Whilst proponents of grammar schools argue that they increase academic attainment and social mobility, this is not really the case.
On Saturday, The Telegraph reported that Theresa May was set to reverse the ban on new grammar schools first introduced by Tony Blair in 1998, with the change possibly being announced as early as the Conservative Party conference in October.
Such a change in policy will delight Conservative backbenchers who grew frustrated throughout David Cameron’s time as Prime Minister over his refusal to budge on the issue, as he focused on the expansion of the existing academy system instead. It also seems as though the public would support an end to the ban on new grammar schools with polling conducted by ORB for The Sunday Telegraph finding that 49 per cent of adults agree that the ban on new grammar schools should end, whilst 23 per cent disagree.
The proponents of grammar schools argue that selective schools increase academic attainment. Graham Brady, the Chairman of the Conservative Party’s 1922 Committee quit David Cameron’s shadow frontbench in 2007 over the then-Leader of the Opposition’s opposition to the expansion of grammar schools. Upon news that the current government planned to end the ban on new grammar schools, Brady stated that this move would ‘raise standards in state education’. However, is this really the case?
Whilst it is true that in areas with selective education, those who get into the selective schools do better, there is little evidence that educational attainment improves across the board. Indeed, whilst those who get into grammar schools tend to do better academically, those who miss out on a place at a grammar school tend to do considerably worse. A study for The Centre for Market and Public Organisation at the University of Bristol found that: “Overall there is little or no impact upon attainment, but those educated in grammar schools do substantially better (around four grade points more than pupils with the same Key Stage 2 points in similar, but non-selective areas). This is equivalent to raising four GCSEs from a grade ‘C’ to a ‘B’. Other children within selective areas who do not gain a place in a grammar school are disadvantaged by a little under one grade point.” This suggests that in areas with selective education, those who fail to make the grade for a place at a grammar school are subsequently left behind by the system. This is reinforced by a 2013 article by the Financial Times where data suggested that overall attainment is lower in areas with selective education systems.
The issue of the attainment of students in selective areas who study at non-grammar schools, isn’t helped by the fact that in areas with selective schooling, non-grammar schools find it difficult to recruit high-quality teaching staff. This means that those who fail to pass the 11-plus and gain entrance to a grammar school, face a far harder task when it comes to future educational achievement. Therefore, the introduction of new grammar schools would be hugely at odds with our current educational orthodoxy of equality of opportunity. And, given that selective schools seem to have little positive effect upon overall attainment, is there really much point in introducing new grammar schools?
Another favourite argument of the proponents of grammar schools is that they are a vehicle for social mobility. Their argument is that as a result of grammar schools, poorer children are able to access a quality of education which would otherwise only be available in a private school. However, although in theory this is true, it remains the case that poorer children are far more likely to miss out on a place at grammar school than wealthier children. The reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, by the time of taking the 11-plus exam, there is already a significant educational divide between children from poorer families and children from wealthier families. Children from poorer families are more likely to be behind at the age of eleven, and consequently are less likely to gain a place at a grammar school by passing the 11-plus. Secondly, the 11-plus is not an appropriate way for selecting who gains a place in a grammar school as it gives an unfair advantage to those from wealthier families. Parents living in selective schooling areas have been known to spend huge amounts of money on tutors who can coach their children to pass the 11-plus and gain a place at a grammar school. This option is not available for those children from poorer families, meaning that the tests are further skewed against them. Ultimately, this means that grammar schools contain a disproportionate amount of children from wealthier families, at the expense of those from poorer families for whom the tests are rather unfair. Although it is true that some children from poorer families are successful, the majority are hindered by the system and miss out on any benefits. This is illustrated by the fact that so few grammar school pupils are eligible for free school meals when compared with the national average. Overall grammar schools are clearly not the vehicle for social mobility they are often heralded as.
Ultimately, grammar schools do little to improve overall academic attainment and do little for social mobility. Therefore, there seems little reason for the current ban on grammar schools to be overturned by the government. As well as the fact that grammar schools offer little gain in terms of attainment and social mobility, in the modern world it is wrong to make a judgement on who will likely be academically successful and who will not be, at the age of just eleven. Under a grammar system, the academic talents of those who fail an exam at the age of eleven are wasted, rather than allowing late developers more of a chance to develop and find their academic niche. Rather than select at eleven, academic streaming within a comprehensive school is a far better system.
Grammar schools were originally scrapped because they did not work, and the result following their reintroduction would only be more of the same. All that would happen is that the existing problems of the education system (those of children from wealthier families doing disproportionately better than children from poorer families) would be exacerbated.
Theresa May and Justine Greening should not fall into the trap of pandering to Conservative backbenchers by ending the ban on new grammar schools. To do so would only serve to worsen inequality in education and reduce attainment overall. Instead, they should focus upon improving standards in existing state schools. Over the past few years many state schools have been pulling ahead of private schools in terms of academic attainment (which raises questions over whether the aim of grammar schools to provide private school quality, is desirable any longer), and continued investment can ensure that this continues. In addition, the government needs to work out how to reverse the worrying trend of people not wanting to become teachers, with it being crucial to ensure the brightest and best are around to teach the next generation.
Overall, for our education system, grammar schools are not the answer.