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Debate Club – Do We Need More Grammar Schools?

The motion: this house believes our state-funded education system needs more grammar schools...

  • Debate Club – Do We Need More Grammar Schools?

As reports emerge of Theresa May’s apparent plan to lift the ban on opening new grammar schools put in place by Tony Blair 18 years ago, we revisit a debate on the topic between Dr Adam Boddison and Melissa Benn that originally appeared in issue 5.1 of Teach Secondary magazine.

Are grammar schools in desperately short supply and essential to any self-professed ‘inclusive’ education system – or are they relics of a more regressive time that we need to let go?


Dr Adam Boddison is a former director of the Centre for Professional Education at the University of Warwick

The debate on grammar schools has been dividing opinion for decades, with arguments both for and against their existence. Nevertheless, the reality is that many parents aspire for their children to attend them and those already in operation are heavily oversubscribed, with more than 100,000 applicants for only 15,000 places. Grammar schools are here to stay, with many pushing for them to expand – and this should be no surprise, as they have significant importance as part of an inclusive education system.

Critics of grammar schools will argue that they are socially divisive, claiming that those who can afford private tuition and coaching to prepare for the 11+ test are most likely to get a place. However, the truth is that grammar schools actually promote and facilitate social inclusion. Besides the obvious fact that they are a social mobility route for bright students from low socio-economic backgrounds, there is the further argument that they keep students who could otherwise afford a private education in state education, thereby creating better social mixing.

Indeed, the Assisted Places Scheme had a similar impact when the British government provided means-tested funding for 80,000 of the brightest students to receive a private school education, until the scheme was abolished in 1997. 

The issue of whether the 11+ test selects the right students for grammar school is something of a diversion from the real debate. It is virtually impossible to tutor-proof tests of any kind, and the reality is that other testing systems do not receive the same level of criticism.

For example, GCSEs and A levels are the primary measures used by universities in relation to the admission of more than 400,000 students per year to higher education, compared to the 15,000 students who are admitted to grammar schools – yet A levels are seen by the majority as part of a fair selection mechanism at age 18. There has to be some method of selection, and tests are a generally accepted way of measuring academic performance.

Of course, ability is fluid, and different students will develop at different times – which is why many grammar schools offer entry at age 16, and some offer entry at age 13.

Selection boxes
In relation to effective learning, it makes absolute sense to group students by ability, since teaching can be better targeted at a narrower academic range. Of course, teachers are able to differentiate their lessons in a mixed-ability environment, but more effective, fine-tuned and personalised differentiation is achievable when students are of a similar ability. Indeed, it is generally accepted that setting and streaming are appropriate differentiation mechanisms within schools and it could similarly be argued that grammar schools facilitate streaming at a macro-scale.

As a society, there appears to be a reluctance to support our most able young people, with some arguing that it is elitist – but this is a short-sighted and socially divisive perspective. If there truly is an aspiration to have an education system that enables all children to reach their full potential, then that should include our most able.

In the same way that we have special schools to support the specific learning needs of some children, there should be grammar schools to support the learning needs of academically able children. Indeed, this support for our brightest young people should be seen as an investment in the future from which everybody will ultimately benefit. The next generation of world leaders, ground-breaking scientists and entrepreneurs may well be amongst the most able in our society, so it is a nonsense not to support them. Grammar schools are just one way in which they can be nurtured and developed. 

The ambition of developing a state-funded education system that works in the interests of all learners is a significant challenge, but it is clear that having a ‘one size fits all’ approach is not the solution, since it creates a culture of mediocrity. It results in students who are okay at most things, but not really experts in anything. Schools cannot, and should not, try to be all things to all people; we need a diverse range of schools that is representative of the diversity of the students that attend them.

A balance of equity and excellence ought to resonate across the entire state school system, with the needs of students placed first and foremost. Grammar schools are well-placed to meet the needs of our most academically able young people, which is why they are of fundamental importance as part of a truly inclusive education system.


Melissa Benn is a journalist and author, a campaigner for high-quality comprehensive education and a founder of the Local Schools Network

In recent years, the argument for expanding grammar schools has largely revolved around the issue of social mobility. Post-war selective education, so the argument goes, ensured the academic flourishing of the less well off, so enabling them to attend prestigious universities and compete with the privately educated. Today’s grammars supposedly do the same. 

But such deeply entrenched educational and cultural myths fly in the face of all the evidence. Grammar schools of the past largely served the children of the middle and professional classes, and were phased out in the 60s when many of these same parents found their own children being rejected by the 11+. Today’s 163 grammar schools take tiny numbers of children on pupil premium and are, in the cogent words of the Chief Inspector of Schools, “Stuffed full of middle class kids.

In short, selective education entrenches an unacceptable form of educational apartheid, largely along class and, often, ethnic lines. The majority of children in selective areas, such as Kent and Buckinghamshire, are rejected by a single test before they reach puberty and are assigned to schools that may no longer be called ‘secondary moderns’ and may be excellent in all respects, but are, by definition, considered second rate.

Who, starting from scratch, would design a school system in which the majority of children are given an official message that they have not made the grade educationally when they have 8 more years of education or training?

But let’s take another aspect of the grammar school argument that is not often openly expressed, for fear of being tarred as a form of elitism. This is the claim that clever children need to be taught separately or, conversely, that comprehensive education simply can’t nurture the talents of high attaining children. Here, modern critics of comprehensives like to refer to a 2013 Ofsted investigation [PDF], which concluded that too many schools are failing to nurture the talent of our most able children.

One of Ofsted’s main criticisms was that many young people were reaching level 5 in Key Stage 2 subjects, but not getting the As and A*s that would be expected of them at GCSE and beyond. Education Datalab took issue with Ofsted’s figures, pointing out the significant difference in attainment between a 5a and 5c at Key stage 2, noting that 80% of those who received a 5a at Key Stage 2 did, in fact, achieve the highest marks five years on. 

Higher ground
Ofsted’s report undoubtedly identified a number of important issues. Key Stage 3 seems to pose a particular problem – too many pupils, among them the most able, and particularly those from disadvantaged homes, are allowed to coast in these crucial early secondary years. Teachers need greater understanding of how to teach mixed ability classes, and students need greater information, advice and guidance (a service that has been decimated in recent years) on future paths and possibilities.

But there was also a lot to cheer in Ofsted’s findings. A follow-up report in 2015 [PDF] noted that of the 40 secondary schools visited, 10 did not give specific support to students who had never had a family member go to university or those eligible for the pupil premium. This means that 30 did. The 2015 report also noted that the introduction of Progress 8, which will track the attainment of all students across a range of subjects, will help schools keep an eye on the early intellectual progress of those identified as particularly talented.

Many schools are also doing exceptionally well with their higher achieving students. A pervasive culture of encouragement and high expectation, challenging tasks, group work, the establishment of specialist subject clubs, trips out, good connections between school and universities and other leading further education institutions, provision of the most demanding subjects at GCSE and A level; such initiatives have created schools and learners that match, and in some cases outstrip, many selective and private schools. 

At no point does Ofsted suggest that the return or expansion of selection at 11 is the answer; far from it. The 2015 report notes that disadvantaged children in wholly selective Kent do significantly worse than their peers in largely comprehensive London, and that high attaining children tend to do (even) better in schools with a larger cohort of those identified as able. A fully comprehensive system would, of course, help restore a more representative balance of pupils within our schools.

Ofsted directs us to a series of distinct, and completely resolvable, problems in relation to the high attaining that could, with sufficient will, be tackled without harming the prospects of all learners. Good, comprehensive education is a challenge – but it is wholly practicable, far fairer as a system and will yield a far more educated and satisfied, citizenry than any lazy return to a selective system.

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