Issue66: 2016 08 11: Grammar schools right or wrong? (Lynda Goetz)

11 August 2016

Grammar schools – right or wrong?

An opportunity for social mobility or the opposite?

by Lynda Goetz

Lynda Goetz head shotIn an article in The Telegraph on 7th August, Allison Pearson argued that, as a country, we were more than happy to see our elite athletes given special training, but that the ban on grammar schools was effectively a ban on special training for our academic elite.  I agree and think her analogy is really apt.  As she says, those mums driving kids to swimming practice in the early mornings are ‘unsung heroines’, but those driving their kids to tutoring are regarded as ‘pushy’.  Why, when grammar schools have provided so many with opportunities they would otherwise not have had, are the Labour and Liberal parties and some of the Conservatives so opposed to them?

The grammar schools, many of which were founded under the 1944 Education Act, were designed to provide the top 25% of students with the best learning opportunities available.  The system, which was  state-funded, was known as the ‘Tripartite System’.  This was supposed to include, as the name suggests, three different types of school; the grammar school, the secondary technical school and the secondary modern.  In practice, many local authorities had only two, the grammar and secondary modern.  The secondary technical, or technical grammar, designed to train those who could become engineers, scientists and technicians never really took off.  Of the 1,200 wholly-maintained grammar schools many were new and, of the older schools, 179 were direct-grant schools with between half and three-quarters of their pupils fee-paying.  This system was designed by the Conservatives, but at the time had the support of the Labour party, who saw it as providing opportunities for able children from all walks of life, irrespective of ability to pay.

However, by the late 1950s the Labour party was increasingly against the Tripartite system and many Local Education Authorities (LEAs) which were Labour controlled were already starting to abolish the grammar schools.  A large part of the problem was the lack of technical grammars, which effectively led to a pass/fail system at 11 whereby the 70% who had failed to get into the grammar schools ended up in the secondary moderns.  These schools did not provide the same level of education as the grammars and it became increasingly evident that those who had not succeeded in the 11+ were, in most cases, destined to leave school at 15 with nothing more than a Schools Certificate to prove they had been at school for that time.  Later, some secondary moderns did develop O level courses for brighter students, but only 1 in 10 students took these and there was provision for A level courses in only a few of them.  What this meant was that those who had failed to get into a grammar school at 11 had almost no chance of going to university.  This was hardly the equal opportunities scenario which the Labour party had supported.  The working classes were not getting out of the system quite what had been hoped.

According to an article in The Independent, the Gurney-Dixon report in 1954 showed that only a tiny proportion of grammar school students from an unskilled working class background ever made it to university.  The same article quoted from the Robbins report, which was published in 1963, and which showed that although 26% of the grammar school intake was working class, only 0.3% attained 2 A’ levels or more.  According to the author this is ‘a record of abject failure on the stated goals of the grammar system: social mobility and academic attainment.’  As I have not read either of these reports in their entirety, I cannot refute the statistics, which in any case I am sure are correct, but I am not sure that these bits of information alone can lead one to the conclusion arrived at.  Both social mobility and academic attainment were achieved to a certain extent.  The problem was with the other half of the equation, the secondary moderns.

In 1964, Labour won the general election and Anthony Crossland became Secretary of State for Education in the following January.  He was vehemently against the grammar schools.  A protégé of Hugh Gaitskill, he believed, like Gaitskill, that there should be ‘grammar schools for all’.  The idea behind the ‘comprehensives’ was that the level of education in all schools should be lifted.  This was of course an admirable and worthy objective.  There was little opposition from the Tories.  Harold Wilson, the Prime Minister, promised that no grammar schools would be closed.  This of course did not turn out to be the case.   Many schools were amalgamated, some closed and others just increased the entry numbers so that they gradually became comprehensives.  The way this was dealt with was left largely to individual local authorities.  The resulting hotchpotch is what we are left with today, onto which have now been added the academy schools.  There are still 164 grammar schools in areas where the local authorities chose to defy the government and places at these institutions are highly sought after.  Last year, under David Cameron’s premiership, the Weald of Kent school in Tonbridge was allowed to open a new ‘annexe’ for 450 pupils on a site in Sevenoaks, after a fight lasting a number of years.  Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary at the time, said that this did not “reflect a change in this government’s attitude to selective schools.”

Our new Prime Minister, Theresa May, herself a product of the grammar school system, appears to have different ideas and it has been mooted that the idea of grammar schools may be revisited.  This has already resulted in much polarised discussion, with many in the Labour and Liberal parties and indeed some Conservatives expressing their antipathy to any such proposition, others expressing their gratitude for a system which enabled them to move beyond their original family circumstances to interesting careers in a number of different fields.

The biggest objection to the old grammar school system must be the rigidity which the 11+ imposed.  Once that exam had been taken and a child was allocated to a school, there seemed to be no way back, or rather ‘across’.  The system had no flexibility.  An idea to get over this has been put forward by Conservative Voice, (a group co-founded by new Cabinet ministers David Davis and Liam Fox) which has addressed a letter to Justine Greening, the current Education Secretary, suggesting ‘continual testing to enable children who develop at a later stage to benefit from a grammar school education.’  This sounds like an excellent idea.  However, it would, of necessity, require the parallel systems not to allow pupils to drop too far behind – so that they would be in a position, not only to cope with passing tests, but to move across and keep up.  That requirement, of itself, might go some way to attaining Hugh Gaitskill’s aim of ‘grammar schools for all.’  Essentially we need an across the board improvement in the state system.

The suggestion from some quarters that we should also reconsider the other, generally forgotten, element of the Tripartite System, namely the technical grammars, is also open to debate.  However, given that questions have been raised as to whether our ‘A’ level system makes students choose at too young an age whether they wish to focus on the sciences or the humanities, going back to a system which polarises abilities even earlier may not be the way forward.  Perhaps this is something which needs discussing at a local level, as happened back in the ’70s when the grammar system was abolished.  The issue is so fundamental to our future as a nation that the debate needs to be open, free of polemic and should avoid as far as possible all entrenched political positions.  As Allison Pearson pointed out so clearly, if elite athletes are to be trained and applauded and made into national heroes for their success, why on earth are we so afraid of training and applauding intellectual or academic elites, whichever class they may come from?


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