Monday, 3 October 2016

Grammar Schools: Can They Make The Cut?

by Philippa Noble


It may seem long ago, but after the pandemonium of the summer, Theresa May has taken to the stage and announced a plan for new grammar schools, provoking much discussion throughout society. A very poetic divide in the genre of arguments shows us both the head and the heart of Britain.

The general demographic of believers in grammar schools covers concerned parents, ex-pupils of grammar schools, and the middle class. Many arguments from this sector are emotional: including things such as loyalty, ambition, and their own pride of being accepted into a grammar school.

It is perfectly natural for parents to want the best for their children and, for some, supporting grammar schools is the best for them. Many have gained from attending a grammar school and the results obtained by the majority of pupils are higher than those from comprehensives.

Nevertheless, other parents believe that creating a two-tiered system (implying a separation from the academics and those that just aren’t good enough) could affect the children’s confidence and ambition in the future. I’m sure that a great deal of people would agree that branding children for life at the age of 11 leads to a sorry work ethic for the children that were marked “others”. Yet, this argument is becoming less and less relevant as, if you continue to research May’s proposal, she pushes for channels into grammar schools at ages 11, 14, and 16 to attempt to remove this labelling.

Economists have spent large amounts of time researching this topic and relaying their findings to the public through the media. Their main message denotes that grammar schools prove to be contrary to their own purpose – to improve social mobility. It has been shown that rather than improving this, the schools exacerbate the already widely split society. The tests appear to enable children from poorer backgrounds to access more academically focussed education, however, by the age of 11, children from well off backgrounds already have the upper hand due to attending private primary schools (with a better quality of education) and tutoring in the subjects they fall behind in. Grammar schools, as they stand today, cause more harm than good to society as a whole. Researchers (Adele Atkinson, Paul Gregg, and Brendon McConnell) have found that children from better-off backgrounds were almost two times as likely to attend a grammar school compared to those from poorer backgrounds with the same underlying ability (measured from Key Stage 2 test scores) – 32% of children eligible for free school meals contrasted by 60% of more well off children.

From these arguments, some could draw the conclusion that grammar schools have out-stayed their welcome – or that with some fine-tuning a better situation could be created. Many alternatives and solutions have been suggested throughout the course of this debate.


Firstly, the German education system has gained a lot of interest recently from those trying to find examples of better approaches to streaming children. In short, there are three main types of secondary schools: Hauptschule (slower paced education with some vocational courses), Realschule (courses leading to vocational training – with the ability to switch to the Gymnasium), and the Gymnasium (preparing students for university study and teaching a wide range of subjects, including two foreign languages). This set up allows for middle ground, specialisation, and moving in between certain streams later on in the pupils’ school career. Furthermore, there isn’t just a societal concentration on academically focussed education: vocational training is also highly valued and parents are more than willing to utilise the well-funded streams Germany provides.

Secondly, as May has proposed in part, we can raise the education level in state primary schools so there would be no need for private primary schools – or, at least, no edge gained by private schools. May has stated that new selective schools may be required to set up “feeder” primary schools in more disadvantaged areas. However, this may not be enough to decrease the seemingly widening gap between rich and poor children aged 11. Perhaps, more funds should be invested into equal primary education before looking forward and ignoring herculean hurdles.

Thirdly, standing alone as more food for thought than a plan of action, we should call upon ourselves to consider what matters to us more: raising the base level of education for our whole society, or training a small percentage to go on to become great in their fields. With an ever-growing population of over-educated citizens, we find many in our society in jobs they are far over-qualified for. However, increasing social mobility through education keeps morale high and productivity higher.


All in all, the question really isn’t whether grammar schools are a force of good or evil. It’s whether we think our current society will truly benefit from these new implementations. What we know of grammar schools seems to be changing – just how drastically will soon be clear. Nevertheless, if the end goal is to open up opportunities to those who would have missed the cut previously, who are we to argue?

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