The Blog

In Defense of Grammar Schools

With the main opposition party in disarray, what a lovely time it must be for a Tory party with a shopping list of laws to repeal (I'm looking at you fox hunting). It's been speculated recently however that Theresa May has been looking into to the repeal of the 1998 act preventing the opening of new Grammar schools, passed by Blairs Labour government during the time Tony was fondly known for things like the minimum wage and "cool Britannia". Less so for instability in the Middle East and his role as the region's peace envoy, a job that must've been given to him as part of the best drunk prank any high-ranking diplomat has ever pulled off. Britain then, despite some opposition, could see its first brand new Grammar school in fifty years, and, I'm gonna come straight out and say it, I for one think this could be a great opportunity. Wait, stop it! Don't click the cross in your browser! I know what you're thinking, just hear me out first.

Full disclosure, I went to a Grammar school, no don't groan at the screen. I do know for some of you reading this that last statement will either restore some great memories of your own time as a pupil at a Grammar or instead just cause you to picture how much of a middle class, well to do white guy I must be, sat there with as much money from the bank of mummy and daddy as I want, and, to make matters worse, I'm probably eating some caviar off of a Waitrose cracker or something (well, maybe not that last part). The truth in my case and a fair minority of others however, is far and away from that. I came from a working-class background, neither of my parents had high-paid professional jobs and neither went to university. In fact, there was actually a distinct lack of BMW's and lacrosse lessons growing up, and a lot of downsizing, moving from a small home to a flat in harsher financial times. That's not to say I had some tough, strife-filled childhood, but it illustrates the disparity between the reality and the unfair view, shared by many less friendly to Grammars, that all Grammar schools are gilded cages, attended only by the wealthy. In many people's minds, these are not a place for meritocracy or, the buzzword for this topic, social mobility.

In my case the Grammar school I attended gave me an environment where I could benefit from its teaching and unique atmosphere (mad teachers and crumbling buildings included). Ultimately it helped me punch above the circumstances I was given at birth, set by my family's education, which is the single biggest predictor of how a child will do at the age of 16, according to a Policy exchange report from 2014. So from a personal perspective the achievements of Grammar schools are all too clear. All this, however, is not to say I can't appreciate the criticism of Grammar schools, indeed many of you would say that my story is just that, my own personal story. Not only is this anecdotal evidence weak, it's also easy to reject when compared to the rest of the country, as the story of Grammar schools nationally is far from a pretty picture.

The weight of statistical evidence casting scrutiny on Grammar schools is enough to make the die hard Grammar supporter, with cane in one hand and Latin dictionary in the other, doubt their position. Take for instance the evidence that barely any of the nation's poor end up in Grammar schools. The Sutton Trust found that less than 3% of entrants to Grammar schools are entitled to free school meals, further supported by the findings from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, that:

"More deprived children are significantly less likely to go to a Grammar than the most advantaged, even when pupils achieve equally good results aged 11".

Not only do the poor miss out, but their prospects are hurt even more as the most qualified teachers flock to the highest achieving schools, leaving those at comprehensives and those who particularly need the most support less likely to receive the highest quality teaching.

With that said, what reason is there to support the repeal of the ban on Grammar schools? Firstly, there should be schools where the brightest can flourish in an environment that's the best for them, this was the opportunity I was given, and Grammar schools do achieve this by having the best environments that foster learning. Just like the elite bands of universities including Oxford and Cambridge, the idea of a band of schools that specifically help develop the brightest kids is not an idea that many would on first glance reject. There still remains the issue however, can we really judge the intelligence of a child at eleven? In some ways the eleven plus doesn't truly test intelligence, it doesn't test for skills in art or music for instance, which are just as praiseworthy. For this to be solved the way society looks at intelligence as purely academic in nature needs to be challenged, a hefty claim which could easily merit an article on its own, but in regards to Grammar schools it requires a broadening of the eleven plus to accommodate a wider variety of skills, something Grammars can and are improving upon.

More importantly, we must look at the potential of new Grammar schools. Yes, Grammars are tied to problems such as the disparity in their intake, but exceptions such as me can become a norm and a new wave of Grammars can become the beacons of social mobility many people perceive them to be, so long as these problems are tackled. The Sutton Trust in 2013 suggested several ways Grammars can improve, most notably to provide mentoring for all children in primary schools earmarked for the eleven plus, regardless of wealth or background, so all children can enter the test on a level playing field. Locally, my own Grammar started a scheme to bring primary school children to the school and teach them extra lessons, a way of showing them that there is a place for people of all backgrounds at a Grammar school and to challenge the stigma around them, actually prompting them to sit the test in the first place. In fact, many Grammar heads reported that this stigma attached to Grammar schools was one of the biggest barriers for kids from less advantaged backgrounds entering. With such reforms implemented, all of the inherent problems with the Grammar system could be tackled, and Grammar schools could truly be an equal opportunity vehicle for social mobility, but to further deny it needs reform would be true negligence.

If you have ended up reading right to the end of this, then I would make this one last request of you. If Theresa May does push for the repeal of the 1998 law, don't tribalistically reject the idea, claiming it's just the Tories looking out for the wealthy once more. I implore you to look at the possibilities for the bright, less advantaged kids for whom a new wave of Grammar schools could truly be an escape from the cycle of poverty they were born into and are powerless to change. That's what a reformed Grammar system could allow, a true meritocracy that could create social mobility in a time when it's needed most and inequality is at its worst ever point, this is why I still believe in Grammar schools, and why you should too.