The Case Against Grammar Schools

Theresa May’s plans for a wave of new grammar schools has caused raucous debate not only for politicians but also between the general public. The plans to allow the creation of new grammar schools seems to call for a step back into the 1950s with a backlash focusing on greater segregation and diminishing chances for those students who come from lower income families in poorer areas. Although, May believes that the introduction of new grammar schools will provide greater opportunities for such children, who will now have access to a higher quality education.

“final exam” (CC BY 2.0) by dcJohn

For those who may be unfamiliar, grammar schools select pupils based on their ability — students at age 11 have to take entrance exams — the 11 plus — which will ultimately decide if they make the cut and are able to continue their secondary education at that school. As it stands, there are 163 grammar schools in England. The reason for their phasing out was due to the idea that they reinforced class divides, whereas comprehensive state secondary schools allow all students, of all abilities and backgrounds, to be taught together, giving all students equal opportunities.

There is of course a crisis in education. Teachers are overworked, schools are failing, there’s lack of funding and the ability to retain teachers is cause for concern. In spite of May’s idea that grammar schools will help to provide lower income families with the opportunity to send their children, of high academic ability, to great schools that will nurture their intelligence, closing the class gap; there are concerns that this will only further fuel the divide, as was experienced in the 50s and 60s.

This poses the question, why isn’t May focusing on the recruitment crisis we are currently facing with teachers? May could counter this with the fact that grammar schools will attract high quality teachers, but what does this mean for our remaining comprehensive schools? We can only assume that they will continue to struggle and face the issues currently rife, ultimately reinforcing the class divide so many critics are concerned about.

May outlined in her Green Paper that selective schools would share their teachers with non selective schools — if this was the case, it begs the question, why? If there is a sharing of teachers who have been enlisted to teach the highly academic, why would these teachers be shared between schools? Why would we not just maintain our comprehensive schools where students of all abilities have the opportunity to be taught by great teachers? As any teacher knows, teaching is a hard job and building relationships with students is key to their personal and academic development. Having to split teachers’ time between different schools so as to ensure that every child has the same chances, surely puts more pressure on the teacher, and defeats the object of these elitist schools.

The criticism of grammar schools themselves not only comes down to the fact they spur on class divisions, but also how it is difficult for a test taken at age 11 to determine a child’s long-term academic potential. These tests also do not take into account income or family involvement which are huge factors that can affect a child’s outcome; those with more money have the opportunity to provide extra support at home such as tutoring, and those children who have a strong parental involvement may receive more support at home. Not having access to such information can in fact make these tests incredibly bias and in favour of those from middle class backgrounds.

It isn’t just politicians who are opposed to grammar schools — in a survey conducted by the Fair Education Alliance taking responses from 2500 teachers, school leaders and heads, they found that over 80% were against the opening of any new grammar schools for reasons stated above. However, in the midst of this debate — I feel as though there has been little consideration into the effect the re-introduction of grammar schools would have on those students who are unsuccessful.

In an article written for The Guardian, Michael Morpurgo recounts his youth, and the immense blow his confidence took as a result of him failing his 11 plus exams which impacted on him throughout his education and even into later life. The reminder that he failed, and was part of the ‘lesser’ academic proportion of society, was debilitating to his confidence — and this is what grammar schools can reinforce for students. Regardless of how children are set in comprehensive schools, at least they are all given a level playing field. With grammar schools, if you’re not attending one, you are told outrightly — you’re not smart enough, and we’re not going to give you the same opportunities as these other students, as we don’t feel you’re worth it. As Morpurgo quite rightly states — ‘You don’t create opportunities by creating failure’.

Ultimately, I feel as though this move towards grammar schools is not only a step back, but it’s taking focus away from real problems which need attention — more funding in schools, recruiting and ensuring we can retain teachers, and focusing our efforts into raising standards in those schools which are failing. By paying attention and working to resolve these issues we can work at providing equal opportunities to all students, regardless of their background, so they are achieving the best possible results that will ensure them a successful and happy future in life after education.

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