Sunak and Truss on Grammar Schools

Yesterday Rishi Sunak agreed that he wanted to bring back grammar schools. Earlier Liz Truss had said that she wanted to end the ban on new grammar schools.

I find this profoundly depressing.

No-one should talk about grammar schools in isolation from the rest of the education system. They are one aspect of a selective system which sees all children placed in either a selective grammar school or a non-selective school. Each new grammar school generates, by default, at least two other schools designed for those who don’t attend grammar schools.

Such a system is based on three questionable assumptions.

  1. Bright children are not served well by comprehensive schools. (Odd then that Liz Truss got into Oxford from a comprehensive, even though she now chooses to denigrate her old school.)
  2. A child’s educational potential is fixed and can be identified at the age of 11. (This has been thoroughly debunked.)
  3. Selective systems benefit all children and society at large. (Ah, where do we start?)

I was a product of the selective system – as indeed were many people who are still in positions of influence and power, who believe that Grammar Schools gave them a good start in life. At the time it didn’t feel right to me. I went to a Grammar School where I was expected to take O levels and A levels while some of my friends were channelled into Secondary Modern Schools where they were forced to leave at 15 without any qualifications. I knew that they were being educationally disadvantaged and that it would have an impact across the whole of their lives.

In 1965 just 20% of pupils gained 5 or more O Level passes in England and Wales – and they would have all been studying at Grammar Schools. By 1975 the majority of local authorities had moved to a comprehensive system, and improvements in attainments started appearing in the 1980s. Over the years the percentage of pupils gaining what is now known as a Level 2 qualification (5 or more GCSEs with A* to C grades, or equivalent) has risen steadily.  By 1988 it stood at 30%, but by 2015 it was 86% (although it has dropped back a few points since then).  So no-one can argue that outcomes were better under a selective system – it was comprehensive schools that overwhelmingly delivered these results.

And of course there is plenty of research which shows that selection favoured the middle classes. Indeed my feelings of unease solidified when I spent some months in my gap year working for a renowned team who were researching just that.

There are still 163 Grammar Schools in England – only 1% of all schools. However a piece of case law from 1990, called the Greenwich Judgement, means that no school is allowed to restrict its entry to pupils living in the local authority area. As a result most Grammar Schools function at a regional level, and even accept children from hundreds of miles away or from outside the UK. Even if there is a Grammar School in an area its impact on the admissions and outcomes of neighbouring non-selective schools is quite low.

That minimal impact would, of course, change if many new Grammar Schools are introduced. We would be returning to a selective system where all children are sorted into separate schools at a young age. Although those in non-selective schools would still be able to take qualifications, their educational experience would, necessarily, be different from their peers in Grammar Schools – otherwise what would be the point of having selection?

I can think of no educational or social reason why selection at 11 would be of benefit to any child, at any school. So why the posturing by the Tory leadership candidates? Do they really believe that Grammar Schools offer some magic solution to a non-existent problem of underachievement? Or are they pandering to the ageing membership of their party – many of whom would have been Grammar School educated and who liked the social separation it entailed?

* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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32 Comments

  • nigel hunter 29th Jul '22 - 1:56pm

    I went to a Comp./Secondary Modern (Foxwood it was called)in the 60s. We entered it via our work at primary school.Graded into 12 classes as for our educational abilities (I started in the 5th class).In the 6th form I rose to the 4th class and did my GCEs.In time I obtained a degree.Although it was classes graded (you can argue whether you call it class or via education standard). As a comp. it allowed me to become interested in learning which as continued in life. ALSO it was not that far from where Truss was schooled.She was in afluent Roundhay ,we were in the nearby COUNCIL ESTATE of Seacroft.I got my degree from Bradford. Comps do not hold you back if you are willing to be educated.I believe her denigration is cos of who now she is serving to enhance her own political ambitions

  • Brad Barrows 29th Jul '22 - 2:30pm

    I agree fully that any expansion of grammar schools would be a very retrograde step. My only disagreement with your post was your seeking to use exam pass rates as part of your argument when we all know that grade inflation is a very real thing and makes valid comparison over time impossible.

  • Graham Jeffs 29th Jul '22 - 3:24pm

    I remember selection being abolished. There was strong tide of opinion against selection. Not simply because it was seen as a poor basis of educating children, of course. Selection fell into disrepute because Conservative voters in their leafy suburbs increasingly found that their ‘little Johnny’ wasn’t bright enough to pass the exams!

    History may yet repeat itself. Plenty of damage in the meantime though.

  • In St.Albans 50 years ago there were three schools: A Grammar, a Comprehensive and a Secondary Modern. In St.Albans today there is an outstanding Academy, a good academy and a school that went into special measures and re-emerged with a change of name. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide which school evolved into which school.

    [Aside: there are other schools in St.Albans, but I had reason to follow these three specific schools.]

  • @Bard Barrows – yes, I know grade inflation is an issue. But on its own it can’t account for an increase from 20% to 86%. Some of that is down to opening up opportunities to children who had been denied access to qualifications. But a lot was due to a shift in attitudes, so that teachers raised their expectations and children were encouraged to be the best they could be.

  • Brad Barrows 29th Jul '22 - 6:53pm

    @Mary Reid
    If you allow me a full of up comment, you will be aware that the school leaving age was raised in the early 1970s so comparing to figures from 1965, when many pupils who would have been capable of passing exams had they stayed on, is not particularly convincing as evidence of massive improvement.

  • I can see the issue with grammar schools which the article summed up well. However, the comprehensive system has created selection by house price instead. In addition many of the best comprehensives have complicated and opaque admissions policies which means they are anything but comprehensive in reality. The upshot is that the best ones are dominated by the middle classes, more so than the remaining grammar schools.

  • George Thomas 29th Jul '22 - 8:17pm

    “However, the comprehensive system has created selection by house price instead.”

    This is a fair point. I’m largely against Grammar Schools but the LD’s in my town often talk about expanding the school (more traffic, reduction in playing fields etc.) with good reputation in area with high house prices rather working to ensure all schools are of as good a quality. Neither system is perfect but on balance I think Grammar Schools are better for small number of children and worse for many, many more. The kids who did best in my year group had parents who were able to afford after school tutors (both financially in terms of cost and settled family life so older sibling didn’t have to look after younger sibling etc.) which I think would be part of a more effective, and expensive, strategy than return to Grammar Schools.

  • Peter Watson 29th Jul '22 - 10:03pm

    I agree with Mary, but also find it profoundly depressing that the Lib Dem policy on grammar schools is so vague. It appears to be a small-c conservative approach of changing nothing: grammars are fine for those who already have them but not for anybody else. It looks horribly hypocritical and opportunistic: depending on the audience, the party can sound progressive without scaring the horses in targets like Chesham & Amersham.
    I was optimistic when a conference vote called on the government to “abandon the selection by ability and social separation of young people, into different schools”. But that was 2016, and after six years and two general election manifestos, it is still not clear whether or not the party really wants to abandon academic selection at 11 or just conserve it.

  • Neil Hickman 30th Jul '22 - 8:07am

    So far as I can see, the grammar school for one child necessarily implies the secondary modern school for another. And the honest slogan (which would explain why we don’t hear it from Truss/Sunak) would be “Bring Back Our Secondary Moderns!”

  • Brian Evans 30th Jul '22 - 8:40am

    I went to a grammar school in the 60s, gaining 7 O-levels and 2 A-levels. I had a settled home life, and enjoyed school. However I left with no purpose in life, drifted from one job to another, suffered 2 divorces, and have only now found real direction in retirement. By contrast, my cousin, who went to the same school, hated it, left after O-levels, married early and now looks back on 55 years of happiness. Did a grammar school benefit us? Let the reader decide.

  • David ROGERS 30th Jul '22 - 8:44am

    My experience – over 50 years ago now, and after taking the 11+ exam – was of attending a boys-only grammar school which at that time in its history formed part of the local education authority system. It was founded many centuries earlier, and whilst childhood knowledge meant not thinking about this at the time, in adulthood I have assumed that this was a consequence of the 1944 (Butler) Education Act. In the 1970s, and after I had left, the school again became a part of the independent fee-paying sector and over the decades since then appears to have become very successful both within the locality and more widely. It already provides bursary support for a proportion of students, and has a long-term ambition for full merit-based open access, regardless of financial circumstances. Whilst I agree with the general thrust of Mary Reid’s article, neither that nor the comments already made seem to me to address the issue that there should be room for exceptions. As our constitution says, “We aim to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity.”

  • Nonconformistradical 30th Jul '22 - 8:59am

    “Whilst I agree with the general thrust of Mary Reid’s article, neither that nor the comments already made seem to me to address the issue that there should be room for exceptions. As our constitution says, “We aim to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity.””

    Might the real problem with our secondary education system be that children only really get one chance? One which forces (maybe other than those whose parents can pay) them down one channel – academic/non-academic – with little chance of changing?

    i.e. failure to cater for children developing at different speeds and maybe obsession with trying to force them to reach a particular standard by a particular age?

  • Like many above I went to a Secondary Modern in the ‘60’s (Wellsway, Keynsham, NE Somerset- definitely unlike their current MP).
    Apparently at this time the main subject of letters to Tory MPs was why their little Jane/Johnny was not going to the local Grammar School. The problem was (and will be) for the many Tories is how do you accept people as “middle” class, yet send their kids to Secondary School, which back then was seen as a block to being accepted as such.
    Truss appears a complete hypocrite.

  • Steve Comer 30th Jul '22 - 1:35pm

    The Tory leadership campain is degenerating into a contest between who can spout the most right-wing nonsense, unsupported by any evidence!
    It would be more honest if senior Tories openly said they wanted to bring back underfunded Secondary Modern schools for the majority of our children, but of course that is never what they say, although it is what they mean.

  • Peter Hirst 30th Jul '22 - 2:12pm

    This discussion of grammer schools by two far right candidates shows the misuse of this election for party political purposes. Whoever wins the country loses from this election. It’s up to the public to view elsewhere.

  • nigel hunter 30th Jul '22 - 3:26pm

    It is true that not all children develop at the same rate.One can be a ‘genius at 11 , another a dullard. One more or less can develop no further,the other has all his life to develop. Childood (and I put that ,arguably, streatches into the 20s) is a period of exploration and should be a time of discovery. Schools should encourage curiosity,inquisitiveness, a zest for life etc not a sausage machine for just facts.Youth clubs could be integrated into schools for that continuation of life experience to make development of balanced adults.I learnt a lot from my Youth and Community experience. Alas we have a slagging match where old ideas held by only approx 160 thou rule the roost.

  • Mike Falchikov 30th Jul '22 - 5:25pm

    I went to a newish grammar school in a New Town of the 1950s. I quite enjoyed it and was reasonably well taught. Some of my parents’ friends were surprised that I had not been “sent off to a boarding school” (i.e. the totally misnamed “public” schools). I was quite pleased to call myself a grammar school boy but on the whole I supported the change to comprehensive education (both my children went to long-standing local schools which had gone comprehensive).
    For me the real problem has always been the fee-paying schools which have contributed enormously and on the whole negatively to the creation of a ruling class who believe themselves to have a sense of entitlement and create for themselves a little enclave of “the right people with the right background.” The problem with the misnamed public schools is not just “class”. though that is significant, but also the concept of taking children away from their family and familiar surroundings at an early stage to become “tough, but specially privileged.” Look at our departing PM as a particularly bad example. Of course boarding schools are necessary for some children (parents abroad, special talent of some kind perhaps) but I’m not convinced it makes you a better person.

  • Jonathan Greenhow 31st Jul '22 - 8:37am

    The segregation at the age of 11 is the worst aspect. I went to Grammar school in the 60’s
    Which became Comprehensive after I had sat O levels. Two more pupils joined us at age 13 (600+ pupils in all) on a so called late developer scheme. Yet when the post O level sixth form became open to all who qualified based on GCSE results we gained a whole class of new pupils from Secondary School.

  • Nonconformistradical 31st Jul '22 - 10:07am

    “The segregation at the age of 11 is the worst aspect”

    What I was thinking about when raising the issue of children developing at different rates

  • Chris Bowser 31st Jul '22 - 1:28pm

    I have to confess to having skin in this game, having two daughters one who made it into Grammar and the second which went to a senior school. I have also been a school governor of both pre 11 and post 11 schools.

    The hand wringing of Mary Reid and similar commentators ignores a few home truths which educators ignore.

    We have chronic skills shortages in all sorts of practical areas including construction, plumbing, nursing why not have post 11 schools where people are taught these skills rather than chemistry or french.

    We could then have other schools where students focus on STEM and we attempt to become the high wage, high skills economy we were promised. After all I know plenty of plumbers earning more than university professors.

    I personally attended a technical college where amongst the lessons taught were motor vehicle science, technical drawing and CAD/CAM.

    So let’s have a selective education system, but one based on a pupils talents and direction.

  • Peter Watson 31st Jul '22 - 1:56pm

    @Peter Hirst “This discussion of grammer schools by two far right candidates shows the misuse of this election for party political purposes.”
    As far as I can tell, only the Greens seem to have an explicit policy to “gradually integrate grammar and secondary modern schools into the comprehensive system”. As long as Lib Dems and Labour try to face both ways on grammar schools, there will always be scope for the Tories to fetishize the issue.

  • Charley Hasted Charley Hasted 31st Jul '22 - 2:11pm

    How about we stop treating exam results like a competition and instead treat them like an assessment? We seriously need a radical rethink of why we have exams and the function of further and higher education in society.

    We should want 100% of kids to get 100% in their exams because that means they have fully understood and engaged with their education. we shouldn’t denigrate their achievements when they do succeed by telling them their exams were easier. (especially when they often weren’t – I have 3 foreign language GCSE’s I am absolutely certain I wouldn’t have done has well in if I’d not been able to use a dictionary – a privilege denied today’s students)

    University is not a reward for getting good exam results and it’s not the natural progression for them either. University is for advanced study because you you have a keen interest in a specific subject or because you want to go into a specific career.
    Apprenticeships are not ‘the thing you do because you’re not academic’ or ‘the route you take because you can’t afford uni’ they’re just another way of getting into a profession.

  • Nonconformistradical 31st Jul '22 - 2:33pm

    “So let’s have a selective education system, but one based on a pupils talents and direction.”
    At what age should a child’s ‘talents and direction’ be deemed sufficiently established for a reliable decision on which of the available choices would be most appropiate?

    Or should all be forced down one of the available paths at age eleven, irrespective of their individual state of development?

  • Peter Hirst 31st Jul '22 - 3:10pm

    @PeterWatson There are good grammar schools just as there are good state funded ones. What I disagree with is the tax breaks the former get though some do allow some state funded children to attend. What we need is effective schools of whatever nature – not at the expense of the public purse when state funded ones need all the funds they can get.

  • Christopher Haigh 31st Jul '22 - 3:19pm

    I dislike our children having to keep sitting all these SATs exams etc. It can’t be good for their mental health. Would be great if there were different types of schools say academic or technical which kids could choose which one to go to without having to sit entry exams. I’m sure lots of kids would enjoy learning a trade and not having to sit through academic lessons they are not interested in

  • Peter Watson 31st Jul '22 - 7:15pm

    @Peter Hirst “There are good grammar schools just as there are good state funded ones. What I disagree with is the tax breaks the former get …”
    I think you’re conflating grammar and private schools. On the former, I would like to see a clear Lib Dem policy like the Greens’ (based upon the 2016 conference vote). On the latter, I agree with you about the tax breaks (and dubious charitable status).

  • I agree with Mary, but also find it profoundly depressing that the Lib Dem policy on grammar schools is so vague.
    Peter Watson

    Well, not got the full data to support this viewpoint, the LibDems could take a Conservative idea! …

    The grammar schools weren’t that good in getting results, thinking of the one I attended, probably only 20~25% of a year group got 3 A-levels and went to university(*). So I suggest we should – just like the Conservatives did with “universities”, spread the “grammar” pixie dust around, so any state school that can achieve (or exceed) the same success rate as the grammar’s in say 1965 with their “grammar” cohort, can call themselves a “grammar”.

    (*)Mind you this might have contributed to why it ultimately failed…

  • Chris Bowser 1st Aug '22 - 6:32pm

    @Nonconformistradical In answer to your question at what age should children be split into vocational and non-vocational streams/schools. Given that apprenticeships are normally 3 years and children leave school at 18 now, I would say 15.
    I think you got 11, as that is the current age when selective education (Grammar vs Secondary) works in those counties that still have Grammar Schools.

  • Are we even asking the right questions?

    Go back a few centuries and the job of schools was to educate a tiny elite of aristocrats and the professionals that ran their estates. Go back far enough and Latin, and by extension the Classics, were vocational subjects for entry into the church, then the main destination for the well-educated.

    Later, the combination of Empire and industrial revolution created new opportunities for the traditional professions of law, accountancy etc. but the destiny for the vast majority remained providing low skilled labour in the exploitative conditions of the new mines, mills, foundries etc.

    Inevitably, there were continual complaints about the inadequacy of British education for the majority and unflattering comparisons to the far-superior German approach, but these were all water off a duck’s back as far as the political establishment was concerned. When universal basic education belatedly arrived, it was decades behind Germany and not to the same standard. The dominant attitude seems to have been profound complacency.

    I don’t see much evidence the underlying elitist mindset has changed even now; politicians show no sign of comprehending the needs of those in less exalted positions or with different ambitions for their children. But there is a political imperative to pretend everyone is getting a suitable education.

    The current approach of fudging standards isn’t delivering for students, parents, employers, or taxpayers and I doubt if it’s sustainable much longer. We must think differently.

  • I am constantly struck by how neurotic the political establishment is about education. At some level all parties must know it’s not working yet their polling tells them it’s a BIG issue for voters. So, what’s to do?

    The path of least resistance is to pander to their base, exploiting confirmation bias to reinforce their prejudices. That’s probably easiest for Tories and Labour but a stretch for LDs who, lacking any narrative, try to appeal to all by fudging. But, if LDs were prepared to think expansively, they could potentially upend the whole debate.

    A big reason grammar schools worked (if only for a few) was that their task was clear – getting pupils into university. In contrast, given the lack of quality trade skills courses, secondary moderns didn’t have a clear target, so the easy thing was to just go through the motions, too often with little to no ambition for their pupils.

    That lack of proper trade skills training also explains the chronic skills shortages that hamstring British industry and the (wildly unsustainable) perennial need to import people. I think this is widely understood at a visceral level though not well articulated. The logic is straightforward; it suggests world-class skills training is a missing keystone element of education and potentially a HUGE vote winner.

    BTW, I would also lower the school-leaving age to 14 – provided leavers could go back to college with a grant if/when they were in the right place physically and mentally.

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