Grammar Schools are Harmful and Unnecessary: THE OPPOSITION


Grammar schools are logical and socially progressive, argues MICHAEL FISHER.

The proposition can be found here

Before condemning the nasty, unfair grammar school system, let’s examine the reality of comprehensives.

Most comprehensive schools are selective in their own right. Popular comprehensives vet applicants according to their geographical locality. This drives nearby house prices up, the result being that only the richer families can afford to live in the area so it is their children who are most eligible. Some comprehensive schools select with a preference towards a religious background. Many take into consideration the attendance of siblings. Grammar schools are therefore not alone in being selective, and surely the fairest, most socially progressive system of selection is the one which rewards a child’s personal potential rather than factors outside of their control?

Furthermore, comprehensives frequently separate their students into classes, or sets, based on their aptitude in subjects such as mathematics. This is perfectly logical: the teacher can adjust the pace of the modules accordingly. Grammar Schools essentially consist of the children who would otherwise be put in the “top set”. To vilify grammar schools, you must first denounce any gesture of meritocracy in the education system.

Whilst it is vital that there is a focus on broadly lifting the standards of education so that all children are taught in an environment conducive to learning, it is also vital that the very brightest children are given the opportunity to be challenged and supported in an advanced learning environment.  A highly intelligent child may well thrive in any school in which they find themselves , but it would be fantasy to suggest that being surrounded by similarly capable peers would not be an advantage. Such an advantage increases the probability that the child will be academically successful and ultimately occupy a position of power. If we want the future leaders of our society to come from a variety of economic backgrounds, then grammar schools will play a vital role in keeping that balance.

I do make one concession. The current phenomenon of affluent children receiving private tuition in order to pass their 11+ is fundamentally wrong, and it may well be the major reason that a slightly disproportionate percentage of middle class children currently study at grammar schools. Perhaps a solution would be for the government to provide free online tutorials and interactive mock tests.

Amendments to the 11+ procedure such as this may be necessary, but the grammar school system is one built on sound logic and meritocratic principles. Providing the poorest children in the country with the opportunity to receive a high standard of education that would otherwise be the preserve of the rich is not harmful and it is most definitely necessary.

For statistics and more pro-grammar arguments, the National Grammar Schools Association has a concise and informative website.

The proposition can be found here


Mike is the Editor of the Wessex Scene for 2011/2012 after fulfilling the role of Features Editor in 2010/2011. Apart from taking charge of the ever-expanding Scene, Mike enjoys writing for a broad range of the sections, though his heart truly lies in reporting and Features.

Discussion13 Comments

  1. avatar

    Very well written Mike.

    Whilst I don’t disagree with most of your argument, I have to object to one point. I went to a grammar school from the age of 13, having previously lived in an area with a comprehensive system and not knowing they even existed. I completely refute the idea that they provide a standard of education akin to fee paying schools. My school was lazy and incompetent. All it cared about was getting the grades to keep its place in the league tables, with no concern for students as individuals. As long as you were able enough to guarantee decent exam passes, you were pretty much ignored. And any original or independent thinking was heavily discouraged. Having since seen my younger brother go to a fee-paying school on a scholarship, it seems to me that this concern for the individual is exactly what such schools provide that makes them so much better.

    My school recently contacted my parents to ask what I am up to these days so they can claim credit. My parents wrote back that everything I have achieved has been despite rather than because of my school. So whilst in theory grammar schools may make sense, my experience is that in practice they just look good because they get the more able students who would do well anyway.

    PS I admit that my perspective is very individual. Plus my dislike for my school is increased by the fact that it was all-girls… don’t get me started on single-sex education.

    • avatar
      Mike Fisher

      Hi Grace

      Some grammar schools, sadly, do have a fixation on exam results which dominates the delivery of the syllabus. But this is also true of many comprehensive schools and many private schools.

      We have to go by the statistics and the fact is that grammar schools ‘add more value’ to the level the child was at academically when they entered than comprehensives, i.e. the difference between the achievement of the average grammar school student and their comprehensive counterpart aged 16 is even greater than at age 11. So the system is almost as successful as private schools in terms of improving the level of achievement of its pupils. At the expense of ‘an education of life’? Well, that’s up to the individual school: I don’t believe it to be a problem inherent to grammars.

      Where grammar schools don’t provide an education akin to private schools is of course when it comes to funding. The facilities and class sizes will almost always be superior in fee-paying schools because a grammar school gets no more government funding than a comprehensive. In most other respects, I think you could make a strong case for grammar schools providing free education that is as good as the paid education of private schools.

  2. avatar

    Since my local authority is one of the many that doesn’t operate grammar schools, I come at this from a slightly different perspective.

    Basically, I don’t think its justifiable to sort kids at 11. Your point about ‘sets’ doesn’t really stand up. A student could be in set 4 at 12 and move up to set 1 by 16, or vice versa. But if set 1 is based in another school, there is a glass ceiling in place for kids who blossom slightly later in the education system.

    At 11, a child is still basically a product of their upbringing. Its not a meritocracy, its based on circumstances. If you have parents that never pushed you, at 11 you probably won’t be doing very well at school, but if you did, chances are you could pass an 11+. At 14, 15 or 16, your own life choices have a much bigger effect, and all children deserve the chance to move up or down accordingly.

    It’s just no fair on kids with bad parents otherwise. What could they have done differently by age 11 to give themselves a shot at a better future?

    Another problem I have with the grammar school system is that it makes the comps worse. If you cherry pick out all the high achievers, you end up with a terrible comprehensive that has no aspirations for its students. If you have comprehensives that are mixed ability, it’s probably tougher for the smart kids, but in the end its fairer all round.

    Also I’m not sure your point about moving into the best area really stands up. Grammar schools have catchment areas too, so won’t people move there to get into the best grammar school, as opposed to the ones like Grace mentions?

    • avatar
      Mike Fisher

      Point at a time Pete. Point at a time.

      Students who excel and wish to go to a grammar school are able to move to one between 11-16. We had kids coming in and going out every year before GCSEs at my grammar school. After GCSEs any pupil with 6Bs or more from any school could apply to study at our sixth form. Loads came in. If there’s a glass ceiling it’s one with a handy trap door and steps for comfortable access.

      I disagree that children at 11 are “products of their upbringing”. And I certainly don’t think that people with “bad parents” cannot pass an 11+. An intelligent 11-year-old who pays attention in class at primary school is perfectly capable of passing, no matter how bad the parenting. The test is on verbal reasoning, non verbal reasoning and mathematics, all of which are covered in the primary school syllabus (usually indirectly).

      I’d have to agree that the existence of a grammar school in an area will mean the average IQ of the Year 7s in the nearby comprehensives will be marginally lower than they would be otherwise. This does not mean that “you end up with a terrible comprehensive that has no aspirations for its students”. That’s an insult to anyone who has been to a comprehensive near a grammar school, and I’d be happy to let them tell you the exact reasons why their school wasn’t terrible.

      Grammar schools do tend to have catchment areas as well, but because of the 11+, less focus is placed upon the address of the applicant. Again, coming from my experience at a grammar school in Torquay, we had students who had been at primary schools from all over the country. So I should imagine that the catchment areas are ‘relaxed’.

      • avatar

        I’ll bet you learnt to go a point at a time as a part of your privileged grammar school education. And to repeat your opening sentence for effect.

        In response: I’d be happy to find you plenty of people who could tell you why their comprehensive was terrible. Maybe we should just let them have the argument?

        Moving from school to school is still a lot more difficult than jumping from set to set. It’s far more complicated in terms of admin, more difficult for the kid and lets face it, just won’t happen as much.

        At 11, you might not be entirely a product of your upbringing, but you haven’t really had a chance to make your own decisions about the direction to take in life. If the opportunities were presented you might take them, if not you probably didn’t. Also, an unsettling or difficult childhood makes primary school basically impossible for some kids. If you then end up in a worse secondary school as a result, that damages your chances of turning it around.

        Although, I may sheepishly step off the moral high ground if you were to point out that had the 11+ been available in my area, I would have taken it, passed it and not looked back. As it wasn’t I didn’t, and it hasn’t really held me back at all. So maybe it makes no difference. Smart kids with good parents do well at school. Less smart kids with not so good parents tend not to. And perhaps that would remain true however you structured the education system.

  3. avatar

    As usual, I’m with Pete on this one. I logged a massive comment on the proposition which I can’t be arsed to copy over but it had something to do with comps being great.

  4. avatar

    The point’s already been raised below, but I think comparing streaming by ability in a comprehensive school and splitting off at 11 are not really analogous.

    Surely the option that most enhances social mobility is the former, instead of having your academic fate more-or-less sealed at 11 (think how much you and your friends have changed between 11 and 18!)?

    It’s definitely fairer to have a much more fluid set system whereby a student who becomes more competent/motivated can be promoted, and someone who’s falling behind can drop down and try to catch up without losing pace – more-or-less as it happens?

    Of course there’s a need to separate people by ability – a “one-size-fits-all” approach benefits nobody really, if the less able are falling behind the average, and the more capable are bored by the slow pace, but there’s no point making that judgment only once, and before the student has even hit puberty!

    The final point I’d like to make is that, if we were to keep grammar schools, offering free tuition for the 11+ would have the opposite effect as intended. No 11-year-old in their right mind would voluntarily train for the 11+ unless they were forced/encouraged by their middle class pushy parents. Instead, the 11+ should be made more unpredictable and should be designed to be difficult to prepare for. That’s then testing the child’s aptitude and motivation, rather than the parents’.

    PS. Just to let you know my background, I was educated in a comprehensive, which streamed by ability in maths from day 1, english and science from year 9, and no streaming in sixth form (only implicitly by entry grades).

  5. avatar

    Having been to two grammar schools, one being Torquay Boys’ Grammar School and the other being Calday Grange Grammar School, I have the following point to make. Not all selection systems are equal, for example the system in Torquay was a fair deal fairer than that in Wirral, where with the former you applied to each school in the area seperately; in Wirral one test was suffiecient for both grammar schools in the area.

    The reason I went to Torquay was because I was unfairly cheated out a place from Calday initially. Having passed my 11+ I was refused a position because I put it down second preference, whereas those who failed it but put it down first preference were accepted.

    You mentioned about sets, well I can tell you that a set system existed in Calday, with only the top set being allowed to compete in events such as intermediate maths challenge. These sets were chosen in year 9 for GCSE years and were based on SATs results. Having joined the school in year 10 (and despite being more than capable of the top set) I was placed in the second set, so many events I was unable of being able to compete in.
    Surely that’s not a fair system for a grammar school either?

    I can’t comment on how the system at Torquay as I was only there for one year (the reasoning for which is another topic, which I won’t go into).

    In regards to the Geographic consideration, Calday appeared to have a disproportionate amount of pupils from one particular area, which was not the closest area by any means (the fact the Headmaster was from that area may or may not have had some influence on the reason why).

    Along the way I have also been to a comprehensive in an area where there was no grammar schools, and it was rough and had a much poorer education set up there.
    I have also been to a non-selective independent in an area where there are grammar schools and have to say that the level of teaching there was far superior to that in the grammar schools, however, the cost was a major disadvantage.

    Overall, having had experience in all areas of school; I find the grammar school system unfair and that they education system would be better in absence of grammar schools.

    • avatar

      It could be higher than you think, however, when you considering how many from there are from comprehensives in areas which have grammar schools, I’d be willing to bet there is none.

      Even from my sixth form (which was the top grammar school in the area), only about 40% went to top universities, the rest either not going to university or going to polytech unis.
      From the local comp, the amount of people going to any uni was about 40% of which don’t think any were top universities.

      • avatar

        Well there’s at least one, my LEA operates Grammar Schools, yet I hail from a comprehensive. That said I am with Mike on this occasion, though I think Pete’s point regarding a (real or perceived) glass ceiling holds more than a little merit.

  6. avatar

    Hmmm – grammar schools were supposed to be the great levellers by taking the brightest kids at 11 and turning them into, primarily, academic successes.
    Well, I attended a very famous grammar school in Southampton, being the last of the 11+ attendees in 1978 before it became fee paying the following year. The standards were very high, of the 120 boys admitted almost 20 would end up attending Oxbridge after six years. Since becoming independent that statistic of one in six had fallen to maybe 1 in 20 (a case of bright kids with not so rich parents attending a grammar school versus not so bright kids with rich parents attending the same school once it became fee paying?).
    As a grammar school, was it a true meritocracy? I don’t think so, it felt more like a private fee paying school for middle class kids, but without the parents having to pay fees!
    The majority of boys were from professional families, a contemporary’s mother and father were lecture and teacher respectively, and all of his brothers had attended the school. For such kids it was almost a given that they would attend the grammar school, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were ‘coached’ in earlier years to ensure that they had a better chance of passing their 11+. Attending a local ‘prep’ school (which no longer exists) was almost a guarantee of a place at 11+ in this school.
    As for the school being full of intelligent working class boys or boys from the inner city or council estates……not so, we were in a minority – at school we were middle class and in our neighbourhoods no different to our local friends . In fact from my inner city primary school one boy per year passed his 11+, whereas complete classes would be attending from some of the primary schools in the more affluent neighbourhoods of Southampton.
    So, nascent ability wasn’t going to help you pass the 11+, but a good dose of the right environment and preparation prior to the 11+ would. So, no I wouldn’t say that the grammar school provided opportunity for the less well-off, yet bright, individuals of society.
    In my view grammar schools promote elitism. The alternative is a local comprehensive school, which my children have attended. and NO I have not directed them into the best comprehensive schools in Southampton, Eastleigh or Winchester. A mixed comprehensive has to bring out the best in an individual. All that it takes are good teachers who are willing and able to support and coach different ability kids throughout their school years. Yes, put the kids into different sets – not just based on ability but also personality, teachers should also be trained in child psychology so that they can identify those individuals who are talented and need to be stretched at one extreme, and the no-hopers at the other extreme who need to be brought upto a basic level of education.
    Whilst we still have elitist grammar schools and fee paying schools, and the heads of universities and captains of industry still show a certain amount of snobbery towards comprehensive schools, some of the brightest nascent talent of this country won’t be brought to the fore.
    Currently working as a professional and having worked with individuals from all manner of backgrounds, I can honestly say that the most important attribute in an individual is their drive and get up & go, find those individuals at a young age and they can be developed in any environment.

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