After more than 20 years in the wilderness, grammar schools are back on the agenda. In an effort to broaden the Conservative party’s appeal and boost social mobility, the new Prime Minster Theresa May is considering removing the ban on grammar schools at the party’s conference next month. Grammar schools account for 5% of students in the United Kingdom, and there will be a great deal of political resistance. In addition to strong opposition from Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives only have a 12 seat majority in parliament, and modernisers loyal to David Cameron will be resistant to the creation of more grammar schools.
May is right to point out that the current comprehensive school system is failing many children. Many comprehensive schools offer a rigid education which does not cater for the students with special talents. There tends to be a lack of discipline and many are soulless institutions which do not offer the necessary care. Poorer areas have a disproportionate number of similar schools that do not provide children with the necessary skills to progress. Figures from 2014 show that less than a third of white working class children who are eligible for free school meals achieved 5 or more GCSEs A*-C. As a result, those attending selective schools now dominate the most prestigious jobs. A recent Sutton Trust report found that 74% of judges attended fee-paying schools, which account for seven per-cent of students.
Whilst there are merits with expanding grammar schools provision, it would be a mistake to return to the post-war system. This divided children into two streams at 11 years old. The brighter pupils went to grammar schools and those who failed their 11+ attended sub-standard secondary moderns. It then became very hard for students who had failed their exams to move up the social ladder.
The Prime Minister should do away with the 11+ entrance exams. They benefit richer pupils whose parents can afford tuition. Grammar schools are currently attractive for middle class parents who want their child to have a good education without having to pay an extortionate amount. This means that property near grammar schools becomes more expensive and it prices working class families out of the area, hindering grammar schools’ social mobility. In a meeting with the 1922 committee of backbench Conservative MPs, May rightly alluded to this problem, mentioning that “selection by house price” already existed within the state school system. Only 3 percent of grammar school children are on free school meals, in comparison with fifteen percent across the country.
Furthermore, it is also far too early in a child’s development to determine their educational future. A quarter of children do not reach the government’s expected level of educational attainment by the time they finish primary school. It puts too much pressure on children to boil down their future to one exam when they are just 11 years old, as some children are late developers. The evidence from Medway shows that the 11+ discriminates against boys and children who are young for their age.
Grammar schools can help to improve Britain’s standard of education, but they must not leave the rest of the country behind. New grammar schools must be prioritised for the most deprived areas and they should encompass a wider catchment area in order to avoid the ‘postcode lottery.’ A much higher percentage of students attend university than during the post-war grammar school boom. This requires an aggressive expansion of grammar schools to prevent over-subscribing and overcrowded schools. There should also be a set allocation for bright disadvantaged pupils in order to prevent a middle class takeover of grammar schools.
The government should also look at alternatives to the 11+ exam. Primary schools should carry out the testing and teacher recommendations must play a part in school selection decisions. Multiple entry points at ages 13+ can benefit children who develop at later ages. A more radical proposal would be to Americanise the system and begin secondary school at 14 years old, allowing children more time to develop.
Most importantly, children who do not get into grammar schools must not get left behind. Education needs to be more flexible and de-centralised to cater for local demand. This should involve the development of specialised schools which focus on a certain skill. Pupils are more likely to flourish if they enjoy their education and if these schools have the same high standards as grammar schools, they could help to revolutionise education in Britain. An apprenticeship system from a young age could also provide opportunities for those who do not wish to pursue a more academic path. A world-class vocational system, which offers skills for the technological age, could sit alongside grammar schools.
There are, of course, other factors which affect social mobility. Primary education has a large impact and many children have already fallen behind by the time they reach secondary school. Family life also plays a huge part. Many children from disadvantaged backgrounds do not have the confidence and support to succeed. Much of the social mobility in the post-war era was related to the economic expansion and the shift from low-skilled industrialised jobs to more prosperous white collar employment.
Social mobility must be improved – and the schooling system could go some way to redress the balance. The general public seems to understand this and a fresh approach to grammar schools could be a positive step. They can work if delivered correctly.