Grammar Schools

The British government says it wants to open more grammar schools, so why is the education establishment so opposed?


The Prime Minister, Theresa May has vowed to lift the ban on the creation of new grammar schools. She says it will boost social mobility, so why is the educational establishment opposed?

Hello, I’m Leon Hawthorne. We’re talking about selective education… schools that admit children based on academic ability… usually ascertained by an entrance exam at the age of 11. The 11-plus.

Grammar schools were mostly abolished in the 1960s and 70s; and replaced by comprehensive schools that CANNOT select children on their academic ability.

The argument against grammar schools – then and now – is they cater only for the top 25% of children, usually from middle class or well-off families. And they get disproportionate amounts of public money.

They argue the 11-plus brands children as successes or failures at a young age, which is socially divisive, psychologically damaging to those who fail the exam; and doesn’t cater for late developers.

And a new argument put forward is… if you take all the clever kids from a neighbourhood and put them in a grammar school, the academic performance of the children left behind actually FALLS below the level it would have been if all the children stayed together in comprehensives. In other words, grammar schools worsen the academic performance of children who don’t get in.

OK, let’s take a look at this, piece by piece.

Firstly, grammar schools are excellent for children who go there. Nobody argues with that.

So, the argument about how they impact children who don’t get in… is a bit like telling Usain Bolt he can’t run 100 metres in record breaking speed. Instead, he has to run slower, so the gap between him and the guy at the back of the field isn’t too big…. because that might hurt his feelings.

Shall we sacrifice excellence for mediocrity? I don’t think so.

Let’s look at social mobility.

During the 1950s and 60s, a generation of working class children, who went to grammar schools went on to university, and from there into the higher echelons of society.

Today, performance in comprehensive schools has got better. More low income kids are going to university.

But the university system has changed a lot since the 60s, when fewer than 5% of young people went to university; and thus any degree was a virtual passport to economic success.

With around 40% going to university these days, the currency has been devalued. All we can do is look at who gets the best jobs afterwards.

Who are the CEOs of the top companies? Who are the top judges, civil servants, lawyers, accountants, MPs?

What I see is a generation of grammar school alumni being replaced by more and more of those who were privately educated and come from wealthy families.

It’s true grammar schools are not the only solution to this problem. Good headteachers in comprehensives can make a big difference. But the brightest children will always do better if they are taught with other bright children.

I’m not suggesting we roll back the clock and re-establish the school system we had in the 1960s.

I say: let a thousand flowers bloom. The government should create a framework in which dozens of different types of taxpayer funded school can come come into existence.

Especially ones that allow excellence to be nurtured. Whether that’s elite sports academies, schools for the performing arts, schools that focus on technical crafts… AND grammar schools.

It’s not too difficult to resolve many of the problems identified by opponents of grammar schools.

Instead of one entry exam at age 11, let’s allow children multiple opportunities to qualify at 11, 12, 13. This deals with late developers.

New selective schools could be forced to admit a minimum percentage of children from poor backgrounds, say 25% of those on free school meals. That’s double the national average. This forces these schools to search actively for the brightest children in neighbouring areas.

I also think grammar schools offer a great opportunity for social mobility among black and ethnic minority children, a disproportionate number of whom come from poorer households; and thus are held back by comprehensive schools.

So, let’s abandon the one-size fits all philosophy and allow our brightest children to shine.

I’m Leon Hawthorne. Thanks for watching.

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