and vocational and the Grammar School on academic ability.

    Now, I realise (as some will doubtless point out) that it is not unknown for students to show aptitude in both, but I would maintain that most experience in education would suggest that this division of types of ability is broadly correct. It is reflected in the German education system and in every training programme where young people having difficulty with a ‘traditional’ academic curriculum are given a more rewarding programme of work in more vocational work or training. Indeed, it is implicit in the objections to the Ebacc, when it was argued that it would end up forcing children into an academic curriculum to which not all of them were suited.

    The problem with the old process of selection was in fact twofold: one aspect was and still is loudly trumpeted; the other is British society’s and especially British education’s secret shame which people usually keep quiet about. The problem which everyone knows about is that the 11+ was far too crude an instrument of selection. It was based on Piaget and Cyril Burt and much of the thinking behind it has been long discredited. It didn’t allow for late developers, it divided children, often very visibly: my Grammar School (for yes, I went to one, and it is still a highly sought-after Grammar School to this day) had (and still has) a very distinctive striped blazer, so that the ‘successful’ pupils declared their success every time they went out of doors in school uniform. All this we know.

    The other problem, though, and critics of Grammar Schools are very bit as guilty of this as anyone else, is the appalling national snobbery about vocational education. We see this time and time again. Leaving aside the point about age 11 for a moment, why should going to a Modern Vocationally-orientated school be regarded as a failure? But it was and those who decry Grammar Schools are still doing it.

    Of course this problem goes far beyond the Secondary Modern. Our educational history is full of examples of failed attempts to raise the profile and esteem of vocational education. The death of apprenticeships; the scorn directed at BTEC courses or Applied A levels; dare I say the snobbery that was encountered by those who went to Polytechnic rather than university, so that Polytechnics felt obliged to seize the chance to become universities (and the scorn still directed at ‘former polys’ – step forward many Oxford and Cambridge students: I’ve seen what you write online) – the list goes on.

    As long as we continue to denigrate vocational education, to regard it as second best, the argument against Grammar Schools will continue. But it seems a rather disappointing and, frankly, rather dishonourable ground on which to base it.

    Where they went wrong in the past – and this is a mistake that could be avoided this time round – was in having only one form of selection: the academic. The 11+ asked “Are you good enough for Grammar School?” and decided Yes or No: Win/Lose, Success/Failure. But what if, in keeping with the spirit of the 1944 Act, it had asked both “Are you good enough for Grammar School?’ AND “Are you good enough for Modern School?” If, instead of containing only what were in effect IQ test-type tasks, the selection process had also involved motor skills or problem-solving? If it had given as much prominence to practical skills as to mental? In those circumstances we might have achieved something closer to the German system, where there is still a selection process, but there is much more parity of esteem between the two types of education. Moreover, they also maintain a certain level of overlap between the two types of education: so apprentices also learn about the theory – even the history – underlying their craft.

    Dream on, you might say, at least in relation to the 1960s or 1970s. But, as I said at the start, we are not in the 1950s or any other decade other than the 2010s, and things have changed. Specifically:

    a) Since Kenneth Baker introduced the National Curriculum, and its principle was upheld by his successors like David Blunkett, Charles Clarke and especially Michael Gove, the argument about the merits of the Grammar School curriculum have been largely won. There are still a few figures in Schools of Education who grumble about children learning subjects and having to know things, but they have been largely marginalised: they have certainly lost the argument. The essentials of the subject-based Grammar School curriculum have been reinforced as a national model, largely – but only largely – with great success.

    b) This success has owed a tremendous amount to two separate developments:
    1. The introduction of testing in the primary school. While this was heavily overdone in the early stages, the introduction of SATs at the end of KS2, coupled with the emphasis on literacy, including grammar and parts of speech, and on numeracy, has enabled secondary schools to continue, develop or, if necessary, introduce a ‘Grammar School’-type National Curriculum
    2. The growth of Academies and, latterly, Free Schools. These too have led the way in promoting the sort of education that Grammar School products would recognise and value.

    Thanks to these developments, the Grammar School curriculum has become more mainstream, with, I think it is fair to say, considerable public support.

    c) The ‘Grammar School curriculum’, while it maintains an emphasis on academic subjects and on broadening and deepening pupils’ subject knowledge, has not in any way stood still. Not only has teaching in Grammar Schools themselves or those schools which might be said to teach a GS curriculum kept up with the times, but it has often also been allied to tremendous work in other areas of the curriculum, including sport and the arts.

    Now, the strongest argument against reintroducing Grammar Schools might well be what Michael puts forward here, namely that many schools are in effect replicating all the best features of Grammar Schools without the need for selection, so why reintroduce GSs? If true, this is a powerful argument. But is it? There is more than one way to skin a cat and there is more than one way to operate selection. Free Schools, for example, are, at least at the moment, pretty small: there has therefore to be a sort of selection process by demand: you may not have failed an entrance test to get in, but you have failed to get in nonetheless. We also know that many good schools effectively operate by a postcode lottery, as was recently pointed out (by Sir Michael Wilshaw, if I remember rightly?) And while there is no denying the major transformation that has taken place in London, it is by no means typical of the whole country.

    This is where the point in the muggedbyreality blog comes into its own: a Grammar School is not just a place where academically-inclined children happen to be gathered together; it has an atmosphere in which openness to academic learning and enquiry is the norm. Not all schools have this. In fact it was my experience in working in two neighbouring but very different sixth form colleges in Cambridge. Hills Road had a genuine academic buzz, in which debate, discussion, visiting speakers and so on were always, as it were in the air. Long Road did some of the same, but it always felt more of a special occasion, not something that was happening on a daily basis. I enjoyed working in both of them, but they were undeniably different in feel and tone. In many ways they were a sixth form equivalent of the Grammar School and Modern educational approaches that lay at the heart of the 1944 Act. And both served (and serve) their students’ needs with exemplary professionalism – in their different ways.

    You will notice I have said nothing about social mobility. I don’t deny that Grammar Schools could contribute to it – indeed, I saw plenty of examples of it. But, not only do I not necessarily believe that social mobility is the prime purpose of education, but I am suspicious of any concept that is bandied about without being subject to scrutiny. What do we mean by social mobility? Do we mean by it that people born into working class families are only successful if they climb upwards and out of that background? If so, then ‘social mobility’ sounds a very patronising idea and really rather snobbish.

    So, having not given the matter much thought for years, I find myself coming to a different conclusion from most in education. Where comprehensives, whether LA-run (are there any left?), Academies or Free Schools are genuinely offering a broad curriculum to all their students, and where the vocational is both offered and valued to the same degree as the academic, then let them continue. But in those areas less well served, where students are being pumped through an academic curriculum for which they are not well suited, where academic aspiration is not central to the school ethos, then I think there is a case for looking again at the issue of selection. But this should not be a return to the 11+. It may not be best done at 11, indeed (I think there is a stronger case for it at the end of KS3), and it should certainly not be exclusively academic – it should cover a wide range of different aptitudes. And it must involve the provision of high-quality highly-regarded vocational education and training. In that context, I think the case for Grammar Schools is much stronger than their critics have allowed for.

    • Lot to comment on but, briefly, I don’t buy the idea that some children are more ‘academic’ and some more ‘technical’. Some children are more intelligent than others, and I suspect that, on average, more intelligent children are faster at learning both academic and technical subjects.

      • I suspect that’s because you’re academic yourself! There are plenty of people, of all ages, who show considerable aptitude and intelligence in areas other than the academic. Now, somewhere like ARU or Birkbeck of the OU has a proud history of taking such people later in life and helping them develop the more academic side of their intelligence, but a) this a tiny minority of the larger population and b) for every very pleasing success there will usually be at least one who found it really wasn’t for them. I suspect it’s because we are academically intelligent ourselves that we ‘want’ everyone to have that sort of intelligence. I’m by no means convinced that all do.

      • Still not convinced there’s much evidence for this. If intelligence is about thinks like working memory then, theoretically, that should apply to all things learnt. In practice we might see environmental effects – e.g middle class children more likely to come with key cultural reference points that make them appear more ‘academic’. And this gets down to thorny issue. If selection is based on IQ, rather than knowledge, then it might be justifiable. If it’s based on prior knowledge, then it will always favour the middle classes (notwithstanding fact that IQ is also weakly correlated with social class…)

      • My point is that selection should be based on a much wider set of criteria, not just academic (nor indeed IQ) and should be a genuine selection for the right path. This will favour no particular class.

  4. Mr Spock might have logically reasoned that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few

    But unlike some of the movers and shakers, I can’t imagine Spock then ignoring the few quite so much and then hiding behind cherry-picked stats and words like ‘advantaged’ or ‘middle-class’. Or for that matter just ‘bright’, given the suggestions we’ve had in the last year or two around diverting pupil premium away from bright FSM children. I don’t want grammars, but I’m more in favour now having seen quite a lot of casual contempt for *children* from erm.. Enemies of Promise: The Next Generation. Poor-quality is a two way street and many of the anti-grammar cases have been a teensy bit depressing. It’s not difficult to agree with the reasoning behind that “please, please” in the HQ article.

    That some comps somewhere you don’t live have a better ‘ethos’ etc. is no consolation, it makes you feel worse. We’ll likely have genetically modified people walking the streets before the schools held up as exemplars have a substantial impact on the large tracts of the system that aren’t defended by mortgage and/or faith.

    • Can’t quite work out if you agree with my post or not, but broadly I agree with the point you are making. Any system-wide reform involves weighing up the needs of many different groups in society, and it is true that, outside of London, the academic ethos of the majority of comprehensives is paltry. Yet, with the right Head, Governors and SLT, I do reckon that most comprehensive schools can achieve the academic ethos described in Heather’s blog, provided they don’t lose their top end kids. For me, it’s all about behaviour and curriculum, and neither of these require the reintroduction of selection. I would however be open to a ‘grammar stream’ – with an even broader academic curriculum – in all schools as this would (a) keep teachers focused on what the gold standard is and (b) work towards the critical mass outlined in Heather’s blog.

      • I agree that much of the debate is in the wrong place, but I’m not sure we should hop straight to something like grammar streams without first challenging some of the casual prejudice against the children who would be in them. What does Tom B.’s phrase ‘unspoken assumption’ below say about attitudes towards them? Why is keenie Heather pointing out the cost being paid in the comp? People, and it’s too many prominent edu-people, don’t bother looking at realities for that end of the curve at the average comp and that doesn’t bode well.

        Had to quickly google for examples of grammar streams and they only work for me if there’s a fairly tight national definition e.g. any school with one will do X, Y and Z, rather than offering escape routes like “reflecting the needs of the local community”. X can be about the nature and number of GCSEs, but I like the prospect of going further with a few subjects that will be dropped at A-level. One school made a big play on their stream’s Oxbridge/Russell group prep, so Y can be “must be involved with outreach programs” etc. I saw three talk of “ambitious” whole NC level progress per year, so Z can be “stop bullshitting” because that’s what national level data says you should expect from that kind of prior attainment. [NC level flakiness and deprecation acknowledged]

        Even with that and a buzzy traditional academic approach, I don’t see how it solves the pace problem when roughly half of a perfectly distributed top ~25% class will be closer to national average than they are to a couple of the children at the top. Some subjects are obviously more accommodating than others, but I’d be unhappy if anything like this didn’t throw in a credible “what to do?” framework for the outliers. All of this would likely exceed the ten quid budget though, so I won’t hold my breath.

    • Also, Spock was willing to suffer a painful death for the needs of the many. If that’s not “ignoring the few”, I don’t know what is.

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