Grammar schools will never solve Oxford’s access problem

Comment

One of this government’s most controversial proposed policies, now set to be passed by the new prime minister, is the reintroduction of grammar schools, which were first banned eighteen years ago. This is not surprising – with the appointment of Theresa May, the Conservative Party has waved goodbye to a Bullingdon-led cabinet for a Tory government led by a woman, who personally benefitted from the existence of grammar schools.

For some, the reintroduction would allow for brighter students to flourish, whilst others see it as a step back to an old system that failed many children. I am not going to repeat what many have already said on the policy itself; instead, I wish to discuss it in relation to access in Oxford. This seems fitting as Theresa May herself went from a grammar school to St Hugh’s, and she is therefore something of a grammar school success story. It should be noted that before the phasing out of grammar schools, more state school students were successful in obtaining places at Oxford, as the selective system provides an environment where better grades can be achieved and more emphasis can be placed on university applications. Nevertheless, I think supporting the policy would be to allow for an admissions system of inequality to arise, making it yet another issue ‘access’ would have to face.

Coming from a London borough where many grammar schools remained even after the ban, I have been exposed to the impact grammar schools have on truly comprehensive schools. With parents naturally wanting the ‘best’ education for their children, those who can afford tuition for grammar school entrance exams spend extortionate amounts to help prepare their child for the English, Maths, Verbal and Non-Verbal reasoning papers they will sit when they are eleven. There is nothing stopping a child who has not been tutored from sitting the test, of course, but few manage to shine when they lack practise and insider knowledge, even if they are naturally more intelligent than those who have been tutored. This means that the grammar school manages to select children from middle class families as opposed to the most intelligent primary school children. An increase in the amount of grammar schools in the country would then mean that an even higher percentage of the ‘state’ sector students in Oxford would be from privileged, middle class backgrounds, coming from families that would be able to pay private school fees if their child happened to fail the entrance exam.

However, even if the problem of tuition was erased, grammar schools still would not aid access’ cause. This is because if a large quantity of bright students are taken out of the comprehensive system, it means that those who are not deemed intelligent at the age of eleven are left with dismal academic prospects. An eleven year old who struggles in non-verbal reasoning but develops a love for reading at the age of fourteen is given the even tougher task of trying to excel among a student body that is lacking a rounded range of abilities. We could quickly find ourselves back in a system where your future is more or less decided for you at the age of eleven and where the comprehensive school becomes a sort of ‘secondary modern’ – my grandmother attended just such an institution, and has ever since viewed herself as less intelligent than her three siblings, who passed the eleven plus. This sort of mindset, alongside the lack of an environment that allows each child to achieve to the best of their ability, would allow for children as young as eleven to see an Oxbridge education as unattainable simply due to the type of school they attend. Not only would many students still decide not to apply to Oxford because they think it is a place reserved for rich, privately educated students, but there would be a subsequent division of those unable to apply due to their secondary education, making Oxford almost completely out of reach from the lower classes.

Creating a highly selective education system is not the way to go if institutions like Oxford want to solve the problem of a lack of class diversity.

It is therefore clear that creating a highly selective education system is not the way to go if institutions like Oxford want to solve the problem of a lack of class diversity. If the reintroduction of grammar schools does take place, it would then be important for Oxford not to sit back and watch its grammar school percentage rise, as that would be to fail those from poorer backgrounds who cannot afford tuition and those who develop academically at a later stage. Already, year on year, we see over forty percent of Oxford’s undergraduate cohort coming from private schools – a shocking figure made more worrying when one considers that only 6.5% of the UK’s children attend private schools. Even now, before the impending reintroduction of selective schools, a huge portion of state school students accepted at Oxford are from those grammar schools that remained after the ban, with many of these students only adding to the middle and upper-middle class majority. An increase in these types of schools would threaten to wipe out those few students that come from truly comprehensive schools and lower class backgrounds, making Oxford an even more elite community than it is today. To support their reintroduction is to support only the privileged – something Oxford does not need more of.