Why is the Impact of Grammar Schools on Class Inequality in the British Education System so Often Overlooked?

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Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.

Often when the issue of class inequality in English education is discussed, private schools and university fees are at the heart of that conversation. Sadly, more often than not, grammar schools play a very small role in that discussion. Regardless of this, it remains that the existence of grammar schools and the archaic 11+ system is most certainly a class issue that should be acknowledged.

Grammar schools were introduced under the 1944 Education Act, which introduced a tripartite system of grammar schools, technical schools and secondary modern schools. Grammar schools are selective. As such, pupils have to pass a test called the 11+ in their last year of primary school to gain a place at the school. Grammar schools differ from private schools because you do not have to pay fees and they are in fact state funded. The 11+ test is free to take, and anybody can request to take it. All things considered it would be possible to argue that this seems like a relatively fair system. However, this is most certainly not the case.

For most working-class parents their child attending a grammar school isn’t even something that crosses their mind. Firstly, the 11+ test is a difficult exam that requires study and preparation. For many children that take it this preparation comes in the form of private tutoring, a costly and impossible expense for working class parents. Along with this, there are only 169 grammar schools in the UK, so for most people their ‘local’ grammar school isn’t particularly local, especially if you live in the north of England. The daily travel costs to most grammar schools is not something most low-income families can factor into their budget. Of course, grammar schools typically being ‘better’ schools means there’s a wide range of extra-curricular activities and trips, which would suffocate the budget of a poorer family. At the base of it, most areas of grammar school life are not, and never have been, accessible to poorer people.

Of course, we can assess how inaccessible areas of grammar school life are for poorer students, but we have to remember that the percentage of poor students in grammar schools itself is particularly low. A 2020 study by the House of Commons Library perfectly illustrates the class inequality present in grammar schools. For example, in terms of free school meals (an important way to measure class in education) in 2019 only 3% of grammar school pupils were eligible for free school meals, whilst the rate at non-selective schools was 15%. Additionally, only 4% of pupils in grammar schools have Special Educational Needs, in comparison to 11% at non-selective schools.

In recent decades there has been a crackdown on the unequal grammar school system. During Blair’s New Labour government, a law was introduced banning the introduction of any new grammar schools, however pre-existing grammar schools have also grown in size since then and thus been able to take on many more pupils. Also, May’s recent Tory government has sought to tackle income differences in education with a plan that, strangely enough, hopes to introduce more grammar schools.

It stands that selective schooling has no place in modern society. Grammar schools only exist to benefit middle class pupils who have access to the money and knowledge to benefit from them. Our education system should not be attempting to make new grammar schools and should instead stop overlooking the impact they have on class differences in educational achievement. All our efforts should be put on improving the education in overcrowded and underfunded state schools, which the majority of English pupils attend.

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