Monthly Archives: December 2022

Time to Abolish Grammar Schools

Time to Abolish Grammar Schools
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
6 December 2022

Last month a new campaign was launched – Time’s Up For The Test. Supported by a coalition of organisations and public figures including Caroline Lucas MP, Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham and poet Michael Rosen, it’s pushing for an end to the 11-plus exam, and therefore the abolition of grammar schools and the implementation of a comprehensive education system.

In support of the campaign Baroness Christine Blower, Labour peer and former General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, has introduced a School Reform of Pupil Selection Bill to the House of Lords. “The Bill promotes the advantage of a fully comprehensive system. It would end all discriminatory tests which allow schools to select whom they will educate,” she says.

With this in mind, it’s worth considering the evidence base on grammar schools, a perennial topic of interest for the UK commentariat and the Tory Party.

Grammar schools – schools that select all or most of their pupils based on examination of their academic ability, at age 10 or 11 – were part of the education landscape created by the 1944 Education Act. This tripartite system at secondary level – made up of grammar, technical and secondary modern schools – dominated until the mid-60s, after which the Ministry of Education introduced comprehensive systems in most areas.

163 grammar schools remain in England, attended by 176,000 pupils (around five per cent of state-funded secondary pupils), according to a 2020 House of Commons Library briefing. A few local authorities, including Kent, Medway, Buckinghamshire and Lincolnshire, continue to operate largely selective education systems, including the notorious 11-plus exam.

So what does the evidence show?

Supporters of grammar schools often argue they increase social mobility, especially for poorer students.

In reality “those attending grammar schools are much less likely to come from poor backgrounds… than students in other schools,” noted academic Sandra McNally, summarising Department for Education data at a London School of Economics public lecture in 2017. The House of Commons Library briefing confirms this, finding just three per cent of entrants to grammar schools were entitled to free school meals – an indicator of social deprivation. In contrast, the average proportion of pupils entitled to free school meals in non-selective schools was 15%.

Another argument that proponents of grammar schools make is they improve the academic performance of its pupils. And, yes, the evidence shows grammar school children’s attainment at GCSE is, on average, higher than that of children at non-selective schools.

But again, this needs a little unpacking.

A 2018 peer-reviewed article on grammar schools published in the British Journal of Sociology of Education by two academics at Durham University analysed the results of over 500,000 students in England. They found “grammars are no better or worse than non-selective state schools in terms of their pupils’ progress in attainment… once their intake differences are taken into account.”

Furthermore, Stephen Gorard, Professor of Education and Public Policy at Durham University and the lead author of the research, argues grammar schools increase social segregation: “The process of selecting pupils based on their academic ability at a young age leads to schools becoming segregated by social, ethnic, economic and other characteristics – such as poverty, special needs, ethnicity, first language, as well as the pupil’s age in their year.”

Based on a large household survey in England, a 2019 peer-reviewed journal article in the Oxford Economic Papers confirms grammar schools as drivers of inequality: “controlling for a range of background characteristics and the current location, the wage distribution for individuals who grew up in selective schooling areas is substantially and significantly more unequal.”

Indeed, the evidence is so strong that even the Tory education spokesperson in 2007, David Willetts, agreed, telling the Confederation of British Industry “we just have to recognise that there is overwhelming evidence that such academic selection entrenches advantage, it does not spread it.”

This is because “poor children do dramatically worse in selective areas,” journalist Chris Cook explained on the Financial Times data blog in 2013, after comparing “Selectivia” – an artificial region made up of Kent, Medway, Buckinghamshire and Lincolnshire – with other largely non-selective regions in England.

Why does this happen? “Students in non-grammar schools might lose out in the absence of high ability peers because they are deprived of the really good, really clever people, and high income people, who have managed to get into the grammar school and are not with them, and therefore [they] can’t benefit from them,” McNally argued.

University College London education expert Dr Rebecca Allen explained another important factor when she spoke to the House of Commons Education Committee in 2016: “Grammar schools are more likely to have fewer unqualified teachers, far more experienced teachers than in secondary moderns, more teachers with an academic degree in the subject that they are teaching, and less churn of teachers.”

And here is the kicker: in areas with selective education, Cook explained on BBC Radio 4’s More Or Less programme in 2016, “the process that made [a] school a good school is also the one that made the bad school the bad school,”

Furthermore, Cook’s comparison of “Selectivia” with other English regions finds that once the social composition of areas is taken into consideration “introducing selection is not good at raising [overall] school productivity.”

“In fact, the [Selectivia] region is actually a bit of a laggard” when it comes to GCSE results, he notes, scoring below London, South East, South West, East of England and the North West, after taking into account the social make-up of areas.

His findings are supported by a 2016 report from the Education Policy Institute think tank, which also concluded “we find no evidence to suggest that overall educational standards in England would be improved by creating additional grammar schools.”

The research findings above seem to generally hold up when we consider international education systems. For example, the House of Commons Library briefing notes the “available evidence from… international comparisons using PISA [Program for International Student Assessment ] data suggests that across OECD countries, selective education systems widen educational inequality, and do not increase performance overall.”

But let’s get back to the UK. In a 2017 Guardian article Chris Horrie calculated that between 1944 and 1976 around 30 million people took the 11-plus exam and “more than 20 million of us failed.” That’s 20 million children, over decades, effectively told they were a failure, 20 million children who had their life chances severely weakened at age 11.

How then, if the evidence is so clear, has such a massive, multi-generational injustice been allowed to continue?

One reason is grammar school alumni have generally been over-represented in the establishment, in sectors likely including the media, civil service, local government and national politics, and therefore have had an oversized influence on education policy. “It’s a large part of their own life stories, getting into a grammar school is a point of pride for a lot of people,” Cook argued on BBC Radio 4’s More Or Less programme.

Also, while many people support reducing social and educational inequalities, it’s probable that notions of exclusivity and hierarchy are exactly what draws many to send their children to grammar schools (though they wouldn’t describe it to themselves or others in these terms, I’m guessing).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, an in-depth  2019 Loughborough University study of an all-girls English grammar school found “a sense of hierarchy and elitism among teenage girls”, with some viewing “poverty as a moral failing and associat[ing] it with belonging to other groups and pupils at other schools.” According to the authors, “for the most part” the grammar school pupils were “oblivious to both the scaffolding which had supported their entry into this privileged space and the structural disadvantages of ‘poor’ groups who attended ‘other’ schools.”

It seems the façade of meritocracy provided by grammar schools allows many to validate their sense of superiority. Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, recently argued this outlook is based on the “quasi-pathology that if you succeed in life, it is because you deserve [it]. And so if you fail, it’s because somewhere you’ve [made] a mistake.”

In reality, a selective education system is the opposite of a meritocracy, with the success of pupils at grammar schools directly connected to many, many more children failing to reach their true potential.

Find out more about the Time’s Up For The Test campaign: Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.