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Grammar Schools

Prime Minister Theresa May is planning to reintroduce grammar schools into the UK education system, by scrapping the ban that was imposed on their expansion by Tony Blair almost 20 years ago.

The controversial plan marks a major departure from May's predecessor David Cameron’s education policy. Cameron had on numerous occasions expressed that he was opposed to bringing back grammar schools, going so far as to say "I don’t think any Conservative government would have done it."

History of grammar schools

The 1944 Education Act created the first state-funded nationwide secondary education system in England and Wales. It adopted a Tripartite System containing three different types of school; grammar, secondary technical and secondary modern. Whilst grammar schools focused purely upon academics, secondary technical schools were aimed more towards teaching scientific and engineering schools and secondary modern schools would have a higher emphasis upon vocational skills.

Upon sitting an 11-plus examination, those deemed the top or the most intellectually able 25% of the school population were selected to attend a grammar school, where they would be afforded with more enhanced schooling and better prospects of reaching university.

The system was harshly criticised as causing yet more social and class division, as grammar schools were largely full of middle class children and so class inequalities still remained. Some argued that 11 was too young to determine the future of a child as the school they went to would very much shape the jobs that they would go on to get. According to the Crowther Report in 1959, only 10% of the children of the poorest section of the population went to grammar school. This was at a time when a much higher proportion of the population would be described as working class. Crowther concluded that the education system, in particular the fight for grammar school places, had increased a competitive element in grammar school selection which seemed to be contrary to the promise of satisfactory secondary education for all. The Gurney-Dixon Report of 1954 found that even when children of working class backgrounds got into grammar schools they were more likely to leave early without gaining qualifications. Even among those that did, only a tiny proportion then went on to higher education.

By 1965, the government ordered local education authorities to start phasing out grammar schools through Circular 10/65; comprehensive schools became more widespread as an alternative to the tripartite system and by the end of the 1980s, many grammar schools had closed. Currently, only 164 grammar schools remain in England.

The reasoning behind it

Prime Minister Theresa May hopes to end the ban on grammar schools and bring in a "21st century system" with an "element of selection". She will sanction the creation of new grammar schools as well as allowing existing comprehensive schools and academies to convert into grammar schools as long as they fulfil certain criteria. May’s belief is that through reintroducing grammar schools to our education system, many more bright pupils will be able to excel academically.

One of May’s reasons behind this somewhat controversial plan is to increase social cohesion, as new grammar schools will allow children from poorer families to receive top quality education without having to pay public school fees.

Another of her key points is that an expansion of grammar schools will not be imposed on areas where they are not wanted, and the focus would instead be upon areas where the demand for them is significantly high.

In May's own words, her vision for the British education system is to create a "truly meritocratic Britain" where "advantage is based on merit not privilege," thus furthering social cohesion and collective development for all. May’s ideas have been met with much opposition, particularly from Corbyn's Labour Party as many view lifting the ban on grammar schools to be socially divisive, creating an "'us' and 'them'" dynamic. May has insisted that there won't be a return to "secondary moderns" a binary system, with this reform ultimately being focused upon equal opportunities for academic excellence for all.

The 11-plus entrance examination is another source of contention, with many commentators stating that rich parents will have the means to fund extra tuition for their children in preparation for their examination, leaving other pupils at a disadvantage. May has responded to these criticisms by claiming that the 11-plus tests are now "tutor-proof" and that pupils will receive additional opportunities to sit entrance exams to attend grammar schools at the ages of 14 and 16.

Breakdown by school

State & Free Schools

  • Any schools wishing to become grammar schools must abide by set quotas for children from low-income households.
The 11-plus
  • Children will not just get the opportunity to move to a grammar school at 11; they will also be able to take entrance exams at ages 14 and 16.

Universities

  • Universities wishing to raise their fees must either found a new school or sponsor an underperforming institution.

Faith Schools

  • New faith schools will be enabled to select pupils purely based upon their religious background.

Private Schools

  • Elite private schools will only be able to maintain charitable status if they set up or sponsor Government-run sister schools.
  • Smaller private schools would have to send teachers to take lessons in state schools.
  • Independent schools will be required to accept quotas of pupils who would otherwise be unable to afford private school fees.

Arguments for and against

It is undeniable that selective state schools produce some of the best performance in examinations based upon league tables; with places scarce and competition being fierce, having a larger number of grammar schools to choose from will allow a larger number of able pupils to gain a place.

Arguments in favour of grammar schools also suggest that those from low-income families are provided with an opportunity to escape poverty, and gain a high standard of education without recourse to the fee-paying sector. However, many comprehensive schools across the UK are shown to perform well above the national average and in some cases, on par with or better than grammar schools.

It been suggested that that the grammar system had in the past helped bright working class students' social mobility and that the complete abolition of grammar schools could also be seen as an attempt to impose a "one size fits all" education system on an area. Nevertheless, it can also be argued that the grammar school system is divisive, something which is heavily emphasised through the Labour Party opposition. Angela Rayner, Shadow Education Secretary and in staunch opposition of grammar schools, has asserted that the policy will "entrench division and increase inequality – a policy for the few at the expense of many."

Roy Hattersley has argued that the 11-plus system leads to a waste of talent in those that fail the exam at age 11, with an adverse psychological effect on pupils becoming disillusioned and considering themselves failures. Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party remarked during a recent Prime Minister's Questions Session, that the Prime Minister wanted to "expand a system that can only let children down." Labour plan to abolish all grammar schools which has sparked some outrage, considering Corbyn attended a grammar school himself.

Alan Milburn, chair of the government's social mobility commission, has suggested that ending the ban on building new selective schools risked creating an "us and them divide" within the education system, stating that pupils at the remaining 164 selective state schools were four or five times more likely to have come from independent prep schools than from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. Analysing free school meals trends, he found that grammar schools took in a substantially lower percentage of children on free school meals compared to their non-selective counterparts. Theresa May has stated that methods other than free school meals should be used to determine social mobility when looking at the grammar school debate. It is also important to note that certain areas are very much in favour of grammar schools, for example, in 2000 a ballot was conducted in Ripon which found that parents were in favour of the grammar school remaining.

Teacher retention

The national teacher shortage is often at the forefront of any debate surrounding education within the UK. Some commentators have asserted that by introducing more selective state schools, it will follow that the best teachers will end up teaching at them as opposed to comprehensive schools, further highlighting a divide.

In a recent speech, Angela Rayner remarked that the government had shown a "dangerous misunderstanding of the real issues facing our schools" at a time where the focus should be on budget cuts, super-sized classes and teacher recruitment and retention, an opinion echoed by Kevin Courtney, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers.

Recent teacher surveys on the issue have shown a split in opinion on whether the reintroduction of grammar schools would be beneficial. Many teachers have said that it would be an excellent opportunity for children of all ages and backgrounds to achieve academic success should it be implemented appropriately, whilst others have blasted it for being a divisive and a retrograde step, undoing many advancements made in the education sector. This is the position adopted by former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, who considers it as a move that will undermine "the progress that we have seen over the course of the last decade in our schools."

Conclusion

In theory, the reintroduction of grammar schools will afford children from all walks of life with the opportunity to excel academically, however it does pose a number of practical implications as well as a risk of returning to the binary education system in the 1950s and yet more social division.

When compared with other education systems across the world, it can be argued that introducing more selection based schools will do more harm than good. For example, Finland has one of the best education systems and literacy rates in the world and this is attributed to collectivism and a focus on community, without an overemphasis upon traditionally academic based subjects.

At Tempest, we are keen to hear the views of teachers as to whether lifting the ban on grammar schools will be beneficial to our education system.