Why the yearning for grammar schools?

They are a reminder of a subject-based education rarely found elsewhere today.

Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams

Topics Politics

If you happen to be stuck in a room full of teachers, education policy wonks, or other school-related busybodies and, perhaps unsurprisingly, are bored, take my advice: lob the words ‘grammar school’ into the air, then sit back and enjoy the spectacle. The think-tank Civitas has bravely waded into the great grammar-schools debate with the publication this month of The Ins and Outs of Selective Secondary Schools.

Few topics are better guaranteed to polarise education debates than the idea that children aged 10 or 11 should sit a test to determine their choice of secondary school. For ‘traditionalists’, moist-eyed in reminiscence of some golden age of standards and discipline, the widespread closure of grammar schools in the 1970s was the point at which the UK started going downhill. Meanwhile, ‘progressives’ loudly despair at the wickedness of an academically elitist system that, they argue, reinforces social inequality and places excessive pressure on young children.

England’s 164 remaining grammar schools are a legacy of the 1944 Education Act that legislated for a tripartite system of grammar, technical and secondary modern schools. Technical schools never took off to any great extent and instead a binary division of children developed. Roughly the top 20 per cent, ability-wise, of children earned a coveted grammar-school place, leaving the rest to be sent to secondary moderns, with a less academic and more practically oriented curriculum.

Campaigns against grammar schools began almost as soon as the 1944 act was passed and have continued ever since. The selection process was accused of reproducing the privilege of middle-class children who, disproportionately selected through the entrance test, were then rewarded with further social advancement, usually starting with a university place. Such arguments gathered momentum in the 1960s and, when the Labour Party’s Anthony Crosland was appointed secretary of state for education and science in 1965, he saw his first priority in office as the dismantling of the grammar schools.

Crosland, and others, argued for comprehensive schools on the egalitarian grounds that all children deserved access to the same curriculum. Real growth in the numbers attending comprehensive schools took off in the first half of the 1970s when Margaret Thatcher was secretary of state for education. In the 1970s, grammar schools went seriously out of fashion and the radical idea that every child was educable and that some things were important enough for everyone to know, came to dominate thinking, if unfortunately not practice.

Schooling in England has changed beyond all recognition since the 1970s. Today, the remaining grammar schools are not pitted against a comprehensive ideal but against myriad school types including academies, free schools, independent schools, specialist schools and church schools. At the same time, an assumption that all children are entitled to an academic knowledge-based curriculum has given way to a focus on transferable skills; a preoccupation with children’s physical health and emotional well-being; and the promotion of values in newly introduced citizenship lessons and sex and relationships education. In other areas of the curriculum, traditional subject knowledge has been squeezed to make room for promoting skills, self-esteem and emotional literacy.

Sadly, schools ambitious enough to take any child and to provide them all with a subject-based academic education are few in number. Michael Gove, despite heavy criticism from many in the educational world, did attempt to reintroduce a more knowledge-driven curriculum for all pupils. However, the differences between what is on offer to children in grammar schools, and those being educated elsewhere within the state sector, persist. Grammar schools serve as an unwelcome reminder of the education rarely found elsewhere and, importantly, that many parents clearly want for their children.

Over the past two decades, there has been a political compromise where the remaining grammar schools continue to sit, often uneasily, within their local communities. They are usually highly regarded by parents who invest considerable resources in attempting to secure a place for their child. At the same time, they have come to represent everything loathed by a more values-driven and child-centred educational establishment. The unabashed competitive entry process and teaching of a predominantly academic curriculum is out of kilter with the more skills-based and therapeutic approach to comprehensive schooling.

That grammar schools still exist in the face of such longstanding hostility from many teacher-trainers, academics and teachers’ unions, shows the desire among parents for their children to have at least a chance at a rigorous academic education. It also shows parents are not convinced their child will be best served by the local specialist sports college. Allowing free rein to parental aspirations exposes the extent to which proponents of the new educational orthodoxies are out of touch with more mainstream views.

That grammar schools continue to rouse such emotion long after they should have withered away tells us much about the impoverished nature of educational debate in Britain over the past 40 years. There has been barely any discussion about what children should know and why; instead, we have an ever-present obsession with the relationship between schooling and social class. Despite the neurotic fixation with school-types, none of the structural changes made have actually come close in the minds of parents to providing the academic education they want for their children. Instead, despite four decades of child-centredness, children continue to be used as pawns in games of school experimentation and social engineering. Grammar schools are neither the root of all evil nor the solution to every problem in society: but they do provide a useful reminder as to what knowledge-based education looks like.

Joanna Williams is one of the contributors to The Ins and Outs of Selective Secondary Schools published by Civitas. You can download the complete volume here.

Picture by: Getty Images.

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Topics Politics


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