What do grammar schools really offer?

In response to Theresa May’s announcement that she intends to lift the ban on new grammar schools, Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow Dr Heather Ellis explores the deep history and function of the grammar school and the tripartite system.

Reactions to Theresa May’s recent announcement have been dominated by accounts of the historical failure of academic selection in state schools introduced by the 1944 Education Act. By the late 1950s, grammar schools, which admitted only around 20% of Britain’s children, were not only deeply unpopular with the public but drew sharp criticism from across the political parties. Indeed, an examination of the history of grammar schools in the post-war era has led many commentators to wonder why May (and other members of her government) would think this policy could ever be attractive to voters.

However, as Gary McCulloch and other historians of education have shown, grammar schools have a much longer history. Their reputation (such as it is) is better understood as the product of a much earlier period of educational reform, when the British government first concerned itself with the question of secondary education provision in the mid-1860s.

Long before this date, grammar schools had provided the only alternative to the expensive and exclusive ‘public schools’ for those seeking secondary education for their children. Grammar schools were not free, but their fees were modest compared with the much larger private boarding schools; they were also day schools and so involved no expenses for room and board. They were more numerous and accessible than boarding schools, with many cities and towns having at least one grammar school; they represented a long-standing and well-respected middle-class alternative to the public schools.

In the 1868 report of the Taunton Commission, which had been tasked with examining existing provision for middle-class schooling, the grammar school was recommended as the basis of the (then) revolutionary proposal that secondary education should be extended to a much greater proportion of the country’s children. As early as 1864, Matthew Arnold — an inspector of schools, poet and social critic — was convinced that an expansion of grammar schools, funded by the state and with a curriculum modelled on the classical syllabus of the leading public schools, was the best way to expand high-quality secondary provision.

It was precisely this history that inspired the Norwood Committee to recommend grammar schools as the keystone of the tripartite system established in the 1944 Education Act. It is crucial to realise though, in light of the emphasis Teresa May has placed on enhancing social mobility through reintroducing academic selection, that this was never the aim of grammar schools: not in the 1860s, or in 1944. Grammar schools were not (and never have been) about dramatically increasing movement between different socio-economic groups. They were rather about consolidating, entrenching and strengthening the position of the middle classes.

In the face of growing economic rivalry with Europe and America and the enfranchisement of the working classes, the decision to favour grammar schools has throughout the years been a product of class anxiety and fear; and so it is today amid the financial, social and political uncertainty surrounding Britain’s decision to leave the EU. It is wholly out of date to claim that grammar schools have, in any of their various incarnations, been primarily about (or particularly successful at) breaking down barriers between the classes and creating opportunities for all.

This is despite Teresa May’s incorporation of new grammar schools into her mission to make Britain “work for everyone and not just the privileged few”. Grammar schools were always intended to be for (and to serve the interests of) the privileged few; the tendency of the tripartite system, and grammar schools, in particular, to strengthen and embed class privilege and prejudice was the chief reason why they became so unpopular in the 1950s. It became increasingly apparent that the majority of MPs (of all political parties) could no longer accept a system which consigned nearly 80% of Britain’s children (and future electorate) to the educational dustbin.

I do not personally object to the kind of education grammar schools seek to provide; a high quality academic education (including instruction in Latin, Greek and ancient history together, of course, with maths, science, English and modern languages) should be a reality for all our children. This should be the ideal driving and giving life to the comprehensive system. Grammar schools are nothing more than a diversion, a distraction and a backwards step away from achieving greater equality of opportunity in education. While this was but an attractive, yet distant dream for Matthew Arnold, it should be a real and attainable goal for educational policymakers today.

–Dr Heather Ellis, 
Vice Chancellor’s Fellow, member of the
Centre for the Study of Higher Education

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Further Reading

Allsobrook, David, Schools for the Shires: The Reform of Middle-Class Education in Victorian England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986)

Arnold, Matthew, Culture and Anarchy, ed. by J. Dover Willson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1932)

Arnold, Matthew, in Matthew Arnold and the Education of a New Order, ed. Peter Smith and Geoffrey Summerfield (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969)

McCulloch, Gary, Cyril Norwood and the Ideal of Secondary Education (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)