Opinion: The grammar school debate – an opportunity for distinctiveness?

Alongside the news that the UK could soon see the establishment of ‘new’ grammar schools in Kent, Devon and elsewhere, and that Labour will be urging the Liberal Democrats to support them in blocking these plans, the Lib Dems should examine the implications – and adopt a distinctive stance – on this disagreement.

The debate has gone over the usual arguments. On one hand, the pro-grammar Telegraph columnists imagine swathes of potential Nobel Laureates and curers of cancer who will irrevocably have their talents and spirits crushed if compelled to attend a comprehensive school.

On the other hand, the anti-side quite rightly highlights that most students attending grammar schools tend to hail from the higher end of the social spectrum, and that this supposed boost to social mobility from grammars is mostly illusory.

There’s nothing new in the outcome of this; grammar schools are beneficial if you happen to attend one, but not so if you don’t.  Yet some, including the Telegraph’s Toby Young, are prepared to do a crude utilitarian analysis to decide whether or not to have grammar schools.

What, though, does this tell us about the real problems of the education system and our approach to it?

The objection that  grammar schools are ‘bastions of middle-class privilege’  is now somewhat muted by the numerous ways in which parents can gerrymander the system, not least due to the Government’s school reforms in aid of ‘choice.’

Where grammar schools exist, paying for intensive tuition for the 11+ can often be a cheaper investment than moving house to the right catchment area or investing time in feigning religious affiliation.

Both sides of this argument focus on ‘social mobility’, or how well you do compared to the wealth of your parents. But, what we should be focussing on, and what is the more liberal approach, is ‘equality of opportunity’, or that one’s achievements should be irrespective of one’s background.

There is a very important distinction to be made here. Whilst the former approach concentrates on alleviating the symptoms of underlying, and undeserved, inequality, the latter looks at preventing it from occurring altogether.  Thus, although both approaches must be developed, it is the latter that is far more worthwhile in the long term.

Higher social mobility is likely to be a consequence of equality of opportunity. In practical terms, and in principle, however, it is preferable for the state to ensure the latter, rather than try to enforce the former.

Just as it would be more cost effective to build sufficient affordable housing rather than paying for an ever-increasing housing benefit bill; it is more useful to tackle the underlying causes of family poverty leading to lower educational attainment, rather than positive discrimination seeking to redress this  balance.

The anti-selection argument, as expounded by Fiona Millar focuses on the disproportionate representation of pupils from less-privileged backgrounds in grammar schools, but not on the reasons that create this disparity.

To me, it is reasonable to expect that children should be taught according to their strengths and their potential.  A crude – and somewhat arbitrary- split in education at age eleven, seems to be one of the worst possible ways of achieving this. In order to legitimately argue against explicit academic selection, however, we need to illustrate that there is a viable alternative that gives every child the most appropriate education.

Far too often the comprehensive system not only restrains the brightest from excelling, but also fails to contribute in ending the stigma against ‘vocational’ education.  A radical examination of how schools are structured is needed to solve this problem.

In short, whilst the opposition to the extension of grammar-school selection may benefit pupils, it is fundamental not to lose sight of the larger, underlying problems. Our focus needs to be extended not only to improving the equality of opportunity, but also to determining the root causes of inequality of opportunity.

At the moment, success or failure in education policy is often measured by what children from families of certain incomes attain. However, there is no a priori reason as to why income alone should determine attainment. A far more compelling argument explaining attainment is that it is determined by a complex pattern of social and parental factors.

Thus, whilst tackling relative material child poverty is very worthwhile, ultimately, it does very little to solve the causes of disparity in attainment and lack of opportunity amongst students.

These considerations put Lib Dem concerns over grammar schools into perspective.  It is evident that the Coalition’s education reforms, including the encouragement of free schools and proliferation of academies, will likely have far more wide reaching consequences than the current academic selection regime.

Thus, in terms of policy, it would be far more effective for the Lib Dems to take the challenge presented by this issue to Labour and the Tories, forcing the debate on to the root causes of educational poverty.

Having this debate amongst ourselves would be the perfect start.

*Tom Smith is a senior parliamentary researcher working for Adrian Sanders MP

* Tom Smith is Director of Liberal Insight, the new liberal think tank.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Sue Doughty 26th Jan '12 - 2:43pm

    Worth time re examining this one, but I hope that this is where it will end. The pupil premium, together with continued pressure on Universities to select not only on the basis of attainment but also on that of potential is likely to do far more to ensure that we nuture the talent in young people. There is no really fair system for ensuring that each pupil achieves their maximum potential. It is well established that boys do better studying alongside girls, but that girls do better without the boys, and this of course can’t be put right by politicians.
    The fight for places in Grammar schools is also matched in other areas by the fight to get into the catchment area of the current favourite comprehensive. What is really needed is not free schools which just move the problem around, and perhaps lack a long term vision, but also real emphasis on sorting out failing schools. What is also needed is access to good 6th forms in schools, separate colleges or in FE if we are really going to see our talent develop to it’s full potential.

  • “grammar schools are beneficial if you happen to attend one, but not so if you don’t” – does that mean that they’re actually harmful to those who don’t? That seems to be the key question. I’ve seen evidence from elsewhere that tracking is good for everyone.

    But it is clear that developmental inequality is well-established before high school. I agree that this should be the priority. The pupil premium is a good step but we need even more emphasis on early years, parenting and free childcare.

    As another step in decoupling grammar school entry from parents’ income, perhaps we should go back to having all pupils take the 11+ (within range of grammar schools) or give primary schools budgets to spend on training their brightest pupils for it.

  • I know a little about the situation in Kent/Sevenoaks and the debate there is really not about the rights and wrongs and grammar schools, but the distortion that has occurred because of the policy of not allowing new grammar schools to be built in a county which has made the decision to retain selective schools and which is then subject to pretty substantial demographic changes. At present, many children in Sevenoaks are passing their 11+ , but because there is no grammar school in the town are required to travel to Tonbridge/Tonbridge Wells, and in some cases because those schools are oversubcribed and have become super selective, having to travel even further distances. It cannot make sense in either educational or enviromental grounds to transport such large numbers of children to their schools.

    Kent County Council, will compound the problem even further as a result of their recent decision to require all those travelling to grammar schools, where that school is not their nearest school, to pay the travel costs unless they are on income support ( which in the case of those travelling to grammar schools outside Sevenoaks will be c£500 per child per year) . The decision incidentally being taken by KCC without considering whether in impacted on particular areas – even though it clear does and hence may well be illegal.

    BTW I very much doubt that any LibDems in Sevenoaks would oppose the moves – that is unless they wish to place their political principles above the likelihood of electoral suicide.

  • Keith Browning 26th Jan '12 - 4:24pm

    Nearly 20 years ago I did the rounds of the local secondary school Open Days to see what was on offer. I was already a teacher in one of them so knew the system and what to look for in deciding what was best for my children. One of the six schools had an outstanding record and had finished 19th in the whole of England in the league tables for the previous year. This was a church based school but was still open to anywhere in the huge catchment area.

    When doing the rounds you didn’t have to go inside to spot the good, the bad and the ugly. You just looked in the car park, where the top school Open Evening was filled with Mercedes, BMW, Volvo and 4x4s. The other five school Open Evenings could be graded by the same method.

    There was no obvious selection system based on merit so how did they do it.

    Well my colleague who worked in the ‘academy of excellence’ explained. We have two hoops, and both paper ones. The first was to select ‘us’ as number one on your application form, that was the same as sent with all the others to the county education office. Secondly you must have a signed letter from your local parish vicar that endorses your application. There was no need to attend church or be a christian, you just needed the form.

    That simple process of selecting the parents produced an elite school without resorting to any other system, and is probably how many other schools have played the system.

    I’m a Lib Dem but I believe in grammar schools. I was a product of one and it was very good. The challenge was always to make all schools to the level of the grammar schools not drag the best down to the level of the mediocre, which is what happened and is why, 30 years later, we have a parliament full of rich toffs and not a cross section of the population.

    Surely that is not Liberalisim.

  • The reason we have a parliament full of toffs has nothing to do with the ending of the grammar schools system and everything to with 30 years of failed neo-liberalist policies that have made the wealthy wealthier and have prohibited opportunity for those who aren’t.

    I can’t see any reason why anyone would want to bring back the secondary modern system; a system in which 80% of pupils were left to rot on the basis of an exam they took at the age of 11. A return to educational apartheid is not liberal.

  • Leon Duveen 26th Jan '12 - 5:05pm

    Grammar Schools may well benefit those that go to them but they certainly don’t benefit the majority of pupils that don’t.
    I agreed with Keith’s wish to bring all schools up to the best standards but having a selective system, explicit or implicit, will not do this. It will simply condemn those children unfortunate to be born in to households which cannot or will not support their education as would be needed to pass the selection criteria to a second class education and probably to a second class life. To decide on the best education for a child when they are 11 will mean any late developers will get lost in the system
    As a former Grammar School pupil myself, I am sure that this is not the way to go if we really want to make sure all children are given the opportunities they need to shine and to develop to their potentials

  • Simon Titley 26th Jan '12 - 7:07pm

    The weakness of the pro-grammar school case can be detected by asking one simple question: have you ever heard anyone call for the return of secondary modern schools? Because you cannot have grammar schools without secondary moderns (or an equivalent, whatever you choose to call it). And you cannot select pupils for grammar school without the 11-plus exam.

    The proportion of children that pass the 11-plus is governed by the number of grammar school places available, not any objective educational standard. In the 11-plus era (between the 1944 Education Act and the spread of comprehensive schools in the 1970s), the proportion of children that passed the 11-plus and went to grammar school varied from local education authority area to area, depending on the number of grammar school places available. It was typically about 25%, never higher than 40% and could be as low as 12%. The remaining 60-88% were sent to secondary moderns and were effectively written off.

    Nowadays, we expect to send some 40-50% of children to university, a much higher proportion than passed the 11-plus in its heyday. But then the 11-plus was designed for another age, when only a small minority went on to higher education. For example, I began at grammar school in 1968; only about a third of my year stayed on for the sixth-form and did A-levels, and only about a third of those won a university place.

    So anyone who wants to re-establish grammar schools should tell us (a) how pupils will be selected, and (b) what will happen to the children who ‘fail’. And if the answer is that no-one will ‘fail’ and that the non-grammar schools will be of equivalent esteem to grammar schools, then that renders the term ‘grammar school’ meaningless.

    Of course, other systems are not necessarily better. If you have any other discriminatory system of admission, the sharp-elbowed middle classes will try to game that system. Even so, I have yet to hear a champion of grammar schools extol the virtues of the secondary modern. Until they can make a convincing case for secondary moderns, their pleas should be regarded as dishonest.

  • Simon Titley 26th Jan '12 - 7:21pm

    @Liberal Eye – Your proposal is remarkably similar to the original thinking behind the 1944 Education Act. There were supposed to be three types of schools (grammar, technical and secondary modern) and children would be allocated according to their aptitude.

    Unfortunately, the technical schools never got off the ground. Meanwhile, the English class system kicked in, and defined the grammar schools as ‘superior’.

    So if we were to follow your proposal, a similar thing would happen. If one were to “let the parents actually decide whether they think their kids are suited for and will be happy in an academic stream or in a more technical one”, middle class parents would invariably opt for the academic system rather than the more technical one, irrespective of their children’s aptitudes, because the academic system would have more prestige.

  • Stephen Donnelly 26th Jan '12 - 11:15pm

    @Simon. Your argument that ‘the English class system kicked in, and defined the grammar schools as superior’ sums up the emotional case against Grammar schools. On the other hand similar system work without great controversy in parts of Northern Europe. There is no case for a return to the old Grammar school system, but there is some benefit in considering a very limited number of Grammar schools, particularly in those parts of the country where there is a culture of low academic achievement, particularly among boys. I was from the first year of comprehensive school pupils, and appreicate the role that Grammar schools played in encouraging social mobility for those before me.

  • Foregone Conclusion 26th Jan '12 - 11:20pm

    Two points:

    1) Even if grammar schools worked to some degree for social mobility forty years ago, that won’t necessarily mean they’ll work today.

    2) The vast majority of secondary schools are carefully streamed for most subjects. I can’t help but think, therefor, that calls for the return of the grammars are about social rather than educational segregation.

  • Keith Browning 27th Jan '12 - 8:53am

    The genealogy on my mother’s side looks something like this

    1748-1825 village tailor
    1792-1878 village shoemaker
    1830-1885 village tailor
    1864-1950 town postman and part-time chimney sweep
    1894-1977 baker and confectioner

    and then it gets more interesting because the next generation, my mother’s generation produced her three brothers

    1. Major in the army who then went on to be a top design engineerand lecturer
    2. One of Britains first experts in Nuclear power for electricity
    3.A CEO of one of Britains major naval shipyards

    Their father, the baker, wasn’t too keen on education but they got some anyway.

    Where did they go?

    Numbers one and two went to a pre-1950 grammar school and number three to one of the new Technical Schools.

    I dont think they would have achieved what they did under our current system which is more worried about political correctness, racism etc etc, than education.

  • Keith Browning 27th Jan '12 - 11:20am

    Oh, if you might be thinking the genes came from their mother ‘s side, she was from a family of farmers and very much part of a non academic tradition.

  • “The vast majority of secondary schools are carefully streamed for most subjects. I can’t help but think, therefor, that calls for the return of the grammars are about social rather than educational segregation.”

    Indeed. Could someone in favour of a return to grammar schools sum up in a nutshell why they favour once-and-for-all selection at 11 rather than streaming within secondary schools?

    The point about university numbers is also a telling one. Are people really advocating a system where a substantial proportion will fail to get into a grammar school at 11, but eventually go on to university at 18? What sense does that make?

  • Michael Parsons 30th Jan '12 - 12:28pm

    Puzzle: “equlity of opportunity” yes: but equality in relation to what? What single scale can all men be measured by? and if they could would it be a significant one? Why do we all need the same chance of sweeping the super-store car-park? Whatever the teaching profession claims we aren’t all going to get the same mastery of Ancient Greek grammar, beat us or charge us as you will. There is such a thing as fantasy aspiration which I, and I suspect most of us, have a fair share of; success in which were it to be attained would not (looking at Parliament or Banking) necessarily be socially beneficial.

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