Debate: the prospect of new grammar schools


James Evans: Selection surely benefits bright and motivated students…

As an insider, the re-emergence of the debate about grammar schools has a distinctly personal feel. Between 2008 and 2015, I attended one in Wirral, Merseyside; while my status as a product of the grammar school system will never change, I am far from blind to its flaws.

Grammar schools are, in many ways, fantastic. They push the brightest to achieve, they are filled with teachers who are largely unburdened by disciplinary matters and are enthusiastic to impart wisdom to receptive audiences, and perhaps most importantly – they are free. With some hard work, those lucky enough to walk their corridors are set to achieve some of the best exam results, attend the best universities, and rise quickly in their careers.

But this isn’t the whole story. Current discourse has spoken of grammars as a method by which to give students a ‘leg up’ in their education; a system in which the brightest and most hard working are able to succeed much in the same way an efficient firm performs better in a market. Gone are the original 1944 Education Act arguments about sending students to schools best suited to their needs (grammars for the academic students, technical schools for the technically minded, and secondary moderns for those who need greater support and would benefit more from vocational study), and with them any notion that grammars are about anything but helping a lucky few. By endorsing the introduction of selection on these new terms, the government is in essence endorsing a system whereby the great majority of the population is educated in schools deemed unsatisfactory for our intellectual elite.

The government is in essence endorsing a system whereby the great majority of the population is educated in schools deemed unsatisfactory for our intellectual elite.

But beyond this, grammars present wider social problems. Britain is a society permeated by class, and even today 76% of white working class boys do not achieve 5A*-C grades at GCSE. This, when you consider the GCSE results of the average Oxford student, is nothing short of appalling, and it is unclear (even with the vague promise of quotas) how grammars will help arrest this problem. For decades, grammars have been the bastions of the middle class, and have been consistently shown to do little for social mobility. Pupils whose parents that can afford tutors (I have friends that were tutored for over a year) have a distinct advantage, as do those whose parents had the time and resources to take them to museums, the theatre, and buy them mountains of books from an early age. It is nothing short of delusional to assume that you can solve the social and educational problems of Wirral towns like Birkenhead and Ellesmere Port, or deprived districts of inner city Liverpool or Manchester, by plonking grammar schools on their most impoverished streets.

The argument about grammars is undoubtedly going to rage for months to come, and while the arguments here barely scratch the surface of this intensely complex issue, I cannot help but feel trapped between two worlds. My own experience of grammar school was undeniably positive, and while I am grateful for everything it gave I remain acutely aware both of my own privilege and the fact grammars do little to help those in the greatest need. Grammars are not a quick fix – and at a time where school budgets are being slashed I cannot help but feel that now is not the moment to usher in a new age of selection.


Mayu Noda: …but does it rest on socioeconomic background?

Having had the majority of my post-primary school education in Japan, the constant heated debates in the UK surrounding the nature of state, grammar, and private schools were initially thoroughly baffling. Education is a class issue, and one that is – from my experience – particularly prominent in the UK; there is a snobbery surrounding one’s educational background here that I rarely sensed in Japan.

Grammar schools, whilst ‘free’, are not blind to socioeconomic backgrounds; those who belong to families that can afford to hire tutors for them and buy resources such as books would have a better chance of performing well in admissions examinations for selective schools. The foundation of the inequality in the education system is the same one that haunts children until university (indeed, if they have the opportunity to attend university); Oxford seems to epitomise this unjustness. Theresa May’s proposed ‘solution’ to this problem of social inequality is to increase the number of grammar schools; it is, however, one that promises to aggravate the issue further. Increase grammar schools and therefore increase the number of available grammar school places to make ‘free’ and selective education more available – the ‘social mobility’ policy seems logical enough upon first glance.

However, the reality of the plan is that it seems, ironically enough, to blot out and conceal from the public eye children who have disadvantaged backgrounds. Whilst a small number of children would probably benefit from attending the newly-built grammar schools – although viewing these children as mere figures, rather than bright individuals who could thoroughly profit from the changes, admittedly risks being dismissive and dangerously dispassionate – the advantages would be countered by the increasingly worsened results for non-selective state schools. Far from allowing for ‘social mobility’, an increase in grammar schools would most likely render the educational gap worse for the least affluent children in the country. It is a policy that almost wilfully swerves its gaze away from the real problem: the quality of education in all schools, particularly state schools.

It is a policy that almost wilfully swerves its gaze away from the real problem

Nevertheless, grammar schools in themselves are not the problem: selectivity in itself is surely not an evil, and the provision of an affordable education to bright and motivated children should be a norm. However, the problem lies in focusing government efforts on grammar schools at the expense of those attending non-selective state schools.

I do not profess to have a grand plan to drastically improve the state of educational – or socioeconomic, for that matter – inequality that the UK is riddled with. However, implementing measures to improve the quality of education in state schools (especially during primary school) by training teachers to a high standard, for instance, would be the surest means of rendering education less discriminatory and more equal.

Presently, education is a commodity; the quality of education that is available to individuals is too heavily dependent on their socio-economic backgrounds, rather than their innate potential or efforts. The future looks somewhat bleak for education with May in power; it seems unlikely that it will become a right, rather than a commodity for the privileged, anytime soon.


Sign up for the newsletter!

Want to contribute? Join our contributors’ group here or email us – click here for contact details