The grammar school debate

I have been maddened by the debate over grammar schools in the last few days. So far we are hearing a lot of words and few clear details. There is talk of “inclusive selection” (a logical absurdity) and quotas for the poor (however they may be defined).  There are attempts to reassure people that there will not be a return to the divisive system of the 1950s while proposing exactly that, as far as I can see. While the Government and its advisers think through the details and try to come up with something that looks like a grammar school, is selective, but doesn’t entrench privilege or create division, they will face numerous objections from all sides and will struggle to assemble a parliamentary majority and gain widespread public support.  It seems unlikely this proposal will go far in the face of strong and cogent opposition from across the political spectrum from the chief inspector of schools and the last Conservative Education Secretary as well as every other major political party. Perhaps it is just an attempt to gain the backing of the Tory right? But the proposal has been put on the table so it is important to refresh the case against selection which has been the basis of a broad consensus for the last 50 years.

Back in the 1960s, I attended a grammar school. My family was middle class but not wealthy. Neither of my parents went to University. Indeed, my father always maintained that poverty prevented him attending a grammar school because, despite passing the entrance exam, his family couldn’t afford the uniform, books and travel costs to allow him to go. He was deeply committed to education as a means of social mobility and did all he could to enable me to succeed. But of course, at the time, there were no comprehensive schools and the alternatives to the grammar were either the secondary modern or the ‘tech’, so of course everyone wanted their children to go to the grammar. But the system was built on the idea that the vast majority would not be able to do so. It was deliberately socially divisive – a system to develop the future professional classes while the rest would be the workers (no point wasting an academic education on them). I passed my 11-plus and landed on the grammar school side of the divide, but that doesn’t make it right.

We are told today by Mrs May and Justine Greening that the proposals don’t represent a return to that kind of past. But they haven’t explained how the divisiveness of selection could possibly be avoided. I don’t think it can. It is inherent in the system. Selection seeks to divide society into those worthy of a chance (even if a small proportion of them have to be ‘poor’) and those who are not. If the proposed grammar schools are not intended to be better than the schools the rest have to go to, then what is the point of them? One of the few things we have been told is that £50m will be set aside for new grammar schools. Assuming there is no similar increase in budget for the school system as a whole, we already know that there will be more money for those who already meet the conditions for success and presumably therefore less for those who don’t. If they were accessible to all they wouldn’t be grammar schools.

Here are my ten reasons why I believe the idea of selective education is simply wrong. I will be interested to see how these objections may be addressed as the debate continues.

  1. Selection means deselection. There’s no way round it. If some are selected for an opportunity, others (the great majority) will be denied that opportunity. Selection can never be ‘inclusive’. By definition it excludes those who are not selected. The big question about the current proposals is what will happen to those who fail the test? We don’t know. Perhaps they will have access to amazing schools that get double the funding per pupil and attract the best teachers through incentive bonuses. But I doubt it! Probably they will go to ‘comprehensives’ that will no longer be comprehensive. They used to be called secondary modern schools.
  2. Selection is binary. If you don’t pass you fail. Justine Greening was a good International Development Secretary and in that role was a great advocate of education for all and “leave no-one behind”. Now she says: “There will be no return to the simplistic, binary choice of the past, where schools separate children into winners and losers, successes or failures.” But that is exactly what is being proposed. Even if there are subsequent opportunities for children to transfer from non-grammar to grammar at say 13 or 15, there will still be a pass or fail at 11 that will separate children into winners and losers. We used to have the 13-plus for that reason, but very very few children were able to take that opportunity once they had already suffered the stigma of failure at 11.
  3. Selection assumes children are good at everything or good at nothing. While a child at a comprehensive school can be in the top stream in maths and the bottom one in English, selection for a grammar school puts you automatically in the top set in everything. The old 11-plus I took was an IQ test, the idea being that you could be measured at the age of 11 in a way that assessed your capacity to learn. You were either inherently bright and clever or essentially incapable. The test said something about you that no amount of effort on your part could change. Surely we don’t believe this nonsense any more? We know that children develop at different paces and have aptitudes for different things. Today we accept that there are different kinds of intelligence and every child has the capacity to fulfil their potential with the right support.  We should not condemn them for life but should give each child the best possible chance whatever their background or ‘intelligence’.
  4. Selection on merit is one thing, and I will come back to the concept of meritocracy, but the latest proposals also seek to enhance selection by faith, removing requirements for faith schools to include a proportion of pupils who do not share their beliefs. While I respect people’s right to their faith, I don’t believe schools should be run as enclaves of specific denominations, from which all others can be excluded. That is another kind of social segregation and made more objectionable if certain faith groups are able to provide or access additional finance to privilege those who share their beliefs over those who don’t. And it is more worrying again if those faith groups or denominations are able to influence the curriculum or how it is taught. That way leads to the undermining of science by creationism and the use of education as a form of indoctrination rather than a focus for enquiry, questioning, diversity, exposure to different ideas, and rational scepticism.
  5. Selection entrenches the privilege of those who are most equipped to succeed. This is not just a question of economics. It is not only about privilege in a monetary sense, though that is bad enough. Family background, parental attitudes, generation gaps, illnesses, accommodation, even diet, exercise and many other factors play a part in equipping some to succeed more readily than others even within income groups. Simply applying a quota based on family income is not going to change this fundamental aspect of selection unless it ceases to be selection at all. Yes, it is true that we already have a kind of selection based on geography and house prices, but we certainly don’t want to add further to that. The solution is for all schools to be equally good regardless of location, not for some to be made even better at the expense of others, which is what selection inevitably means.
  6. Grammar schools may increase the social mobility of a few, but they do so at the expense of the social mobility of the remainder. It is inherent in the statements about using grammar schools to help social mobility that they are intended to give their pupils a greater chance to succeed than they would have elsewhere. This argument about grammar schools and social mobility merely underscores the inequity which they are designed to entrench – mobility for the few, while the rest must accept their place in society.
  7. The idea of meritocracy sounds like something fair and good. But it represents the persistence of the idea that some people (and we can identify them at the age of 11!) are destined from an early age for positions of rank and privilege in our society. Meritocracy, especially if determined at such a young age and reinforced through the education system, is the opposite of the philosophy of “leave no-one behind”. At the time of the adoption of the Global Goals for Sustainable Development (which apply in the UK as much as in the rest of the world) the UK Government committed to this agenda, including the statement that “people who are furthest behind, who have least opportunity and who are the most excluded will be prioritised” ( This is the opposite of what is proposed in the reintroduction of selective education. That is about choosing the mechanism for deciding exactly which of our children will be left behind – in a meritocracy, some have the ‘merit’ which entitles them to succeed, while others are seen as less deserving of opportunity. The former are prioritised rather than the latter. Is it any better to decide who will be included or excluded on the basis of a test at the age of 11 than on the basis of the occupation of your father or the genealogy of your surname? Yes, but it is still about marking 80% of children as unworthy and 20% as entitled to the opportunities which will give them a better chance in life. Instead, we should give every child access to the very best education. If there is going to be any imbalance of resources, we should instead put more funding, the best teachers and the most empowering educational environments in the service of those who need the most support in order to thrive, rather than those who need that support least. In that way we would do everything possible to give every child the best chance to fulfil their own potential, whatever that may be. True social mobility would arise from maximising support for those least able to succeed without it, not from privileging those already equipped to do well. The promise that “the most excluded will be prioritised” remains the best approach. Does the Government stand by that promise or will it be broken?
  8. Selection inevitably damages some children’s self-esteem and aspiration. Even if a few are able to respond to failing their 11-plus with resilience and determination, there will be many who feel like failures and are encouraged in the belief that they are unworthy, incapable, and only good enough for a limited range of occupations. The original idea of grammar schools was precisely this – to sort the intellectual workers from the manual workers and keep everyone in their place. It was a means to underpin and reinforce the class system. I can see nothing so far in the new proposals that changes that intent, albeit wrapped up (as it always has been) in nice language about meritocracy and social mobility.
  9. A selective system based on intelligence or academic potential fails to recognise that the UK is no longer a nation of factory workers – most of those are now in China. If we are to succeed as an economy, our competitive advantage must lie in skills, expertise, scientific and intellectual achievement, innovation and enterprise, technology and the ability to operate effectively in a global multicultural environment. We need everyone, not just a few, to have the chance to develop those skills and aptitudes. The old idea that society could run happily in a class system where a few are given the education to succeed and the rest don’t need it is an anachronism. That just isn’t what the world is like any more.
  10. The whole thing is a huge distraction. To offer a carefully chosen few of the poor a chance to move up the hierarchy simply accepts the inevitability of poverty in our society. It does nothing to address the real problems of persistent and widespread poverty and inequality. Giving a small minority of carefully chosen poor children a good education avoids the necessity to eradicate the poverty that makes such compensatory quotas necessary. Selection does nothing to reduce poverty. It simply seeks to make a marginal change in who is or isn’t poor. In a society that is getting more unequal, the last thing we need is a policy based on lifting a few from the bottom while leaving the underlying poverty unaddressed. This has nothing to do with creating an inclusive society – just a very slight, very marginal tweak of who is included and who isn’t.

As Noam Chomsky so aptly put it (though he was talking about access to higher education) this is about the fundamental choices we make about the nature of the society in which we will live:  “If it is to be designed for the wealthy and privileged, mostly engaged in management and finance while production is transferred abroad and most of the population is left to fend somehow for themselves at the fringes of decent and creative life, then these are good choices.  If we have different aspirations for the world of our children and grandchildren, the choices are shameful and ruinous”.

4 thoughts on “The grammar school debate

  1. Whilst I understand your sentiment, and I certainly have no idea what relevance faith anything has to do with a modern society, education has to change.
    It is not preparing people for the realities of the world. Selection happens at every stage of life and our attempts to deny it just makes it harder to deal with.
    What we have now are people leaving education with expectation but little ambition and determination.
    We have a society where ability is as embarrassing to talk about as death.
    We apologise for it, hide it and punish those who want to succeed.
    Maybe Grammar Schools, as I experienced them, are not the way forward however what I do know and see if the current system utterly failing to prepare people for unfairness of life…and that must change


    1. Thank you for your comment. I am certainly not against change. We need to give the best possible education to ALL our children. A selective grammar system only gives it to a minority. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment.

      Liked by 1 person

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