Grammar schools are not the answer

By Pat Turnbull

‘Why grammar schools are not the answer to our economic and social ills’.  That was the title of an article by Jeremy Warner in the Daily Telegraph on 30 August this year.[1] He began: ‘I have an embarrassing disclosure to make.  I failed my 11-plus. Fortunately for me, my parents refused to accept the judgment of the educational psychologist who in despair they sent me to see soon afterwards – that I was of “typical C-stream, secondary modern standard”. Instead, they paid for a couple of years of private education, after which I was judged sufficiently “clever” to be selected for a direct grant school, which in those days provided an even more elite form of “free” education than the grammar school system that had rejected me. Nonetheless, the experience scarred and shamed me, and despite the evident hypocrisy of my position, I have been vehemently opposed to selective state school education ever since.  Grammar schools were great news for the mostly middle-class children lucky enough to be selected, but extraordinarily divisive for the roughly 75 per cent of the population who were not.'

‘Evidence that grammar schools significantly improved social mobility is slim to non-existent. Research published in the 1960s found that only 1.5 per cent of 21-year-olds from working class backgrounds attended university, against 12 per cent from non-manual families.  More than half of those from manual backgrounds had no O levels, against only 21 per cent from non-manual.  Basically, the situation hadn’t improved at all since the interwar years.’ 

Couldn’t have put the case better myself – and most grammar school rejects didn’t have parents who could afford to take the steps Jeremy Warner’s parents did.  Then there were the working class children who passed the eleven plus and whose parents still couldn’t afford to send their children to the grammar school because of the cost of uniform and equipment, and because they knew their child would have to leave school and go to work at fifteen anyway for financial reasons. I would only add that even for those lucky enough to get to grammar school, the future was not necessarily rosy.  At the Yorkshire grammar school I went to in the 1960s there was streaming.  Only the top of the three streams was expected to go to university.  The B stream was largely destined for office jobs.  As for the C stream, a lot of them left school at 15 without qualifications.  I remember one friend of mine who made it up from the C stream to the B stream and finally stayed on to the sixth form to take A levels.  She was a notable exception.

Grammar schools came into being when universal secondary education was introduced in Britain in 1944, but with a divided system:  grammar schools, secondary moderns and technical schools, of which there were very few.  Selection came on the basis of the 11 plus exam.  However, ‘passing’ for the grammar school still depended where you lived, because percentages going to grammar school varied widely throughout the country depending on the number of grammar schools in the area.

There are still 163 grammar schools in existence in England out of about 3000 state secondaries.  There are 69 in Northern Ireland, though none in Scotland and Wales. A few counties and local authorities in England have kept largely selective school systems, including Kent, Medway, Buckinghamshire and Lincolnshire.  Gloucestershire, Trafford and Slough have a mix.  In Birmingham, Bournemouth and some London boroughs there are a few grammar schools in areas otherwise fully comprehensive. In areas with grammars there are indications of the inequalities this system perpetuates. In those areas fewer than three per cent of all children going to grammar schools are entitled to free school meals, compared with an average of 18% in the other schools in the area.  The proportion of children with special educational needs is 4.3% in grammar schools compared with 14.2% nationally. 

Sadly the stratification characteristic of a class society was not done away with when comprehensive schools became the norm from the 1960s onwards.  Streaming, setting and individualised teaching within the ‘mixed ability’ class all ensured that it continued.  How else can we explain a GCSE exam with 7 grades, plus unclassified?  Only the top three grades, A, B and C, really counted. 

Then there is the hierarchy of schools themselves exposed by the league tables, and the vicious punishments in the form of ‘special measures’ visited on the teachers, pupils and parents at the schools that don’t make the grade – overwhelmingly working class ones. So although it is quite right to oppose the reintroduction of grammar schools, the current state of secondary education in Britain is still nothing to celebrate.  Even without grammar schools, one comprehensive can be very different in its class intake and academic output than another.


And then there are academies.  The Labour government of Tony Blair established academies through the Learning and Skills Act 2000.  The chief architect of the policy was Andrew Adonis, who developed the policy in his capacity as education advisor to the Prime Minister in the late 1990s.  This is the same Andrew Adonis who more recently suggested demolishing council estates.  Academies were supposed to cure the problems of ‘failing’ schools. Private sponsors were at first required to put in some money, but this was later dropped.  They now receive all their funding direct from the government, which also approves their establishment.

The number of academies has grown rapidly first under the Coalition government and now under the Conservatives.  The Academies Act 2010 sought to increase the number of academies, which duly rose to 3,444 at 1 November 2013. This privatisation of schools, where instead of being run by the local education authority, money is given directly to the charitable trust which undertakes to run the school, makes it even harder to achieve equality of provision.

 Academies can introduce their own salaries, wages and working conditions. According to the Times Educational Supplement “Some academies require staff to be available during the school holiday, while others put no upper limit on working hours.”  The separation of the education service into academy chains makes it harder for unions to operate and for those who work in the schools to stand up for themselves. 

Several academies in the London Borough of Hackney where I live do not have staff rooms for their large staffs.  One head explained this to me: the staff oversee the children throughout the day, so the children are better behaved and the job is easier.  Sounds unlikely, and in any case this is at the cost of the teachers.  I have visited new schools designed with enormous central atriums and glass sided classrooms. Pupils – and teachers – are being constantly watched.  There is a touch of the old grammar school in some of the things going on.  One local academy does not allow their pupils to linger in the streets in school uniform.  They are supposed to go straight home and change.  It does not allow ‘street talk’ in the school.  This is not about education – it is about control.

Corruption and exclusion

Academies offer the opportunity for personal enrichment.  Heads of academies are often paid salaries far in excess of those of heads in local authority run schools.  Then there are the cases of corruption.  In March 2016 Perry Beeches The Academy Trust multi-academy trust was found to have deleted financial records for £2.5 million of free school meals funding, and that the chief executive was being paid by sub-contractors as well as the trust.  In August 2016 the former principal and founder of Kings Science Academy, the former financial director, and a former teacher who was the founder’s sister were found guilty of defrauding public funds of £150,000.

Academies attempt to keep a record of high academic standards by skewing their pupil roll.  In March 2005 the House of Commons Education and Skills Select Committee noted that two Middlesbrough academies had expelled 61 pupils, compared to just 15 from all other secondary schools in the borough. A 2012 investigation by BBC2’s Newsnight highlighted the practice of ‘unofficial exclusion’, easing out troublesome pupils who might undermine an academy’s stability and position in the school league tables.

Then there is distortion of the curriculum.  Academies do not have to follow the national curriculum except in the core subjects of maths, English and science, although they still participate in the same Key Stage 3 and GCSE exams.  An analysis of league table data quoted in 2012, done by Terry Wrigley, editor of the international journal Improving Schools and visiting professor at Leeds Metropolitan University, showed that 68 per cent of academies relied more heavily on vocational qualifications than the average state school, and that this inflated their results. 

Nevertheless in 2011 60 per cent of pupils in non-academy schools attained five A* to C grade GCSEs, compared to just 47 per cent in the (then) 249 sponsored academies.  This year a major study by the Education Policy Institute found no significant differences in performance between academies and local council run schools, and that multi-academy trusts running at least five schools performed worse than local council run schools.

Despite all this, local people have little chance of stopping their children’s school becoming an academy.  Nobody, apart from the Education Secretary and the governors, can stop the process of local authority schools becoming academies.  There is no requirement to consult parents, staff, or anyone else.  There are examples of schools becoming academies despite almost total opposition from parents and teachers.

The government has dropped its proposal that all schools should be forced to become academies.  This is most likely because it has already guaranteed the continued increase in the number of academies through the Academies Act 2010 by taking away the powers from councils to open new schools, while at the same time leaving them with the responsibility for making sure there are enough school places.  In 2014 the Local Government Association found that 89 per cent of people in England wanted councils to have the power to open new schools, but this wish has been ignored by the government.    

But back to grammar schools – why are they being raised again now?  Perhaps it is as a diversion from exposure of the failings of academies.  But perhaps it is also a smoke screen for the cuts in spending on schools.  The government has largely frozen average school spending per pupil in real terms between 2011 -12 and 2015-16, and is now committed to freezing school spending per pupil in cash terms up to 2019-20.  It is also proposing to introduce a national funding formula for schools in England from 2017 onwards.  If implemented, this would largely abolish the role of local authorities in the school funding system.

Maybe the government wants to find ways of concentrating this reduced spending on the elite products of state schools, and maybe re-introducing grammar schools would be one way of doing it.


[1] Daily Telegraph, 30 Aug. 2016

Sutton Grammar School, one of five remaining grammar schools in the London Borough of Sutton.