Grammar dilemma

MGS did me proud - but we don't need more
(as it happens it's not a grammar school now)
There is some talk of the government allowing expansion of grammar schools (high schools that only admit the brighter students, not the US use of the term) - which I suspect would be a terrible idea.

Like Theresa May, I benefited from a grammar school education and loved it, and had I not attended Manchester Grammar School, it's highly probable I would not have got into Cambridge. But the trouble with this kind of thinking is that it's typical bad analysis driven by individual experience, rather than a proper critical assessment.

As far as I can see there are two problems with grammar schools. The biggest is that they are fine for those who attend - but the remaining students who get sent of to what were called secondary moderns, in effect a second class school, suffer from this process. As a result of a single test - one that is typical of the type of test that only monitors the ability to pass that test - children are separated into sheep and goats. Families are divided. And you can say all the nice words you like about how there is no 'second best' - the fact remains that the non-grammar schools, whatever they choose to call them now, get a lower quality of teaching staff than the grammars and become educational dead ends.

The second issue is that all the actual data-driven evidence points to very little enhancement of that key driver for the supporters of grammar schools (or so they say), social mobility. When comparisons are made with comprehensives, there is little difference on the measures generally used.

It might sound as if there is an inconsistency between my comment about going to Cambridge and the previous paragraph. I was the first from my mostly working class family to go to university, and MGS helped me get to that hallowed location. The reason I say this is that what I do think is true is that grammar schools were better at taking on private schools in providing the kind of edge the top universities are looking for in a candidate.  I would still have gone to university, but not to Cambridge. And that is a different measure from social mobility. I think it says more about the unfair advantages provided to private school students than it does about the benefits of grammar schools.

I'm not against streaming. Comprehensives should, and often do teach different ability students in different ways. And just because you are great at, say, maths and science, doesn't mean you'll be good at languages. Streaming is a much more flexible tool than selective schooling. But grammar schools, I would suggest, are designed to address entirely the wrong problem - how to compete with private schools. And they should be entirely removed, not encouraged.


  1. The problem with attitudes to education in Britain is that the Left, which claims to be progressive, lives entirely in the past, fuelling its existence by nursing ancient grievance.

    The fact is that those few grammar schools that exist are hugely popular with parents, massively oversubscribed, and because middle-class parents (in the main) care more about education than working-class parents, are populated by the children of middle-class parents who have to pay £££ to buy houses in the increasingly limited catchment area. The legislation banning new grammar schools was, in my opinion, a crime and should be repealed.

    It is true, though, that if grammar schools make a comeback (which to me is a no-brainer) then (1) methods of selection must depend on more than a single test at age 11, and (2) equal thought has to be given to education for those children who attend some other kind of school.

    The fact is that the great socialist experiment in one-size-fits-all comprehensive education has failed, like all great socialist experiments inevitably do (cough the USSR cough cough Venezuela cough cough). Bright children don't get the education they need - and less academically able children are not offered suitable alternatives. There is absolutely no point trying to drum Maths and Physics into a sixteen-year-old who'd rather be playing football, and spends most of the week dreaming of the one day a week he gets on day-release to college where he can learn car mechanics or bricklaying.

    Britain needs doctors, scientists, engineers, lawyers, linguists and able administrators, and grammar schools are known to produce people with those skills, irrespective of social background. But Britain also needs more plumbers, electricians, mechanics, nurses, care workers, butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, and secondary moderns could be reintroduced, at the same time as grammars, to produce people qualified in such necessary skills, complementary to grammars, and not in opposition to them, or in competition.


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