Why Isn’t the Grammar School Debate Dead?

The fact that grammar schools do not help students from poorer backgrounds has always been as clear to me as the benefits of vaccinating your child; there’s loads of evidence and it’s all pretty conclusive (if you’re anti-vaccination, you really may as well stop here).

However, how can the Prime Minister, in all seriousness, propose an expansion of the selective model? Well, partly because most people agree with her:


But how has this huge dissonance between perception and evidence-based reality occurred? I have spent the past few days trying to find research that suggests selective schools are good for children from poorer backgrounds. I have been unable to find any such evidence (please let me know if you find any). However, I have repeatedly come across the following arguments that need debunking:

1. “Grammar schools outperform other state schools.”

Yes, of course they do. By definition they only recruit the most academically able pupils. The question is whether or not they benefit all pupils across the full range of abilities.

2. “I went to a grammar school and it was great.”

This is anecdotal evidence. Education policy should be based on an analysis of data and the use of academic studies that look at the whole picture, not individual stories. I have absolutely no doubt that there are many people from poor backgrounds who have had brilliant experiences of grammar schools. The problem is there are many more who have been negatively affected by selective education systems more broadly. The problem is in order to create balance, the media often give equal coverage to anecdotal evidence and good, solid data. As there is no research evidence that grammar schools work, pro-selection advocates are forced to rely on personal experience.

3. “They give kids from poorer backgrounds a chance to succeed.”

Sadly not. Again, those lucky few who do get into grammar schools may achieve slightly higher. However, they really are the few. The Sutton Trust found that on average only 3% of grammar school pupils are eligible for Free School Meals (FSM). This is compared to the 18% of the FSM eligible pupils in selective counties. Moreover, they found that If you have two similarly achieving 11 year olds, the non-FSM pupil will be 26% more likely to go on to grammar school.

Not only is it much harder for kids from poor backgrounds to get into grammar schools, but poorer kids in selective counties do worse than poorer kids in non-selective counties.

grammar school infographics-06.png
The richest kids do slightly better in selective counties; the poorest kids do worse.

The jury’s even out on whether or not the few students from more deprived backgrounds who actually attend grammar schools even do that well. In the heyday of grammar schools, only 0.3% of pupils who achieved two A-levels were from the skilled working class.

4. “If you don’t like them, don’t send your kids there. It’s about offering choice.”

This is the argument offered by, among others, Douglas Carswell (UKIP MP for Clacton). It’s a sort of libertarian point of view (which, Carswell, incidentally, doesn’t extend to gay marriage rights). There are two key problems with this argument. The first is that selective schools cut down choice for most people; they exclude the majority of children. Grammar schools are anti-choice; the schools choose the pupils, not the other way around.

Secondly, is it really the choice that parents want? A recent survey by the National Foundation for Educational Research showed that 72% of parents felt that they had sufficient choice. The two most desired attributes of a school were its location and that it ‘suits my child’. These points do not preclude grammars, but they are not specifically achieved through the expansion of a selective system. Moreover, NFER found that the parents of the most disadvantaged children were, in any case, less likely to take advantage of increased choice than their wealthier peers, further undermining the argument that grammar schools promote social mobility.

5. “Create ‘tutor-proof’ entrance exams.”

Private tutoring is often used by wealthy parents to give their kids an edge, thereby skewing selective systems in favour of the rich. Theresa May’s solution: create ‘tutor-proof’ entrance exams. The problem is, it’s pretty difficult to create an exam that you can’t coach people for. In fact they tried it in Buckinghamshire in 2014 (a county containing 41% of the nation’s grammar school pupils). Following the introduction of the ‘tutor-proof’ exams, the numbers of students eligible for FSM passing the exam actually dropped.

6. “Some kids are academic, some aren’t.”

It is very difficult to assess a child’s academic potential at 11. As Sam Freedman writes, an estimated 70,000 kids a year were assessed inaccurately at the height of the grammar school movement. Not to mention the fact that pupils develop and learn at varying rates. Does a kid struggle cognitively, or have they just been taught badly? We should be pushing all children to their academic potential, instead of labelling them as inadequate (and even if you don’t mind telling a kid they’re stupid, you just can’t measure it accurately at 11).

But there’s another angle. Just because a kid doesn’t find the study of Shakespeare easy, doesn’t mean they should be deprived of the opportunity to understand and enjoy his work. There is no reason to teach a different curriculum to academically weaker students, you just have to think about it a little differently. Moreover, just because a student is academically ‘strong’, doesn’t mean they wouldn’t enjoy more traditionally ‘vocational’ subjects. A two-tier system is more likely to reduce the range of subjects and choice available to pupils.

7. “The anti-grammar movement is ideologically driven.”

No it’s not. Ideological is clinging onto a belief in the face of an overwhelming amount of evidence to the contrary.

All of the highest achieving education systems in the world are comprehensive (Korea and Finland for example). All of the evidence suggests that grammar schools do not work as a tool to promote upward social mobility. All pro-grammar statements are underpinned by a sense of resignation – condemning the kids who don’t make the cut to a substandard education and a strong feeling of inadequacy. We should be bolder, braver and more ambitious about what we can achieve for all young people.



1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s