The problem with grammar schools

There is an unspoken truth at this university that the so-called “Oxford experience” is shaped by accessibility. In my time here, I have asked myself what this means for the strange “in between” that grammar schools occupy. The educational background sits uncomfortably between state comprehensive and private education, questioning what camp a free yet selective school fits into, within a model so steeped with socioeconomic inequality.

In 2022, 68.1% of Oxford admissions came from state schools, but no line is drawn to understand the figures of selective and non-selective students. At eleven years old, I can’t say much of this thinking went into applying to the grammar school I attended. When I reflect on the experience now, however, I believe that it gave me a first hand view of how the system is failing both society and its own students.

Selective education has been a feature in the British education system for centuries, but modern grammar schools can be drawn back to the Education Act of 1944. This aimed to reduce inequality in post-war secondary education by making it free, but at the same time created a two-tier system. Grammar schools were to focus on academic studies, while secondary modern schools encouraged children to enter into trades.

Such an archaic idea of “potential” led to much criticism of the system. As levied by Labour politicians in the 1950s and 60s, it led to grammar schools being phased out in large parts of the country. Some became comprehensive, while others became fee-paying, explaining why many private schools have “grammar” in the name. Only 35 local authorities still retain the institutions, and a mere 5.3% of the total number of state-funded secondary pupils attended them in 2022.

So why does the debate on their existence rage on in such a minority? There is already a prohibition against new grammar schools, meaning only those that used selective admissions since the 1997/98 school year may continue to do so. However, this was drawn into contention when my fellow grammar school and St Hugh’s alumnus Theresa May announced plans to withdraw the restriction in 2016 “to create more good school places”.

…it would be wrong to ignore the inequality they promote, (but) even within their own parameters the model is a failure

This followed a controversial moment in 2015 where ministers allowed a grammar school to set up a new “annexe” in another town, pushing the limits of what could really be a “genuine expansion”. Upon questioning, education secretary Nicky Morgan held she did not “want to fight the battles of selective and non-selective” and this was its own peculiar set of circumstances. Many supporters and opponents of grammar schools saw through this though, and the debate returned. 

The shadow education secretary Lucy Powell condemned grammar schools, stating that “[they] do not increase equality of opportunity, they make it worse”. She highlighted the problematic admissions tests as “the preserve of the privately tutored”, believing that grammar school’s claim of social mobility was fatally flawed.

The allocation of places at grammar schools is based on an examination taken by children in the last year of primary school, known as the “11 plus”. Year six pupils have to tackle a test that claims to assess “natural ability”, which is thus forced to be questions alien to their education so far. Its distinct assessment of numerical, verbal, and non-verbal reasoning attracts the attention of the private tutoring business and allows more affluent parents to effectively “cheat the system”.

The Social Research Institute at UCL found that candidates whose families are ranked in the top 10% socioeconomic status were 50% more likely to gain entry into a grammar school, suggesting tutoring among other factors were superseding any true social mobility. In my own exam year, there was significant effort to make the model “tutor-proof”, yet I was one of only three pupils in top set maths that was not receiving this tutoring. I was faced with concepts I had never encountered before in the test, and questioned how some lucky guesswork on my part showed any real academic ability.

Without looking at existing academic achievements to assess both the talent and commitment of a student, how can the model understand if a student would suit a grammar school? Both the dominance of private tutoring and the rejection of any familiarity make the test a futile attempt at finding the ever vague idea of “potential”.

Selection processes are certainly not the only issue faced by the education system in this country. Location is a prominent problem for equal access to quality education. University research found that admissions dependent on distance between home and school can effectively amount to a “size of your mortgage” entrance requirement. Problems of regional division also need an answer, to which some respond with grammar schools allowing so-called “gifted” children to expand their options regardless of where they live.

However, across grammar schools in England there are additional admissions criteria to select students among the successful 11 plus candidates, including “catchment area” requirements. What sets grammar schools apart is still the first step of testing, but the general features of inaccessibility remain.

Beyond the problematic access to grammar schools, once a student joins is their attainment significantly better than at state comprehensive? The Attainment 8 measure totals students on eight government approved subjects at GCSE before averaging for the school. In 2022, grammar schools received 74.1 under this analysis. In contrast, state-funded secondary schools achieved 44.2 in highly selective areas and 48.9 in non-highly selective areas, referring to how significant the presence of selective education is in those areas.

From such statistics it would appear grammar schools achieve what they set out to do: selective social mobility by promoting high academic standards. However, the truth in these figures is that prior attainment is the driving factor. Measuring those with high prior attainment makes the scores 77 for grammar schools, and for non-selective schools 62.6 in highly selective areas and 68.4 in other areas.

This would make grammar schools a channel for students with existing talent and privileged backgrounds rather than a significant tool for social mobility and development. On average, their pupils only achieve a third of a grade higher across eight GCSE subjects than their comprehensive counterparts. Though it would be wrong to ignore the inequality they promote, even within their own parameters the model is a failure.

The problems, however, don’t end at academic attainment, but rather at the opportunities that follow. Professor Lindsey Macmillan at UCL has expressed from evidence that students in areas with a strong grammar school presence have their opportunities intensely impacted by school choice. She held that state comprehensive students are “less likely to go to university” and “less likely to earn as much as adults”, disadvantaging swathes of students from less privileged backgrounds.

From my own anecdotal evidence, I know I would likely not be at this university if I had not passed the 11 plus to go to my school. My home town’s options were largely selective grammar or faith schools. The key fully non-selective academy only offers the IB Career-related Programme at Sixth Form, which Oxford does not accept in its admissions process. It seems that the backwardness of the academic versus trade-based education division of the 1944 Education Act somehow persists in the 21st century.

The inaccessibility of grammar schools means they can never be a true tool for social mobility

I admit that my life will forever be shaped by my ability to guess some maths questions I didn’t understand at age eleven, but does that not show the deep flaws of the grammar school model? Its supporters should understand that the inaccessibility of grammar schools means they can never be a true tool for social mobility, but at the same time the 11 plus’ futility and the absence of a significant attainment gap undermines the system from within.

Image credit: Sutton Grammar School, SUTTON, Surrey, Greater London by AP Monblat, licensed under CC 4.0, cropped from original. 

Image description: Exterior of Sutton Grammar School.