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The return of Grammar Schools

The return of grammar schools

Prime Minister, Theresa May, in her first significant announcement on domestic policy, has proposed controversial changes to England’s education system. Motivated by her commitment to social mobility, May plans to create more selective and grammar schools.

This will mean existing grammar schools, supported by £50 million pounds of new funding, will be allowed to expand and all state schools will be given the right to select students by academic ability. May and her supporters believe the return of grammar schools will create a true meritocracy, whilst others, such as the former conservative Education Minister, Nicky Morgan, have argued it will undermine six years of educational reform. We take a closer look to  examine why the proposals are so controversial.


Modern grammar schools dates back to the 1944 Education Act. Grammar schools were (and still are today) state-funded secondary schools which use an examination taken by children at the age of eleven (the 11+) to select new pupils. Successful students would then go on to attend a local grammar school, focusing on academic studies with the view that the majority of students would continue on to higher education. Unsuccessful students would have to attend the local secondary modern, where the focus would be to enter future trades or else a technical school. At the time, this  system was seen to be the fairest method of educational provision.

However, by the 1960s, many politicians viewed this selective process as a deeply divisive one which reinforced class division and widened inequality. The system essentially split students at a very early age into two categories: those destined for university and better jobs, and those considered more suitable in the less celebrated professions. In 1965, the government began phasing out grammar and secondary modern schools and replacing them with comprehensive schools which admit students of all academic abilities.

Grammar Schools Today

Today, there are currently around 163 grammar schools in England with around 163,000 students making up 5 percent of the state secondary school population.

Arguments for Grammar Schools

Prime Minister May attended a grammar school herself and believes the system serves as the best path to giving opportunities to capable children from all backgrounds. Selective schools have been shown to  produce some of the best performance in examinations based upon league tables. In 2006, the National Grammar Schools Association stated that England’s grammar schools students achieved more than half of the As awarded in the ‘harder’ A Level subjects compared to those achieved by students in comprehensives. Moreover, as grammar schools do not factor in where the student lives (unlike most comprehensives), many believe having more grammars in place  will help social mobility.

In research published last year by the University of Bristol, the University of Cambridge and the Institute for Fiscal Studies, it showed that one of the biggest contributing factors widening the gap between rich and poor families  were schools basing admission on how close students were located to a school. This practice of giving school places based on distance meant that those families who could not afford to move close to a good school ended up attending some of the worst performing ones.

Arguments against Grammar Schools

Despite the fact that grammar schools do not take into account where the student lives, opponents of this system believe the new plans will simply entrench inequality. Grammar schools intake seems to be dominated by children from middle class families as currently only 3 percent of children who attend grammar schools are eligible for free school meals – a traditional indicator of those from less well off backgrounds. There is also the opinion that a child at 10/11 may not have matured enough for their academic potential to be accurately assessed, so an 11+ assessment may rule out children who by 14 or 15 years of age would suit the academic rigours of a grammar school.

Furthermore, opponents also argue that basing selection on test performances only benefits families who have the means to afford private tuition towards the exam to ensure they pass and therefore penalises those who cannot afford to do so. Morgan also believes that increasing student segregation through academic selection will hurt the reforms to raise standards and narrow the attainment gap. She has argued that schools serving underprivileged areas such as The Harris Academy in Peckham demonstrate that focusing on high expectations, good teaching and strong leadership is the way forward and enable every child to achieve excellence.

Although Theresa May also announced the introduction of a quota system to ensure grammar schools designate a proportion of spaces for children from low-income households, the debate about the effectiveness and benefit of the selective school system looks set to continue and remain a very controversial one.

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