Grammar schools are not the answer

The Prime Minister claims that her plans to create more grammar schools will enhance social mobility and will help to bring about a truly meritocratic society. They will, she says, create ‘a country that works for everyone’.

Sure. Because grammar schools proved so good at doing just that the first time around.

What Mrs May’s proposals will do, of course, is appeal hugely to the seething mass of baby-boomer Tory voters who just can’t wait to get us back to the good old days of the 1950s and serve as a temporary distraction from the Government’s shambolic approach to all things Brexit.

We should, I suppose, perhaps be grateful that the Prime Minister is at least talking about introducing selection on the basis of academic ability, rather than the religious faith, parental wealth and ability to move to a more desirable postcode that determine how many schools currently choose their students.

And, on a more serious note, we do need to recognise that children and young people differ in their interest and abilities, and that they develop and learn at different rates and in different ways. But grammar schools are not the way to go.

For starters, selecting on the basis of an exam at the age of eleven is silly. It doesn’t tell us anything about children’s potential. It tells us simply how good they are at taking exams when they are eleven. And it’s massively unfair to those who develop at a slower rate. Or who aren’t very good at exams. Or who, for whatever reason, haven’t had a very good education so far.

Furthermore, by creating more grammar schools we’re focusing on the children who we see as the brightest. But these are the ones who will probably do well whatever sort of education we throw at them. We need to pay more attention to those who need a little extra support in order to do well. The children who struggle in class, who don’t get much support at home or whose brains are just wired in a different way. This is where we can make a real difference.

And just as happened when grammar schools were first introduced, we risk creating a two-tier system of state education, where the best go to grammar schools and everyone else gets dumped in the pedagogical equivalent of a sink estate. So it’s social mobility for some, but a second-class education for everyone else.

But what really gets me is that the whole grammar school debate is missing the point. Surely all of our schools should be world class, with access to the very best learning resources that are available. Teaching should be a profession to which our young – and less young – people can aspire, regardless of the school in which they end up working. And every child and young person should receive an education that enables them to reach their full potential.

Only then will we have an education system – and perhaps even a country – that truly works for everyone.

* Simon Perks is a writer, political philosopher and Liberal Democrat campaigner. He blogs at

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • David Evershed 23rd Sep '16 - 3:33pm

    The current situation is that a disproportionately high number of senior positions in politics, business, sport, acting and films are being filled by people who went to public school.

    Those who went to comprehensive school do not seem to be breaking through to senior positions in the way that grammar school children have done in the past.

    The brightest non public school children are not doing as well as they should, to the detriment of society.

  • I could not agree more with this article.

    Public funded education should be about providing all children with the basic knowledge and skills they need. Successful education policies should therefore be defined by how they effect the number of schools achieving this base standard.

    The Conservatives are focused on the wrong end of the spectrum. If we improve the base standard, by targeting funds at challenging schools, it will in turn improve education for all. Indeed, it is in these schools where the greatest difference can be made. In contrast, whilst grammar schools may benefit a select group of pupils, they will only leave the rest behind.

  • I agree that there is a big problem with selection via the 11+. There is however a massive problem with the present comprehensive school system. If you live in a working class area which is run down and very poor you are going to go to your local comp which is not one of the best. If you live in a nice middle class area you are likely to go to a nice middle class school with strong academic ethos. I have taught for over 20 years – in both kinds. At least the old grammar system allowed some w.c. kids to get a lift up – the present system makes it more difficult. Oh and the answer is not to throw more money and resources into the system.

  • David Evans 23rd Sep '16 - 9:33pm

    I’m afraid I think Jack’s view is sadly misguided. Putting ever more money into most challenging schools, will not help the best. Trickle down never worked in economics and Trickle up hasn’t worked in education.

    We need to get the best out of as many pupils as possible. The very best in state comprehensives do not achieve the same levels as they did in grammar schools, despite having much greater funding than grammar schools ever had. Results from York University proved that a long time ago.

  • grahame lamb 24th Sep '16 - 8:56am

    I disagree with Simon Perks. The grammar schools of old were an innovation in the tradition and spirit of the great Reform of Act of 1832.

    The great Education Act of 1944 established not only grammar schools (which already existed anyway outside of LEA control) but secondary technical and secondary modern schools. As I understand, many of these schools provided a good schooling but some educationalists have suggested that they were under-funded compared with grammar schools, which was of legitimate concern

    In my view we should have more diversity. Some schools could specialise. For example, sport, the performing arts, modern languages, science and technology and so on. The date of transfer to such schools can also be flexible. Not necessarily 11. Perhaps 12 or 13 or even later.

    I have heard some people denigrate the idea of “selective” grammar schools (as we used to know them) but often it turns out that they have had the benefit of a fee-paid private education. What are such people really against? What are they really afraid of? Who, in fact, are they afraid of?
    Let us encourage all boys and girls to achieve, to have fulfilling lives and to make contributions to our society. I ask the Liberal Democrat spokesperson on Education to consider this in the interest of all our futures.

  • @grahame lamb
    “In my view we should have more diversity.”

    In my view we should have less. Many if not most families will be restricted by geographical constraints when sending their children to schools. We should strive to have the highest possible quality schools in every neighbourhood. As with health, I believe an emphasis on choice is wrong: we should concentrate on quality instead. If everybody was happy with the quality of their local school or hospital, why would they “choose” one further away?

    “I have heard some people denigrate the idea of “selective” grammar schools (as we used to know them) but often it turns out that they have had the benefit of a fee-paid private education.”

    This is a variant of the argument Theresa May used on Corbyn the other week: “You benefitted from a grammar school education, so how can you oppose it for others?”

    It’s an excruciatingly weak argument. Why on earth should somebody who has a choice imposed on them as a child not have the right to reason as an adult that the system was wrong and unfair?

  • If the objective of public funded education is “to get the best out of as many pupils as possible”, as David would argue, then he may be right that putting more time and money into struggling schools will not achieve that aim.

    However, my opinion is that education should rather focus on providing all children with the basic knowledge and skills they need. We therefore must concentrate on improving those schools whose pupils are consistently not achieveing the basic level of education they need for later life.

    Yes, it is true the very best may not perform as well as they could at a selective school. However, I think it is more important to focus on raising the basic standard of skills that every child achieves by concentrating on struggling pupils, not the stars of the class.

    In order to evaluate whether grammar schools work, we must first establish what we believe is the core aim of public funded education. I think this is the root of where David and I disagree.

  • grahame lamb 24th Sep '16 - 12:15pm

    Less diversity? not something I expected to read here.
    Quality- yes. I am in favour of quality in the way that I am in favour of virtue and against sin. Who would not be?
    For the avoidance of doubt, I would say this: the customers of education are the children and not the parents. That is why I say that the education should fit the child and, arguably not, the other way around.

    I still say that the Lib Dems do need to sort out a policy on education. I AM listening.

  • Peter Watson 24th Sep '16 - 1:41pm

    @grahame lamb “Less diversity? not something I expected to read here.”
    I think that “diversity” is too vague a principle to be helpful in debates about education.
    It could be said that those arguing for grammar schools (and other specialisms) want less diversity within schools while those arguing for comprehensive schools want less diversity between schools.

  • “selecting on the basis of an exam at the age of eleven is silly.”

    Agreed. It’s not just the age – it’s also just one random day as part of a process that favours academic abilities over others and rejects those who don’t make the grade. The traditional approach has been described as a series of cuts like a golf tournament – one at 11+, another to get into the sixth form, another to get into university.

    Governments have thrown money at the problem to expand the system with little thought for what is sensible. Hence at its core it’s still about progression through a series of cuts even if the definition of ‘academic’ has had to be stretched to breaking point and beyond.

    And however much you stretch that definition it’s quite impossible to reach the bottom 50% of academic ability. So what are they to do? What does the system offer them after school?

    Answer: nothing really. An apprenticeship perhaps but too many are fake, designed more to meet government PR objectives than the needs and aspirations of young people.

    I went to a traditional grammar school, one that’s selective to this day, and I had the huge advantages of an education-oriented family (both parents were teachers) and enough academic ability to get by. Yet despite all that I had a major wobble aged about 14 since I really didn’t like school very much and too many classes were boring. What got me through was that I realised that I needed to get some exams under my belt to meet my aspirations and I was in the position to do that with a bit of work.

    But what of someone in the bottom 50% who has a wobble; what pull factors exist that might get them through? The possibility of a fake apprenticeship? The security of a zero hours contract job? I don’t think so.

    A root we have a system that treats young people as recalcitrant sausages that must be pushed by any means available through the system. A proper approach would be to offer alternatives for the less academic to aim for, not something easy but something really worthwhile like trade qualifications that are, like for like, world class and open the doors of opportunity.

    Marketing people distinguish ‘producer-push’ and ‘consumer-pull’ approaches. The former NEVER works in any context yet that is how we still organise education. Don’t expect much improvement until that is changed.

  • Nonconformistradical 25th Sep '16 - 8:33pm

    @grahame lamb

    “The great Education Act of 1944 established not only grammar schools (which already existed anyway outside of LEA control) but secondary technical and secondary modern schools.”

    The ACT may have stated this but in practice very few technical schools were created – to the detriment of less able and less academically inclined children.

  • David Evans 26th Sep '16 - 1:00am

    I simply believe that the purpose of education is to enable each and every individual to achieve their full potential, not just to provide all children with the basic knowledge and skills they need. if we only aspired to that, the beauty in so many areas of knowledge, both arts and sciences, would be simply abandoned by the schools’ system, and we would revert to a system that would simple be an update of the old elementary schools system that was in place from 1870 to 1944.

    Liberals believe in the individual’s ‘right to develop their talents to the full’ and that ‘the role of the state is to enable all citizens to attain these ideals.’ That has to include so much more than “basic knowledge and skills,” and include an introduction to things such as poetry, music and literature, as well as pure sciences, history and foreign languages.

  • grahame lamb 26th Sep '16 - 9:52am


    Yes. It is rather a shame that the technical schools didn’t find more favour. It would be good to set up some technical colleges now which could focus on science, technolgy, engineering and so on. I don’t see why students attending such schools should not go on to University after their preparation at the secondary level. There are evident skills shortages in these areas.

  • “Furthermore, by creating more grammar schools we’re focusing on the children who we see as the brightest. But these are the ones who will probably do well whatever sort of education we throw at them. “

    Is it really good enough to leave the education of those who we anticipate will be responsible for creating the lion’s share of the nation’s wealth to chance?

    From the various articles in LDV, including, I get the distinct impression that many around here see the phrase “grammar school” and stop reading…

    We, as a country have a rather big problem, that needs to be addressed in the here and now, and not through the implementation of some policy that will take 20+ years (after a LibDem government has been elected) to have any real impact, namely the opening of 500 new schools in the period 2015~2020, with the vast majority being in new areas of housing. These schools being necessary to keep pace with our growing population, David Cameron committed the Conservatives to opening 500 new free schools in the same period (a co-incidence I commented upon at the time).

    So the real challenge we have is not so much a return to a 1930’s school system; but how to ensure all these new schools are of high quality and are attractive to teachers, parents, and other stakeholders (eg. investors outside of government), whilst at the same time deliver on the social mobility and justice.

    Looking at the Prime Minsters proposals, my initial reaction was that she had taken a policy that Tony Blair could have announced and added a few carefully caveated “Grammar school” carrots, making the proposals attractive to Conservative leaning supporters of grammar schools…

    I suggest the effect of these carrots and carefully thought out amendments to the legislation is to encourage the operators of high performing schools to take on the running of new schools in carefully targetted areas – would you send your children to a school that has no history or one that is tied to a school that has been among the top 25% of schools in the country for over a decade?

    So whilst there may be issues with “grammar schools”;I suggest the need is to provide incentives for those running consistently outstanding schools to share their expertise and generally help to improve school standards in the state sector and give these new schools a leg up.

  • Matthew Huntbach 27th Sep '16 - 9:20pm

    grahame lamb

    Yes. It is rather a shame that the technical schools didn’t find more favour. It would be good to set up some technical colleges now which could focus on science, technolgy, engineering and so on.

    If anyone wants to know why our country is in a mess, what is written here tells you.

    The idea that science, technology and engineering are subjects to be taken by the less intelligent, those who couldn’t make it into grammar schools is just so telling of the attitude in this country that is letting us down. These real creative subjects are starved of talent, because of this attitude.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 27th Sep '16 - 11:51pm


    If Graham above is saying what you interpret him to be saying , as you are someone who is , as far as I remember , in computer science , I could well understand you would be correct , as someone in the arts and creative field myself , I’ d agree. But maybe he is seeing technical schools or colleges as specialist centres of excellence , in no way like secondary moderns , or would want them to be nothing like those were.

    Then again , on the subject of school,a visiting African teacher in my comprehensive state Catholic school, when I was a teenager, seeing me in class and out of school after class discussion, said he thought I should be a diplomat !

  • grahame lamb 30th Sep '16 - 10:10am

    This debate may now be over. But just for the record. I see secondary moderns as outmoded (though many performed well I have read – and with poorer funding than grammars) and I do indeed see technology schools as centres of excellence which should receive proper funding – arguably even more than grammars as not exactly cheap subjects to teach.

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