Grammar schools to combat ‘elitism’?

Before writing this piece I must declare an interest; I attended a local authority grammar school during the early 1960s.  Indeed, it was one of the first Co-educational grammar schools that were founded after the Balfour’s 1902 Education Act. I then went on to attend the LSE, and only to Oxford University for my advanced degree sometime later.

The recent Sutton Trust research about the social backgrounds of those pupils that win places at grammar schools shows why just increasing the number of such schools would probably have little effect on combating elitism in English society. The middle class would pay through the nose for primary education to secure the prize of a grammar school place knowing that secondary education would then be free. There would be a devastating effect on the secondary private school market, as it would largely be redundant. You have only to look at the distribution of independent days schools in relation to the remaining selective state schools to see how this trend might develop.

It is far better to develop a high quality comprehensive and local state funded school system as the alternative to those parents that want to pay for private education. There are some Conservatives that want to go the other way and force the State to pay for all education, but it is difficult to see how that end could be achieved without a serious hike in general taxation, something these same Conservatives often strenuously oppose.

Still, it is time to return to our discussion about grammar schools. The DfE Performance Tables show that 69% of pupils in Kent, where there are many grammar schools, made the expected progress in English to Key Stage 4, with 70.8% making the expected progress in Mathematics. In total, 61.3% achieved %A*-C GCSEs including English and Maths. By contrast, Hertfordshire that although it has two schools called grammar schools in Watford is technically a county of non-selective secondary schools, achieved 70% progress in English, about the same as in Kent, but 75% in Mathematics, significantly better than in Kent. Overall, 65.8% of Hertfordshire pupils met the 5A*-C target; again better than in Kent.

If we want our schools to work for all pupils, and not just future elites, then perhaps the Sutton Trust shouldn’t give up so quickly on the issue of whether grammar schools should remain. Their advocacy of blind admissions as the solution might ameliorate the situation, but would probably just inspire the middle classes to work harder at finding a way around the system.

The key issue is how to persuade middle class parents that their children will do as well, or possibly even better, in a non-selective secondary system. But, perhaps we cannot, since it isn’t just about academic outcomes but is about many other factors as well. However, I celebrate the fact that the Oxfordshire Orchestra playing at the School’s Prom this week will be largely comprised of pupils from comprehensive schools.


3 thoughts on “Grammar schools to combat ‘elitism’?

  1. Agreed and even within a non-selective school system many parents still want selection through setting/streaming in English, Maths and Science etc – I admit to being one, out of pure personal interest, despite not agreeing in principle to what is happening. We need a complete change in mentality somehow with self-interest giving way to community interest. Can’t see this being pushed at a national level, which comes back to locally-led solutions.

  2. You can’t compare Hertfordshire with Kent!!! – the main factor is surely socio-economic differences between the counties, not the existence or otherwise of grammar schools. Even a more realistic comparison like Birmingham v Leicester is obviously fraught with difficulty in terms of being a ‘fair test’ – but it would be more convincing than Kent v Hertfordshire! Doesn’t Buckinghamshire have grammars? – how are their results compared to Hertfordshire? More useful still would be to track the results of bright kids (however that might be measured) from relatively deprived backgrounds.
    Anecdotally, I was brought up on Birmingham council estates in a single parent family with only benefits as an income – and went to Oxford. There is not the slightest shadow of doubt that I would not have done so had I gone to the local comp (“secondary modern”) rather than the grammar school.

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