Recent reports that Theresa May is looking into the possibility of reintroducing grammar schools has proven controversial. Advocates argue they help social mobility, the statistics prove otherwise. I was educated at two grammar schools, and bringing them back would only divide future generations.
Does that make me a hypocrite? I will always be grateful for my secondary school and sixth form experiences – that doesn’t mean I believe the system is perfect, in fact it’s far from it. The biggest problem with the grammar school system is ultimately its divisive nature; it’s effects on comprehensive education and the selection process which the system is built on.
My local area is home to a number of grammar schools, all of which, as you would expect, achieve excellent results. A key measurement of how good a secondary school is can be found in the percentage of students achieving five A*-C grades at GCSE level. The national average in 2015 was 64.9%; the average across my four local grammar schools was 98.25%. That’s excellent, especially if your child is one of those lucky enough to attend a grammar school. However, for the six local comprehensive schools, the average number of students achieving those 5 GCSEs above a C was 50.5%, almost 15% below the national average.
You may argue that of course the results will look like this, you’ve got clever kids in one group and those who are less so in another. And you may be right. But it’s not as simple as that. With a two-tiered system you will find better teachers at grammar schools (most would rather teach kids who are ‘more able’), and you’re more likely to see a drastic difference in Ofsted reports between the two tiers. Is this fair on those children who are less academically able?
A recent YouGov poll suggested only 10% of parents wouldn’t send their children to a grammar school if they passed the selection test. The only surprising thing about that statistic is the fact that 10% seems relatively high; of course parents, given the opportunity, will want the best for their kids and give them a ‘better education’.
But the problems arise when a child falls short of passing the selection test, or worse, passing the test but failing to get into a grammar school because they are so oversubscribed. The stakes have never been higher; at a grammar school it is proven you will get better GCSEs, better A Levels, meaning you’ll get into a better university, meaning you’ll get a better job. All of that resting on the shoulders on an 11 year-old.
This isn’t about whether your child is clever or not, this is about equal opportunities.
And the fact is, the selection test itself isn’t equal. Because of those increasingly high stakes, parents want the best for their children. And for those who can afford it, that means hiring a tutor. Young Edward might not have been the most intellectual boy in the class, and his Year 6 SATs will no doubt prove that, but because Mum and Dad can afford a tutor, he got into the local grammar over three or four classmates who are more capable academically, yet couldn’t afford a tutor, and hence missed out.
The system is broken from the top to the bottom – grammar schools were scrapped because they didn’t work.
We’ve barely even touched on the fact that it is proven selective secondary education in fact hinders social mobility, not helps it. We’ve not discussed the way grammar school can manipulate catchment areas to secure the ‘brightest’ kids, the fact a selective system results in schools choosing pupils, not pupils choosing schools, or the fact that we quite simply don’t give comprehensive schools enough credit.
The appeal of grammar schools is clear. It’s emotive; you can have the best education for your child – who wouldn’t want that? The reality is a lot starker; the reintroduction of grammar schools in the UK would be an even further step backwards for not just the UK education system, but for the country as a whole.