Grammar schools should make a comeback

30 November 2011

After warnings of a ‘two-tier’ system (MPs warn of two-tier HE system, 17th November), we have been reminded of one of the many failings of our education system. Recent attempts to burden universities with equality and access regulation plainly reveal a misguided government, as far from the mark on university entrance as it is regarding proposals for a worryingly nationalist history curriculum. Most people are fully aware that it is secondary schools that must encourage and enable access to higher study and therefore, amidst current reforms, it should be remembered that grammar schools were and are the best vehicle to a fair and quality education.

As many academics and teachers have been quick to point out, the problems begin far before university selection. Reforming primary education and finding a fair base for ‘disadvantaged’ pupils will always be a muddy affair, and inevitably results in some form of compromise. At an older age, though, a grammar system would provide a better education for the academically-minded. For those unfamiliar with the system, traditionally, an exam is taken at the age of eleven, and those who pass attend the more academic grammar school, and those who do not attend comprehensive schools.

It was one of Labour’s more successful, less prudent policies to cull grammar schools unflinchingly from the 1960s, something even Lord Adonis was willing to admit. The grammar school topic frequently excites apoplectic fury in advocates both for and against, and in some sense it is easy to understand why; such academic apartheid can quickly be painted as regressive and elitist. These shades of Dulux one-coat, in their ideological brilliance, overlook the larger principles that grammar schools support.

We live in a society where private education, a divisive topic in itself, outrageously divides a nation supposedly inhabiting the 21st century: The Times revealed this summer that a certain five schools send more pupils to Oxbridge than two thousand others. Against such odds, the unprivileged majority deserves every opportunity to realise or test any academic potential. Streaming is standard practice in primary school, and continuing these ability ‘groups’ at secondary level doesn’t cement segregation, it provides a healthy structure for academic progress.

It has been widely noted that many comprehensive schools fail to provide a number of traditional subjects that the top universities value. Combined with the lack of encouragement to ‘aim higher’ (despite the recently dissolved government initiative of that name), state schools are distanced further from a private system that over-feeds Oxbridge and other universities. Although there has been emphasis placed on potential, and universities have been urged to take the particular school into consideration, there is still a disproportionately small amount of comprehensive students in higher education. The Sutton Trust’s recent report revealed that ‘100 schools accounted for 31 per cent of admissions to Oxford and Cambridge, of which 84 were independent and 16 grammar schools’. Why not encourage the small state sector entry to grow? Successful in delivering traditional academic education and encouraging ambitious further study, the grammar school is a fitter model than the now-standard comprehensive. They should be re-introduced to the whole country, and the school experience will once again be standardised, regardless of location. There are only 164 extant grammar schools. In the wake of Michael Gove’s controversial Academy programme, these few remaining institutions have cause for concern over their status, and the National Grammar Schools Association has urged them to be wary of conversion. Despite these wise warnings, a worrying number of schools have shown interest in becoming an academy. Instead of submitting to unsound educational change, grammars should be vocal in defending the selective system and encourage its expansion.

Nobody would call the remaining grammar system perfect; the 11-plus that exists in the few regions that survived the grammar-apocalypse lay some ground to claims that the double-system ‘writes-off’ those who do not reach grammar schools. The age of eleven is a strange time to be permanently ‘grouped’ – some regions have a ‘middle-school’ in which pupils study until the age of 13, when they are then tested. What seems most sensible is to have a fluid system between the grammar and the comprehensive, whereby those who grow to be ‘academic’ can cross-over, and vice versa. A similar system exists in Kent, where some few institutions become what might be called ‘sister schools’. Applying some flexible common-sense to an otherwise rigid system is the best way to provide an element of fairness. Although such equity cannot be applied to every student’s case, a small dose of humanity into educational bureaucracy will stop ‘forgotten’ students being forgotten, and cater far better for those who want a more practical or vocational education.

As statistics show, we already have a two-tier education system. With the wave of academies transforming schools, it is concerning to see some grammars sacrificing their selective status for private cash. It is pointless and self-defeating to uniformly impose a non-selective system that brings everybody to a lower level; the best way to provide opportunity is to raise other regions to the same academic potential.

Callan J. Davies is at Queen’s studying an MPhil in Renaissance Literature