Grammar schools are broken, and I should know

Olivia Bliss

Last week, John Major, ex-prime minister and former grammar school pupil, expressed his shock and dismay at the way in which ‘every sphere of modern public life’ is now dominated by ‘a private school elite and well-heeled middle class’. Major was right to feel anxious about such middle class dominance. He was wrong to lay the blame for what he perceived as a decline in social mobility – in part – on the ‘abolition’ of grammar schools.

The grammar school system is harsh, unfair, and cruel, and I should know – I attended two grammar schools in Buckinghamshire, before moving to a non-selective state school for sixth form and I can attest first-hand to the destructive effect of selective schools. As one of six siblings who attended a variety of schools in the Buckinghamshire area, I’ve seen it get harder and harder for my brothers and sisters to compete with others who have been tutored for years. My view is that the system is not just letting children down academically, but socially too.

The age old criticisms levelled at the grammar school system such as their socially divisive nature, capacity to compound social disadvantage, and the impact of failure on children not selected are all very real.

One of my grammar schools was adjacent to the local comprehensive school. We shared the same pitch of grass for a sports field until a metal fence was erected to delineate where one school ended and the other began. Grammar school sports teams only played against each other and school parties were held for grammar school boys and girls only. The two-tier system imposed by selective schools was, and still is, pernicious. Six years after being tested, I remember my sixth form colleagues talking about their disappointment at failing the eleven plus. Throughout my academic experience there was a perception that grammar school students were smarter, both academically and socially.

But the system is flawed. Research undertaken by the Sutton Trust confirms that grammar school heads are well aware of the practice of affluent parents paying to tutor their children through the eleven plus, a practice borne out by the fact that the amount of children eligible for free school meals at these schools is significantly below the local average. Some parents will even move house to be in grammar school catchment areas.

Major went on to insist that our education system ‘should help children out of the circumstances’ they are born into, instead of locking them in. The fact that middle class parents pay through tutoring for their children’s entrance into grammar schools demonstrates the clear inability of the selective school system to fulfil Major’s ideal. Rather than promoting social mobility, grammar schools ultimately operate in a similar way to public schools, by making entrance (indirectly) contingent on financial means. In this way, they perpetuate and deepen social inequality.

Wishing to offset this, the Sutton Trust has recommended that primary schools provide pupils with a minimum of ten hours test preparation for the eleven plus at a free or subsidised cost, in a bid to level the playing field. This solution is inadequate; parents with means will simply supplement this with extra tuition.

Far better is John Harris’s solution. Writing in the Guardian, he called for the return of orthodox comprehensives as the best way to narrow the ‘class-based attainment gaps’, citing a report submitted to the British Educational Research Association which revealed that segregation by poverty is lowest in areas with fewer independent and selective schools. If the moral arguments against segregating children are not enough to topple grammar schools, then worse academic results overall ought to be.

Under the guise of meritocracy, the grammar school system is letting us down by allowing children with wealthy parents to get a much better start. Major should be as appalled by the presence of grammar schools as he is by the ubiquity of the privately schooled elite. The grammar school model is broken – and it’s got to go.




  1. Phil

    Am I the only person in England who thinks it’s a bad idea to encourage social mobility? As a legal aid lawyer who qualified in the 80s I have seen the profession expand almost exponentially with so called working class people. The result? Most of them earn no more than they would have earned working in factories in the 70s. Actually far less if you factor in house prices inflation, and they probably have to work harder. Raising expectations seems great until you get chatting to shelf stackers and Baristas who have university degrees. Really talented and ambitious people have always been able to get ahead irrespective of which school they attended.

  2. rachel

    My daughter would like to go to a grammar school as she likes to study, and quite frankly the level of education is better than comprehensives – especially where we live. I was against tutors, but having seen the test i feel it better to teach her about the test -the format, timings, and to practise it. I am sending my daughter to a tutor as the 11 plus exam is flawed.
    The test is supposed to include things that children will know by the end of year 5 – there is no way that my daughter is learning those things in the class – she is in year 5.
    The tutor is very good, an in fact sets them year 7 work – which my daughter can do with practise.
    The primary education needs a complete over haul.
    In Scotland you send your child to the nearest school, no choice – I would have no problem with that IF the school was good. Pass rates for our nearest school is 42% – compared with 100% at the grammars. Which school would you send your child too??

    • Phil

      Rachel, why on earth are you against tutors? Do the best you can for your child. If you believe a tutor will benefit her and you can afford it, that must be the right choice.

  3. David Walker

    Let’s start where your criticism ends with the ‘return of orthodox comprehensives’ (not quite ‘return’ when comprehensivation was never England wide, as your Bucks experience attests) … and your clarion call ‘the grammar school model has got to go’.
    1. Does this mean top down legislation compelling local authorities to draw up schemes (replaying Crosland’s famous circular of 1965)? If so, what price Labour’s localism. Thinktanks, including the Fabians, say they want maximum devolution of power. But not, in this instance, to include educational selection.
    2. Don’t we need, sympathetically, to appraise where Labour went wrong/failed to act when in power. Read my lips, said David Blunkett. But he came a cropper. Was it just TBlair or are there, in some areas at least, entrenched blocks of public preference, which it is politically difficult to shift?
    3. Where is the public on this, which is a subset of a wider question about the absence of a politics of education. That partly because of the atomization of provision, partly because spending levels have more or less been upheld, leaving parents (at large) relatively satisfied. How in those circumstances do you call parents (and grandparents and the public at large) to arms over selection?

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