Grammar Schools are Harmful and Unnecessary: THE PROPOSITION


Grammar schools are not just unnecessary, they jeopardise the progress of our comprehensives, argues EMILY ANDERSON.

The Opposition can be found here

On the face of it, a system that selects purely by academic merit and welcomes students from all walks of life sounds like a brilliant plan. However, with the rise in university fees possibly leading to an increasingly divisive education system, is a return to grammar schools really going to provide an equal education for all students?

Social mobility is currently at its lowest point since the end of world war two and it is not just the prominence of public school students that we have to thank for this problem. Grammar schools were originally set up to offer bright children from less affluent backgrounds an opportunity to receive a top state education. However, it had become clear by the 1980s that it was essentially a flawed system. Today, of the 164 grammar schools left in Britain, barely 1% of their students are entitled to free school meals and only 18% are represented by ethnic minorities. In this sense, it is both a socially and ethnically divisive system from which many are excluded. It has become a white middle class institution which ensures that many able students who have less socio-economic advantages are rejected.

It is very much to be contested that a child’s academic ability at the age of eleven is indicative of their later achievements. To give just one example, social psychologist, Carol Dweck  has developed a theory of motivation which suggests that intelligence is fluid and adaptable.  Children who are rejected from a grammar school at the age of eleven may prove to be just as, if not more intelligent, than their grammar school peers. However, as Dweck recognises, being labelled as unintelligent must then have its repercussions.  The president of the NUT has recently related how humiliated and dejected she felt after failing her 11-plus. To fail an exam which is essentially unnecessary must damage the confidence of any aspiring student. And, as a self- fulfilling prophecy, it is to be supposed, their academic achievement may then decrease as well.

The answer to the domination of public school students in top professions lies instead with the improvement of comprehensives. Children from poorer backgrounds frequently do not receive motivation from role models. It is my opinion that if a child is very self-motivated when it comes to education, they can achieve academic excellence in spite of the school they attend. If this was not the case, how do we explain those comprehensive school students who receive top grades every year at GSCE and A Level?  Teachers and parents could explain to students why education is important to later life so that self-motivation can occur. Once this understanding is coupled with encouragement and enthusiasm for learning, a willing child may achieve above and beyond their potential. An unjustly selective system is not necessary to improve education.

To find out more about the many logical arguments for state education, go to this page.

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Discussion28 Comments

  1. avatar

    Are you suggesting someone who works hard shouldn’t be able to pay for their child to get a better education? I went to state school all the way until Uni and the answer doesn’t lie with “improving comprehensives”. It’s no coincidence that the kid that weren’t interested are the ones who don’t achieve.

    The problem is rooted in parents who don’t value education, and your statistic about ethnic minority representation is disingenuous – 92% of this country is “white” so if anything ethnic minority children are doing WELL (which is unsurprising given the high value that is placed on education in Asian families from personal experience).

    And not to sound discriminatory but success breeds success. Of course the children of higher earning parents will on average attain higher, it is likely that their parents have experienced the benefits of education and as such pass these values onto their children. To argue that the system is flawed merely because there aren’t enough “poor” kids in these schools is to ignore the reality behind that statistic. The answer ultimately, as you have said, lies with parents instilling the value of education into their children. Attacking Grammar schools and other selective educational institutions merely downplays the fact that people should be taking responsibility of their own children instead of passing around the blame to others.

    • avatar

      Hi Dhanesh,

      No, I am definitely not suggesting that someone who works hard shouldn’t be able to pay for a ‘better’ education for their child; though surely this is not really applicable to grammar schools? More to public schools I would have thought. And I reject your claim that just because an institution is private it is somehow better, but that’s another argument altogether..

      In general, I guess success does often breed success but not always. Children from working class families or poorer families can achieve just as much as children from wealthier backgrounds,speaking from personal experience! And it is definitely not true, as you seem to suggest, that less affluent parents fail in ‘instilling the value of education into their children’; this varies widely from family to family.


  2. avatar

    With regards to your point on self motivation: surely in an education system designed to accommodate students of different ability levels, the students you mention who come from poorer backgrounds but are still able to achieve good grades would benefit from a Grammar School education? I agree that the comprehensive system needs improvement, but I still think Grammar Schools have an important role to play.

    If they’re sufficiently intelligent to achieve top grades in a comprehensive school, theoretically, wouldn’t they be able to then take the 11+ and attend a Grammar School (geography etc permitting) and then be in an environment where the content covered is better tailored for them? While we have those few bright students who are able to achieve in a comprehensive setting, I wonder if there are more who are unable to achieve due to being restricted by the comprehensive education system, and the requirement to focus on the students who do not perform as well, leaving the brighter students to their own devices.

    Also, from personal experience, I would disagree that my school experience was economically or ethnically divisive. We had students from all kinds of backgrounds in attendance.

    • avatar

      Hi Aaron,

      If poorer students can achieve good grades at comprehensives, does this not make grammar schools somewhat redundant? What ‘important role’ is it that they have to play?

      As I said in my article, intelligence is not fixed at 11 and therefore students from poorer backgrounds may fail this (due to perhaps a lack of support) and would then be rejected from a grammar school. Their intelligence/commitment to work may develop at 14 or 15 instead.

      I am sure not all grammar schools are economically or ethnically divisive; I used statistics to give an overall picture.


      • avatar


        I’d disagree that students being able to achieve good grades at comprehensives renders grammar schools redundant. Is that not akin to saying that FE students can achieve firsts at Universities such as Solent, so Universities such as Oxford and Cambridge are redundant? I think that Grammar Schools are beneficial in that they help to distribute students across the education system in such a manner that every student is able to access the level and type of support that is right for them.

        I agree that education is not fixed at 11. However, I’d say that the point misses the fact that students can enter a Grammar School by taking a test at age 12. Or after their GCSEs to attend a Grammar School Sixth Form college. Or at any point in between, at the discretion of the school. I take your point that the overwhelming majority of Grammar School students are accepted at age 11, but that doesn’t mean the system is impossible to break into.


        • avatar

          Although I am sure the grammar schools are not impossible to get in to after the age of 11, I think many children who had perhaps been rejected once would not want to take the test at a later age. For those who perhaps did not take the test at 11, I guess it may be easier to apply at a later age.

          I don’t think comparing the grammar school system to the university system really helps. All universities require an intelligence quota, in the form of grades, to accept an application. Comprehensives do not do this.

          I take your point that grammar schools may give the right support to a very small minority, but I still think the division from comprehensives does more harm than good in social and educational terms for the majority. We will have to agree to disagree!

  3. avatar

    I’m afraid to say that I fail to see how Grammar Schools have ‘become a white middle class institution which ensures that many able students who have less socio-economic advantages are rejected’, as this is simply not the case!

    I shan’t mention race, as Dhanesh covers this pretty well, however the idea that Grammar School’s are reserved for the middle class is wrong.

    Your argument that as only 1% of Grammar School pupils are entitled for free school lunch would show a disproportionate favouritism to middle class families, could be due to the fact that few counties in England allow Grammar Schools to operate and the areas that do, tend to be generally affluent ones.

    To enter the Grammar School system, you must prove yourself to be a cut above the rest and only in certain cases will factors such as siblings and faith, be used to help determine a place when it is oversubscribed. With an ever increasing pressure upon all schools to achieve high academic grades, how would it be in the best interest for a Grammar School (which is allowed to discriminate on intelligence) to turn away a bright kid from a council estate in preference to a mediocre one who goes skiing twice a year?

    • avatar

      Hi James,

      I take your point that grammar schools are often in more affluent areas. However, surely this highlights a flaw with the system not a reason for having it? If grammar schools are in wealthier areas, the percentage of poorer children who would be able/willing to apply for them would be very small indeed, thus reinforcing my argument about inequality.


      • avatar

        Maybe those areas are more affluent because more educated (and invariably wealthier) people live there? It’s no coincidence that areas like Surrey, with close proximity to London, are generally seen as the most “affluent”. There’s literally no point running a Grammar School in a sea of council estates where there aren’t enough sufficiently clever kids to justify having the school there. It’s tough luck but it doesn’t mean the system is wrong, one can clearly achieve in a normal state school.

        • avatar

          I was quite shocked by your comment: ‘There’s literally no point running a Grammar School in a sea of council estates where there aren’t enough sufficiently clever kids to justify having the school there.’ There is no link between living on a council estate and a lack of intelligence! In my opinion, intelligence is not something you are born with/inherited, it is something which is nurtured. It is perhaps true that many some children who live on council estates have less educational opportunities and therefore do not thrive at school, but I think that given the right support/motivation, there is no reason why these children can’t be as intelligent as children born in a wealthy area. This is why comprehensives need to be improved; to provide this support and motivation.

          • avatar

            I tend to disagree, intelligence is definitely in part due to inheritance as well as nurture of course, which means on average those growing up on council estates will have less exposure to intelligent role models. If this sounds harsh i’d like to also remind you that comprehensive schools also use social and economic status to inform data on attainment and progress. The Fisher Family Trust for example run extensive studies to prove it has an impact.

        • avatar

          Dhanesh. Comments like that are exactly the problem with this debate – it’s so charged and polarised, and unfortunately, in your case, downright bigoted.

          I’m sorry that I come from a council estate and am obviously of lower intelligence, despite being at the same university. I would have been tempted to support some of the points you have made, but unfortunately, you leave me little reason to.

          • avatar

            I’m sorry, what did I say which was “bigoted”? I didn’t say people in council estates were inherently less intelligent, just that in terms of the distribution of kids eligible for grammar schools there was a bias against those kinds of areas. And as you want to get all emotional the most bigoted people I’ve ever come across were all from the council estate behind my house. Cry me a river.

      • avatar

        Emily, surely then you must agree that if Labour’s ban on the introduction of new Grammar Schools was lifted, then there would be no problem for children from working-class back grounds entering the system.

        • avatar

          No, sorry – I’m completely with Labour on this one. I think the solution lies with improving the comprehensives. More grammar schools would lead to a greater gap in education than we already have.

          • avatar

            At the expense of those students who have the intelligence to achieve great things, but are held back by those who are not interested in academic achievement!

            I really can’t accept your argument and find it extremely narrow minded and not dissimilar to the huge majority of left-wing students that are an embarrassment to the WS and SUSU, whom only seem interested in sticking it to the man as well as the middle and upper classes.

  4. avatar
    Sean McClintock

    Hi Emily,

    I’ve been told by several people I know who have been to comprehensives (in Kent, where there are Grammar schools) that their schools had extremely low expectations of pupils, for example that C grades were perfectly acceptable, possibly because they were more concerned with targets than they were about the pupils. I also remember checking out BBC bitesize while I was revising for GCSEs and how incredibly low the standards were.
    Someone I know was at my local Comprehensive for years 7 and 8, after not being at peak performance for the 11+. He was in top sets for most subjects and was told he was equivalent to an average grammar school student in those subjects. He then took the 13+, got into a Grammar school in year 9, and found out that he was well below average, but persevered and is now thriving in year 10. My point is, either he was the smartest student in his old school by a mile in half of his subjects, OR the top sets at his old school could be pushed a lot harder.
    Perhaps schools should be encouraging pupils more sometimes, as well as parents, rather than deceive them into thinking they are doing fine when some could be doing so much better. I think the policies of individual schools and of the government have contributed to the contrast between comps and grammars, and that they are actively suppressing their smarter students. Maybe they don’t want to push these students because it might humiliate weaker students? Of course some pupils can succeed without being pushed, but a lot of talent is being wasted.

    Also, I agree with Dhanesh that your statistics are lacking context and potentially misleading.
    Firstly, regardless of whether Grammar school areas are also affluent areas supports your argument, do you know what proportion of ALL secondary pupils in these areas are on free school meals, for comparison?
    Secondly, what does ‘only 18% are represented by ethnic minorities’ mean? Does it mean that 82% have a less than average proportion of ethnic minority students?

    • avatar

      Right Sean, I will try and answer all your points!

      I agree that comprehensives need to be improved. I’m not sure how wide spread this policy is, but at my school we were given GCSE targets appropriate to our Year 9 SATs results and were actively encouraged to meet them. For example, I was predicted a C in Music and managed to get an A in the end after sufficient motivation from both my teachers and myself. I think comprehensives succeed in providing a range of standards for all abilities. I do not agree that standards are ‘incredibly low’. Yes, they could be higher but I think your statement is hyperbole. Also, talking with and comparing results with people I know at both grammar and private schools, I do not think the gap is as wide as you make out.

      To your point about comprehensives not pushing students, I am sure in some cases this may be right. However, I certainly, and many other students I know, learnt self-motivation at comprehensives – we didn’t have to be pushed by our teachers. I agree not all students may have this kind of motivation but this is something which needs to be addressed. Also, some students may not enjoy traditional education and be suited to other more practical subjects – I think comprehensives are more able to cater for all types of students.

      As to statistics, which I knew you would pick me up on (!), I meant 18% of students at grammar schools are from ethnic minorities. As to your first point, I refer you to this website which will hopefully tell you:

      I think there is a section specifically on grammar schools, but my computer isn’t letting me open it at the moment!


  5. avatar

    As someone who was educated at your “bog-standard” British comp and comes from a family where nobody stayed in school past 15, I can honestly say that I feel enriched by my education. Ok, so my school wasn’t amazing, but it welcomed all and I think that is more important – I was being educated alongside kids with severe learning disabilities and kids who went on to get 10 A*s at GCSE.

    Comprehensives understand far better than grammars the important of personal targets. Sean – you say that a C is an unacceptable grade and perhaps it would be to you, but watching one of my oldest friends achieve a C in Maths when she was predicted an F and suffered from mild cerebral palsy was a far greater victory than the A that I fluked. That’s what school should be about – reaching a personal goal, not one that is dictated by government statistics.

    I was dating a boy from a grammar school when I was doing my AS Levels (at my comp’s 6th form of course) and he got 2 Bs and a 2 Cs and was hauled into the head teacher’s office to be cautioned for lack of effort and a poor attitude. I know how hard he tried: he genuinely wasn’t capable of anything more. His self esteem literally plummeted, it was terrible to watch. Meanwhile I was on the front page of my local newspaper for securing 4 As – don’t get excited, my town is extremely small. They paraded me and several other students around as if we were child prodigies because of the constant stick my comp was getting when being compared to the grammar, which actually didn’t do that much better.

    I just feel like grammar schools take away a lot of bright kids who would really benefit from a comprehensive education – you learn a lot about humility and having to work hard against odds, as well as experiencing a school which replicates reality in terms of diversity. Perhaps if grammars shut and all the funding was put back into comprehensives, all children of all abilities would get a good education rather than only the clever ones getting a great education. University and “good grades” aren’t the only measure of success.

    • avatar

      Not to sound rude but the amount of money spent on a good deal of kids from my old school is already wasted. Throwing money at comprehensives to improve the education of kids who don’t want to learn in the first place is pointless, and again most of the kids from my school know nothing about humility or working hard. Instead, they were rewarded for doing the most basic thing i.e. behaving in class. In this sense, it’s surely desireable to seperate the kids who can and want to achieve in school.

      • avatar

        But in this assumption you are stating that comprehensive kids don’t want to learn and grammar school kids do – this is a massive generalisation. I know from anecdotes grammar schooled friends have told me that generally our experiences with our peers were quite similar – naughty kids who couldn’t give a cr*p were common and mixed in with kids who tried their best. And why do you think comprehensive kids sometimes become so apathetic? They have been disenfranchised – if their school has no money to support them, why should they feel like they can achieve anything?

        A child is a product of its educational and parental background – if a comp had the money to invest in its students, encourage them, understand what they actually need out of their education to equip them for the future, then even if their parental background wasn’t tiptop, they may have more esteem and hope for themselves. To assume otherwise is ridiculous – my school didn’t but my parents did and I ended up doing pretty well.

        • avatar

          No I’m stating that in general it is true, which is borne out in the results these schools get. And this whole blame culture is no constructive, it’s primarily you/your parents responsibility to tak education seriously. I went to a comprehensive school and the fact it had “no money” didn’t make me think the whole thing was pointless. At the end of the day scrapping grammar schools just so that comprehensives can have more funding doesn’t do anything for these values we all agree are so beneficial to a students progress. These are values that money can’t buy, and are either instilled by a parents/schools or not.

          I don’t see how giving comprehensives more money has anything to do with teachers telling kids education is important. For what it’s worth some teachers did do this at my school and to be honest it made no difference (plus its blindingly obvious to even the dumbest kids that having an education will be advantageous – let’s not patronise people here). How do you propose more money would have helped that situation?

          • avatar

            I’m going to have to disagree with you there, Dhanesh.

            One thing I remember at school was that most students don’t see the advantages of having an education. Most students don’t take school seriously at that level. Some will see the advantages of education and will reach/exceed their personal expectations. But others, unless aided, will underachieve.

            And it really does take money to help comprehensive schools break this separation of students.

            With more money, schools can offer a wider range of subjects, so that more students can find something in education that they care about. With more money, schools can offer better training for teachers so that they know how to help children that are struggling or apathetic. With more money, schools can offer MORE teachers, so student:teacher ratios fall. Which, has SO many benefits for whatever establishment they’re added to.

            I’m not sure about the wider debate, but surely putting more money into schools can only be a good thing for the students’ education.

          • avatar

            I’d argue that the range of subjects in schools is already pretty wide (I mean Media Studies GCSE, seriously? I took it and it was an absolute joke). Our school did offer courses such as bricklaying and other stuff like that in Years 10 and 11 for kids who wanted to go down that path, which is surely the right way to do things. It just seems that an awful lot of people feel that attacking the brightest children in our educational system in the name of “equality” for a slew of kids who don’t care either way is some sort of ideal we should be striving towards.

        • avatar
          Angela Chamberlain

          Yes you did but you didn’t go to a grammar school and until you have you can’t really comment on what one is like can you. You base your information on the findings of a few people. I’ve based my comments on looking at in excess of 50 of my son’s peer group (bright and less able children) and my own experiences. When we visited the local comprehensive they were shocked at my son’s ability. having been given sums such as 50×33 at age 7 he was shocked when they asked him to complete a worksheet with 8×4 on it! When I visited the school I observed the top set students (as advised by the deputy head) they were nowhere near my son’s ability. Oh so lets put him in there anyway and let all the other kids call him a nerd. No thankyou. The IT teacher was panicking on open day as he informed me that it was difficult to teach MS PowerPoint 10. I teach it after teaching myself how to do it. If he can’t then there are plenty of unemployed people that can. My son laughed at the simplicity of the exercise the school t’s year 11 students were proudly showing that they were able to do. Condescending yes and I agree with you that comprehensives can offer a good education to many children but, speaking from my experience my son is happy in a grammar school, is being taught by excellent teachers and has more confidence than ever before. Much better than the daily chants of “nerd.” But we mustn’t think of these children must we. How would your siblings have liked him to call them thick and stupid. No they wouldn’t. I would also comment that many people have “done well” as they were in the right place at the right time.

  6. avatar

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  7. avatar
    Angela Chamberlain

    Having attended a comprehensive filled with teachers that were continually distracted, preferring to speak of subjects of interest to them rather than teach it is most surprising that I did mange to leave the school with qualifications. However, I do not accredit my success to the school. I obtained books from the local library, shut myself away and studied to make up for the shortcomings of the teaching staff. In addition to this the other children in this school decided to call me a nerd, boffin and I was subjected to much bullying. When my son entered a grammar school I was and still am thrilled. How different the environment is to the school which I attended. I looked at a class photograph of him in his primary school and he appeared nervous. One year on and he appears happy, relaxed and confident in his grammar school class photo. Did I pay to tutor him – no, I tutored him myself and I didn’t sit the 11+ examination. Why should he be disadvantaged as I was. It isn’t pleasant when you haven’t achieved a high enough pass mark to enter the school but plenty of parents will still try to put their children though this or, if they enter comprehensives, they will put them through extra tuition anyway. It seems to me that the speakers are only looking at the less able and not how disadvantaged the more able could be when placed in one of these comprehensives. The children at our local school do not work anywhere near as hard as my son. Oh but we must think of these poor children whilst my son is doing his homework and they are playing 18 year old games on their X boxes at age 10 or going online onto Facebook from aged 7 because their parents can’t say no. Now lets hear from all the anti grammar brigade as to how I’ve overworked my son. No, he is studious and he wants to learn. Yes he does see his friends but after his homework is done. The top achiever in the good local comprehensive school was several levels behind my son when they were at primary school. Isn’t it shocking that he has a thirst for knowledge and wants to achieve something! How on earth does he manage to play with his friends from his current and previous schools. Well he does. And as parents we value education as well as our child’s happiness.

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