Should We Bring Back Grammar Schools?

In Education Politics and Polemics, Evidence in Education by Alex Quigley11 Comments

Just under a quarter of a century ago, I failed the 11+.

I’ll admit, the experience was less than cataclysmic for my skinny pre-teen self. I remember being asked by my school teacher if I wanted to sit the exam, with my ‘yes vote’ being cast when my best friend was confirmed as sitting the exam too, with it being held in the morning, meaning we were offered an afternoon off school! I can remember sitting the tricky exam, then going home and watching WWF wrestling with my best friend.

I was oblivious to the pressures and potential ramifications of school selection and the 11+, as were my parents. There was no private tutoring or intensive preparation for me. On being politely informed by letter that I had failed, I was simply relieved that I’d be going to school with my best friend and my other school mates.

I am not bitter about missing out on grammar school (I have happily surpassed the seeming expectations of my pre-pubescent exam failure). Nor is my personal story the determining factor that shapes my view about whether we should bring back grammar schools. The evidence on grammar schools is pretty stark and it places my personal take into a more substantive context.

There are great anecdotes relating students who became huge successes after attending grammar schools. Indeed, our new prime minister, Theresa May, attended a grammar school, alongside a quarter of the current cabinet. Crucially though, this ‘survivor bias‘ (focusing on the few ‘survivors’ because of their visibility) inevitably ignores the hidden reality of the many thousands of would-be politicians who attended secondary modern schools, but were not offered the requisite academic opportunities to become a cabinet MP when they failed aged 11. We must therefore dig beneath the visible anecdotes of successful individuals to the more substantial evidence.

Grammar schools are not the engines of social mobility that they are purported to be by some. The evidence is long-standing. In 1954, the Gurney-Dixon Report showed only a fraction of children from working class communities went onto university. The Robbins Report (1963) showed a mere 0.3% of working class children who attended grammar schools went onto achieve two A levels or more. More recently, The Sutton Trust report on grammar schools showed only 3% of children on free school meals  attended the existing 163 grammar schools.

The contemporary evidence-base is wide-ranging, with institutions like the BBC (‘Why not bring back grammar schools?‘), Policy Exchange (‘Five reasons why a return to grammar schools is a bad idea‘), LKMco (‘Grammar Schools and Social Mobility: The Uncle Steve Effect’), and many more, all highlighting the deep issues with this system of selective schooling aged 11.

International evidence raises further questions. A huge international study by Hanushek and Woessmann (2006), showed that early tracking – dividing students into different ability streams – increases educational inequality. Another international study, by Brunello and Checchi (2006), showed that this approach reinforced the impact of family background – squashing social mobility. The OECD show that most selection occurs later than 11 in school systems – the OECD average age for selection is 14 – with the insight that motivation levels amongst students is lower in systems where children are selected early. Unhappily, other countries that select at 11 – Austria and Germany – also prove the most socially segregated.

If we wanted to do some international cherry-picking of the very best school systems we could herald Singapore or Finland (both countries have a population and economy a tenth of the size of ours) as models of comprehensive success for every child. I’m sure policies like grammar schools solely for Free School Meals students will be mooted, perhaps the ‘Assisted Places‘ (funding state school students to attend independent schools) scheme will be promoted soon, but they are all mere window-dressing policies that betray a poverty of ambition for all of our children.

Having a world class school system for all should prove no pipe-dream. It does require a focus on the right things. As our new Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening, stated: “Fundamentally, we need to look at what’s happening in the classroom, having children there who are ready and able to learn, having fantastic teachers. That’s what’s going to be most important and that’s what I’ll focus on.”

We have 163 grammar schools that I am sure are excellent, but don’t forget, we also have thousands of brilliant comprehensive schools across the country too. The old binary choice of grammar schools and secondary moderns is dead. The notion that we cannot have high academic standards in every school for every child is being smashed daily in schools of all comprehensive badges and brands across the country.

When our Prime Minister, Theresa May, gave her first address outside of number 10, she stated: “We will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you”, giving a mandate to focus on developing great teachers in every school for the talents of every student of every background. Rather than tinkering with a marginal number of school types, we need to focus on world-class teaching in every school. This requires investment in teacher training. This requires working conditions and standards that encourage the recruitment and retention of the best teachers possible. This requires research evidence into to what actually does work in improving educational standards.

In the same speech, May stated, when it comes to opportunity, we won’t entrench the advantages of the fortunate few“. The lingering allure of grammar schools apparently ignores the evidence from our past, our present and across the world, when it comes to entrenching advantage amongst the mere few. So, should we bring back grammar schools? No. We can do so much more, and so much better, to create a world class school system that is founded upon equity for all and that drives social mobility.

 

[Please note: if you wish to reply by focusing upon my personal status, under the mistaken notion that this validates or invalidates my argument, then I can be clear and say that I attended a comprehensive school, I teach in a comprehensive school and my children attend a comprehensive school.]

(Image Credit: ‘John Bright Grammar School’ – Llandudno, 1965. Image from Allan Harris via https://www.flickr.com/photos/allan_harris/5509233197)

Comments

  1. I agree with your comments. My concern is that this debate about different types of school deflects from the real issues affecting children’s education. The disparity in funding across England is often ignored during discussion on the performance of state schools. If there is to be a fair and equitable education system, then all children should be entitled to the same basic funding, regardless of their postcode, or whether they attend an academy, a free school or a local authority comprehensive. In West Sussex, head teachers set up the Worthless campaign to lobby parliament and inform parents that their children’s schools were among the lowest funded in England. When schools are struggling to raise aspiration and provide opportunities for the children with ever-diminishing funds, then it is lazy, at best, to offer grammar schools as a solution.

  2. First time reader here, I’ll be coming back 🙂 Particularly agree with the ‘window dressing’ sentiment & I’m afraid that’s all the UK is going to get. Interested in your comment about Finland & the mention of comparative size. When looking at Finland, observers tend to focus on what is going on inside schools, but If you’re interested I’ve blogged about what goes on outside too: http://www.trended.fi/single-post/2016/08/05/School-Support Thanks.

    1. Author

      Thanks John for the feedback and the link.

  3. Pingback: Should We Bring Back Grammar Schools? – The Confident Teacher | The Echo Chamber

  4. It’s worth asking, however, if grammar schools are such a bad idea, why selective schools were the favoured choice for the children of Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbot, Seamus Milne, Harriet Harman, Emily Thornbury and, indeed, much of the Labour front bench? Not in the dim and historic past, when secondary modern schools still existed across the country, but in London, within the past ten years. None of the parents I list had any risk of their children attending a secondary modern: there are none in Islington, Hackney and so on. And yet when it came to their own children, they sought out selective schools. Perhaps if people who advocate comprehensive schools sent their own children to them matters might be different.

    “We can do so much more, and so much better, to create a world class school system”

    Comprehensive schools have existed for fifty years. You’ve had several generations. What other system is allowed fifty years of people saying “next year it will be great?”

    1. Author

      I wholly agree with you that there is a hypocrisy if politicians herald a comprehensive model and yet choose a selective school for their own children. It is a question worth asking. Of course, I cannot account for other individuals. I teach in a comprehensive school and my children go to comprehensive schools. They are very successful schools.

      Personally, I haven’t had several generations of anything. In the fifty years you cite we have comprehensive schools, secondary modern schools, grammar schools, private schools, faith schools, free schools, UTCs and many more. It is a ‘school system’ that works independently. You can rightly criticize some comprehensive schools for ‘failing’ in that time span, but you can make that accusation at schools in the entire list. I live and work in York. Comprehensive schools have excellent outcomes for children here. I dare say thais has predominantly been the case for 50 years. There are no grammar schools in York. I am sure next year will be great too. Writing off all comprehensive schools is nonsense.

  5. Up until 2014 the D of E provided a very useful statistic which gave you the average grade achieved by the high achieving cohort in each school. The following is a list of this average for six grammar schools in deprived areas – they all have 10% of pupils receiveing FSM

    Skegness Grammar – B
    Boston Grammar B-
    Boston High B+
    Chatham B
    Chatham Girls B+
    Chatham & Clarendon B+

    I also checked Wellington School (Trafford) Waddesdon School (Bucks) and Bennett Diocesan (Kent) which are secondary moderns. In each of these the average for high achievers was B+

    Why is the government planning to spend huge amounts of money on this when the existing grammars in deprived areas cannot do better than secondary moderns in wealthier areas?

    There seems to be so much opposition to this but I wonder how this can be co-ordinated to put effective pressure on the D of E? Although I suppose (hope) there may be things going on behind the scenes.

    1. Author

      Thanks for this Helen. I personally think that a full on battle to rehash the Grammar School model nationally is unlikely to happen. I would not be surprised if some ‘lite’ version occurred, such as a few school allocated as selective ‘Grammar Schools’ but with X% of FSM students. I think the push for “parental choice” will see some move for selection academically, but in what guise I am not sure. The reality is though, in a competitive school ‘market’ created by new schools, that selection would become the new ‘gaming’ and distort the whole system. I cannot see how the DfE can get around this without taking a firm hold on admissions and stopping any nascent Grammar School push.

  6. Yes, I think that’s a good idea to bring it back because it is much necessary for students to learn the grammar basics so that their English language can become more strong.

  7. We have 163 grammar schools that I am sure are excellent, but don’t forget, we also have thousands of brilliant comprehensive schools across the country too. The old binary choice of grammar schools and secondary moderns is dead. The notion that we cannot have high academic standards in every school for every child is being smashed daily in schools of all comprehensive badges and brands across the country.

    Then why does it have such a terrible effect on a child if he or she attends one of these brilliant comprehensive schools? Why do we have to ban people setting up grammar schools out of fear that those children who can will flee from the brilliant comprehensive schools into them?

    1. Author

      Quite simply academic selection distorts local school systems. It distorts teacher recruitment (http://educationdatalab.org.uk/2016/06/inequalities-in-access-to-teachers-in-selective-schooling-areas/); it excludes disadvantaged schools in the selective schools, meaning that comprehensives have a disproportionate number of disadvantaged students that require greater support and resources at a time when budgets are shrinking (http://educationdatalab.org.uk/2016/09/there-is-not-yet-a-proven-route-to-help-disadvantaged-pupils-into-grammar-schools/). Schools with selection by academic ability obviously see higher attainment on average than schools with a high proportion of disadvantaged students and this attainment leads to a skewed accountability bias (https://jtbeducation.wordpress.com/2014/06/29/whats-the-easiest-way-to-a-secondary-ofsted-outstanding/) so selective schools get rated outstanding with all the gains of being free from OFSTED, Teaching School status etc. etc.

      The government white paper is called ‘Educational Excellence Everywhere’. Academic selection makes skews our entire school system so that excellence is easier somewhere than most places. Some kids disproportionately gain and others fail. We don’t have reliable entrance tests and we don’t have any evidence to prove academic selection enhances social mobility. Unless we do I will ask the question: ‘why should we bring back grammar schools?’

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