Is the return of Grammar Schools really such a bad thing?

Theresa May’s announcement that Grammar Schools are to make a return has been greeted with near universal dismay. Grammar schools are seen as divisive and instruments of the very social engineering that they are supposed to counter. They, the argument goes, cause more social division by promoting the life chances of those who can afford tuition in order to get in, at the expense of those who cannot. And that may well be the case for the previous and current incarnation of grammar schools, there’s certainly a wealth of data and research which backs this.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

The main opposition to grammar schools is that the counterside of the coin means that you will automatically get secondary moderns. These schools, which have largely disappeared, were set up to cater for those who weren’t able to get into the grammar. Whilst some may have provided a decent education for their pupils, the majority didn’t. Quite rightly, this led them to gain a reputation as a sink-hole, very often condemning children to leave with no qualifications whatsoever. The low aspirations extended beyond academic ability and into behaviour. This led to schools where the staff had barely any control over the behaviour of the pupils, and a vicious cycle of poor expectations, poor behaviour, poor performance. Children who failed the eleven-plus were often reduced to tears at the thought of going there. This was partly due to the schools’ reputation, and partly due to the label that they were only going there because they were grammar school failures. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the bar crept lower and lower.

There is no reason for history to repeat itself. On the basis that only a fool makes the same mistake twice and expects a different result, if more grammar schools becomes a reality we need to ensure that we don’t also create secondary moderns and somehow expect them to perform differently. Instead we need to totally rethink both the way in which we provide education, and the way in which we view education.

One of the often overlooked sections of the tripartite system which gave rise to grammar schools and secondary moderns under the 1944 Butler Act, was the Technical School. These were meant to teach science and engineering to those who intended to go into industry, some also included agriculture. Due to the specific requirements of selection, pupils often went to these at 12 or 13, rather than directly through 11-plus selection. The intake was usually made up of those from the top end of the secondary modern stream. Unfortunately, this led, in part, to their demise. The equipment need to outfit these schools was also expensive and very specialist in nature. However, it seems that they did provide a good education and enabled the pupils to pursue practically-based careers. The stigma of being the poor-man’s grammar was hard to shake off, and in competition with apprenticeships they faced an uphill battle to survive.

We have, it is true, lost much of our industry, so a school focused primarily on this sector is not really feasible. Instead, we could take the best of this system, the provision of a quality education and high expectations, and incorporate it into the new replacements for secondary moderns. These new schools, let’s call them College Schools, could redefine the educational provision for the less academically able. They don’t have to fail those pupils in the way of the old secondary moderns.

So how would these schools work alongside the grammars? It would entail a redefinition of the grammar schools, but given that everything seems to be up for debate at the moment, I’m not sure that’s beyond reason. Rather than allowing the grammars to elect to only educate the top 25% as happened previously, we should look to a system where the grammars widen their intake a little. To balance this, the ‘college schools’ would overlap with some of the traditional grammar-stream intake, and provide the sort of academic education that’s currently found in good comprehensives. In conjunction, these ‘college schools’ could provide subjects that the grammars don’t, but with the same expectations of behaviour and perseverance that the grammar schools employ. I’d like to see the two schools linked, so pupils may transfer between them, with the grammar school pupils able to receive a more technically-based education if that’s the route they wish to pursue, without the feeling that they’ve been branded a failure. Pupils who express a wish to work as a car mechanic but who are not academically able, would be able to receive a good quality education and obtain GCSEs, whilst at the same time being given basic training in their chosen career. I’d like to see the hairdressers of the future be exposed to German and Latin, and to be able to study for a qualification in these if they wish. I want the quality of teaching in these ‘college schools’ to be at least as good as, if not better, than that in the grammars. Would it be difficult? Yes. But it wouldn’t be impossible.

Comprehensives already provide both academic and vocational courses to a certain degree. So what would be the benefit of splitting into two distinct schools? The main one, I think, is that it would remove the stigma of the bottom set. Teachers very often dread teaching Year 9 Set 7, and pupils dread being labelled as such. Poor behaviour is often a given with a bottom set, they know they’re the least able in the school, and know they aren’t viewed as valuable in terms of those league table boosting results. Specialist equipment is also expensive and may take up a lot of room, often comprehensives don’t have adequate facilities for the number of pupils who would benefit from the more practical elements I’ve proposed above. Many comprehensives also don’t have the physical space necessary to enable this.

Grammar schools are popular with parents because they are perceived to have entrenched good behaviour and high expectations. There is absolutely no reason that these ideals could not be applied to less academically rigorous educational establishments. I don’t think the majority of parents really want to ‘hot house’ their children. They want them to receive a good education, worthwhile qualifications and to work hard, but they don’t want them to be subject to undue pressure. They also know of the grammars’ reputation for strict enforcement of codes of behaviour.

Unfortunately, we have to face the very uncomfortable fact that not all children are academically gifted. Some are naturally very bright and thrive in a challenging academic environment, whilst others will be unable to cope in such an environment, and are in danger of being left to fall by the wayside.

Schools already segregate children by ability, either by streaming or setting. Very often children of different abilities will not mix during the school day apart from during PE and at lunch. Sometimes, due to the constraints of timetabling or a split lunch hour, pupils don’t mix even then. The most extreme example of this is Stationers’ Crown Woods Academy in Greenwich. This school is split into three mini schools, which operate more or less autonomously. The brightest pupils join Delamere, with the remainder of the school body split between other ‘mini schools’ on the same campus. They all operate and educate separately. Does it work? How do the pupils feel? I have no idea, and I’d welcome comment from anyone with first-hand experience. The school, it must be said, is not without controversy.

As well as splitting pupils by setting and streaming we currently have a school system that divides by income. Wealthier parents are able to move to areas with ‘good’ schools, condemning poorer pupils to go to the schools their better-off contemporaries shun. That in itself is socially divisive and does nothing for social mobility.

What we need is an education rethink, a revolution of academic provision. And we need to start with our perceptions of both schools and pupils.

Why should pupils who are not suited to grammar schools be seen as failures? Why don’t we start to see those who attend the ‘college schools’ as successes in their own right? Selection by ability doesn’t have to mean that only the most academically able are considered worthy of a good education. It also doesn’t mean that schools who educate the less academically able are doing so due to default, rather than choice. A pupil who goes to a grammar school could easily be viewed as being someone who failed to get into a ‘college school’. It doesn’t have to be a one-way system.

My thoughts are just rough ideas at the moment – there are many holes that could be picked in them, and there are probably a dozen better ways of addressing the proposed emergence of more grammar schools. I think it’s worth considering that although the data shows that grammar schools don’t improve social mobility, and may hinder the options of poorer pupils, our current comprehensive system already fails many hundreds of children a year. For that reason alone, something needs to change.

In order to implement this change and make it a success we need to change some of our fundamental preconceptions. We need to dispense with the idea that the only education worth having is an academic one, and understand that the very best education is the one that is suited to the child and enables them to go into the world equipped to succeed in whatever field they choose.

The perception that the best schools are the ones that get the highest results is wrong in itself. It perpetuates the myth that success is only admirable if it can be measured in exam results and university degrees.

And I think that says more about society’s innate prejudice against the less academically-gifted than we care to admit.

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6 Responses to Is the return of Grammar Schools really such a bad thing?

  1. Brian says:

    Likely there are all sorts of alternatives, different flavours of the ideas you have described.

    What is likely to happen however is that the best few in each school will be attracted to the newly converted grammars which are the best of the worst comprehensives. These new entities will be semi-grammars.

    The rest (which will be dominated by the most disadvantaged) will fill those non-grammars.
    If it hasn’t already been said, you will soon hear the politicians say…”don’t worry we will put safeguards in place”, and that will be th etime to really start worrying.

    • Unfortunately, you paint a realistic picture of how things are likely to turn out.

      I just wish someone had the courage to see this as an opportunity to create a system that benefits all pupils.

      The current system is largely a mess and, for all its good intentions, lets down those who most need support. The whole thing really does need reform.

  2. ad says:

    Children who failed the eleven-plus were often reduced to tears at the thought of going there.

    This reminds me of my mother, who was expected to pass the 11+, but didn’t. It didn’t bother her at all. Why should she be ashamed of being in the top set (or the top of a mixed-ability class) at a secondary modern instead of the bottom set at a grammar?

    It’s not obviously worse than failing to get in to a Russell Group university, after all.

    Of course, the real scandel is that people do not associate comprehensives with “entrenched good behaviour and high expectations”. (And from my own experience of moving between the two, they are right.) That is not the grammar schools fault. That is the fault of the people who have run the comprehensives and secondary moderns.

    • Yes! Why is the automatic assumption that the re-emergence of the grammars will lead to resurrection of failing secondary moderns?

      If the non-grammar schools follow the same expectations of achievement in the chosen subject & good behaviour then less academic children have the chance of a good education without the pressure to produce fabled A*-C results.

      Increasing university fees are also likely to lead children & parents to consider a more vocational route to their chosen career. A technical type school could be a good way to begin this journey.

      Also, as you say, children may well feel happier in an environment where they are not seen as the bottom of an academic pool.

  3. ijstock says:

    Well written. As usual, we are getting only one (the usual) counter argument, when it is actually a far more complex issue as I have also just written about. Many of the objections are actually to other difficulties.

    There is also no reason why selection has to be on ability rather than aptitude, nor why it needs to be done, irrevocably, aged eleven by a stigmatised, sudden-death exam.

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