Every year Oxbridge admissions are the subject of debate, would bringing back grammar schools in earnest make a positive difference to the state sector?
How are grammar schools a problem? Let me count the ways, says Laura McInerney
First, there’s the straightforward fact that, in parts of the country where grammars still exist, children in low-income families get worse exam results than those in areas with comprehensives. Children in wealthier and middle-income families do no better. So, essentially, if you bring back grammars, the evidence suggests you are mainly just making life harder for the most vulnerable kids.
Second, the 11-plus is a fairly rubbish exam. Standard error is always a problem for intelligence testing and no matter how many times the education secretary claims there are “tutor-proof tests”, there aren’t. The university professors who designed them admit this. They will say the tests can “limit the impact of coaching” but that's it. So families with extra cash are advantaged over those who don’t.
Third, there’s no logical reason why children should do better when streamed into different buildings. If the argument is that teachers can achieve more with a narrow ability range in their class, why not insist on more “setting” – the practice of grouping children with similar test results into one class?
Comprehensives are particularly good at setting as it can be done by subject. A gifted mathematician may be placed in a top maths set, but work in a lower set to develop their less brilliant English. Denied a place at a grammar on the basis of their poor English, and placed in a school with few top-attaining mathematicians, the child would not get such provision.
Fourth, don’t be taken in by those who argue clever children need separate buildings because of bullying. Not only are there a million and a half high-attaining children in comprehensives, most of whom enjoy school and are not bullied, it is an abrogation of duty to “save” the bright while leaving behind the quiet-but-less intelligent to fend for themselves. If pupils are subjected to racist or homophobic bullying we don’t stick the non-white and gay kids in another school. We stamp out the bullying! That should go for everyone.
Fifth, the Prime Minister is intent on reviving grammars because there is currently selection “by postcode” - ie, if you live in an expensive house you are more likely to have an outstanding school nearby. Putting aside the fact the causation probably runs the other way round, if the PM is actually serious, there are better policies for breaking this problem including place lotteries and rezoning catchment areas.
But if data, logic and plausible alternatives haven’t convinced you so far, let me leave you with this thought experiment.
You are a parent. And I have a 5-sided dice. You can either take your local schools as they are - in which we expected 70 per cent are good and outstanding. Or you can roll the dice. Land a 1 and your child will get a better school. Get a 2, 3, 4 or 5, and they will get a worse school. Do you roll the dice?
This isn’t a joke. The chance of getting into a grammar for an average family is 1 in 5. While most grammars are outstanding, the majority of secondary moderns are rated as requiring improvement or inadequate.
It would be a brave politician who rolls the dice for their child. If they wouldn’t do it for their own, they shouldn’t do it for other people’s children.
Laura McInerney is the editor of the newspaper SchoolsWeek and a columnist for The Guardian. She matriculated at St. Peter's Colllege, in 2001, and studied PPE. She attended and later taught in comprehensive schools.
Alan Bennett's The History Boys takes place at Cutlers' Grammar School in Sheffield, a fictional boys' grammar school in the north of England
Grammar schools are misunderstood, says former grammar school pupil Alexander Fullerton
Naturally, the first thing I ought to disclose is that I went to a grammar school. This is something I am proud of, yet even more so, something for which I am unspeakably grateful. Securing a place at Grammar school was the second most influential moment of my life thus far, only surpassed by getting into Oxford, a feat that was indisputably linked to the former.
This debate has a tendency to be mired by the righteous lamentations of ex-public school commentators bemoaning the plight of the common masses, supposedly being trampled into social subjugation by grammar schools. The problem is - they don't have the foggiest what they're talking about.
I'm not public school bashing, but they simply don't understand what it's like to be in state education. Try learning in an environment where 'reading is for nerds', where you're called a swot if you so dare as raise your hand to answer a question, where classes are relentlessly interrupted. The reality is that whilst some comprehensives are excellent, in far too many it is very difficult for gifted children to achieve their full potential; a most grievous tragedy. Grammar schools provide an escape from this. A ladder of academic excellence that provides a literally life-changing opportunity for many students.
But what about those left behind I hear you screaming? Here is where the true source of the grammar school debate rears its ugly head- elitism, the bogeyman of education politics. Well I hate to break it to you, but it was elitism that provided the foundation of modern civilisation; it is the fuel that has powered the entirety of human progress. Elitism is something we should, within limits, embrace wholeheartedly. Yet, improving comprehensives, which of course must be a priority for May's government, and re-introducing grammars aren't mutually exclusive.
Whilst I'm quick to come to the defence of grammars, I'm also the first to concede their flaws. In my mind, the problem lies not in the concept but in the execution. The biggest issue with selective education is the testing. As it stands, the current format fails as an accurate test of attainment, results in excessive coaching of children and consequently works against the original core purpose of grammars: social mobility.
However, this isn't to say the system can't be improved. Firstly, Theresa May announced several new measures including a quota of free school meal students to improve social mobility, multiple entry levels to tackle the oft-brandished criticism of children being 'written off at 11', and the obligatory creation of primary feeder schools.
For lack of a 'tutor-proof' test, the nonsense that is verbal and non-verbal reasoning should be scraped and replaced with more traditional exams. Papers in maths, English, history and science would reduce the benefits of excessive coaching, hopefully provide a better indicator of academic performance and give children from less pushy and well-off backgrounds a better chance.
We must also recognise that what we have now is not the originally intended model. Whilst many of the remaining grammars now effectively function as pseudo public schools, the prosaic charm of schools such as the one in Alan Bennett's The History Boys is alas rarely found. This, despite being fictitious, is a perfect example of the intended function of grammars: providing local, working class girls and boys the opportunity to go from a crowded terraced house in industrial Sheffield to achieve their full potential amongst the dreaming spires.
Alec Fullerton, (Trinity, 2014)
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