What I Learned From Writing About Grammar Schools

My Guardian piece last month was about the assumptions of school systems with ‘selection by ability’ – e.g. grammar schools or private schools giving scholarships via common entrance exams.

I wrote the piece as an experiment. Whenever I read about selective education the debate invariably descends into several choruses of “I went to one, so they’re great/ I didn’t go to one, so they’re terrible” followed by a verse of “what about those of us who went and hated it?” However, I genuinely believe the most important question is not whether or not grammar schools should exist but whether or not they should exist over and above other systems for improving social mobility.

Hence, I posited the notion that instead of selecting solely by ability – grammar or private schools could randomly take 25% of their intake from among the most needy students. OR, I posited, we could institute a policy that anyone currently attending a failing school be offered an immediate free pass to the school of their choice, as way of compensation. Each of these systems has problems – but the consequences are no better or worse than selection by ability, so why have these sorts of policies rattled the middle classes in the countries where they are occurring? In my view, the reason why people want to select by ability is because they believe that bright children are somehow more valuable and therefore should have greater protections from the ‘difficulties’ of comprehensive education.

But what did the people who responded to the piece think?

First, a lot of people involved in the selective sector felt I was wrong to say sending intelligent children to a certain school is done because we think they are more ‘valuable’ and should ‘escape’ mixing with the less precocious. They argued that parents make choices based on a range of factors. This is a fair point, but that’s essentially a debate about private versus non-private, whereas my point is why independent and grammar schools select by intelligence. An open choice about how to spend your money is one thing, but I don’t see how to justify the school selecting by ability unless we believe certain children are more in need of an ‘escape’ (or that we like some children more than others).

Second, there was concern that teaching less ‘intelligent’ children with more intelligent children would be demoralising. Intuitively, I can understand this. If you’re not so sharp at English, then being put in a room with people who are very good at it might feel intimidating. But I’m not sure I’d feel any more motivated if I was put in a separate school where I knew this was the school for “the less bright people” and that even if I worked incredibly hard, even if I got to the top of this ladder, I was not going to “the bright children” school. If people want to go down this sort of ‘demoralisation’ road it would seem more sensible to advocate for setting/streaming within a mixed-ability school than to argue in favour of selection by ability.

Third, some people were thrilled because they thought I was advocating a return to assisted places. I was not. At least, not at first. However Charlotte Vere, Executive Director of the Girls’ School Association, got into a conversation with me on Twitter and said that she would happily agree to a return to government funding places even if the places were assigned randomly as per the India system and not done on ability. This caught me out. I was convinced people in charge of selective schools would be against the proposal. But she wasn’t the only one. Quite a few private school heads said they would be willing to accept a wider range of people if the government went back to stumping up cash.

To me, this changes things. The reason why I never liked assisted places was that you effectively took students who were already going to do fine in the education system, who were reasonably cheap to educate and then gave them (and their cash) to schools that didn’t need improved intake. If private schools were willing to take a % of pupils from within the neediest categories these arguments start to fall apart, and all I would be left with to oppose the argument is (I think) a sort of fundamentalist hatred of private schools. But I don’t have one of those. So I’m in a quandary, and (as ever) I’m still pondering.

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So what did we learn? Well, it seems it is possible to have sensible conversations about grammar schools. The comments on the Guardian were generally helpful and interesting. The twitter conversations were incredibly powerful. People from all political sides agreed and disagreed with me, but points were thought-provoking and have put me near a new idea about assisted places, even if it’s one that still makes me uncomfortable.

I also learned that if you want to slay sacred cows you must give alternatives. It’s no use saying “I don’t like grammar schools” or “booo to private education” – if you want real debate, throw out some new ideas and debate those. It’s less personal and it brings people together because they have to collectively decide if the new thing is better, rather than desperately clinging to a defence of their old position.

Categories: UK Education Policy

16 replies

  1. We have 3 selective entry grammar schools in two neighbouring LAs. Parents want their kids to attend these schools because other local schools do not deliver a good enough education. They also do not stream except in Maths because apparently subjects like English are subjective! The implication being that this cannot be done. Asked how teachers cope with teaching ability range from level 2/3 to level 6 in a class of 30 Y7s, they cannot provide a reassuring response. Ofsted has already said we are failing our more able kids.
    Grammars may select on ability but they provide a good all round education, covering music, the arts, sports and traditional academic subjects alike. Families from all walks of life send kids to grammars not just the wealthy.
    Many parents also scrimp and save to send kids to private schools as they are not happy with provision in the state sector. Most of these private schools conduct interviews but these are not generally based on academic ability, probably more to assess parents ability to pay!
    Bottom line: it is parental choice, parents want the best education for their kids – believe me there are plenty of teachers as well as other professionals sending their kids to the grammars. There are also many parents who themselves did not have a good education, they just want better for their kids.

    • I’m not arguing against *parent* choice. I’m arguing against *school’s choice* – i.e. schools deciding who they will and will not take. You want to spend your money on private education, you go ahead. But in terms of grammar schools, that is the STATE *choosing* to give one child a ‘better’ education over another, and I just don’t see how that is defensible? At least, not MORE defensible than giving a place in that better-rounded school to a child who is struggling with learning.

      From what you’ve written here it sounds almost as if you believe only schools that take the most intelligent children are able to offer a good education? Is that really true? If so, are we basically saying that if you’re not smart at 11 then you basically have to accept a not very good school?

      • The state isn’t choosing to give one kid a better education than another, because it’s not just grammars that provide a good education, there are plenty of non grammar schools equally good if not better. So no, I don’t believe only schools that take the most intelligent children are able to offer a good education.
        Unfortunately our secondaries are not very good, hence parents voting with their feet.

  2. Hi Laura, you didn’t mention the Sutton Trust’s Open Access scheme in either post: http://www.suttontrust.com/our-work/open-access/ . This would be subsidised places at independent schools costed according to ability to pay, which has apparently worked at one school already. When I first saw it I was a bit sceptical for the same reason you didn’t like Assisted Places, however if we are all going back to first principles on this then it needs to be thrown in the pot.

  3. In terms for school performance, once the characteristics of school intake are controlled the type of school matters much less. Schools account for between 10-20% pupil attainment (RISE TRUST 2013). Reforming education is tinkering at the edges. End rejection at 11+ then leave the system alone. The government needs to tackle the widening income gap between the bottom and top 10%. It’s child poverty holding pupils back!

  4. We have lots of different types of selection in England. Just some are more overt than others. Why not extend your idea to schools that select on parental religion or parents’ ability to buy houses?

  5. The unease is, of course, because state education should seek to give all children an education we can be proud of. Parental choice should be reduced through all local schools providing excellent education. Obvious, but not easy to achieve.

  6. Interesting to read, Laura.

    Just wanted to say that, in my experience of having taught in comprehensive, grammar and independent schools (and having been into a lot of independent schools, while a deputy/head and now post-headship), many independent schools are FAR less narrowly selective than most people assume. Quite a number aren’t selective at all (and some are particularly brilliant for pupils with special needs). One of the issues the sector has is that there’s an assumption that all independent schools are like the most well-known, highly selective ‘top of the league tables’ ones, and those schools are not representative of the sector as a whole at all. So if independent schools are successful (both in terms of what pupils achieve academically, and what they achieve outside the classroom/in terms of their personal development) it ISN’T necessarily just because the school is taking only the brightest to begin with.

    The reasons for their success are complex and I’d love to have a conversation with you sometime about what I think these reasons are (but parental involvement/engagement is a big part of it, I would say – and clearly state schools with high levels of this do well too).

    And just to point out that how selective grammar schools are varies tremendously too. I naively thought that the 11+ was the 11+ across the nation, until I taught in grammar schools in Wirral, South Manchester and rural Lincolnshire. The ability range of the children in those schools varied significantly.


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