The Bad Penny Debates: Grammar Schools

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Theresa May is, reportedly, going to lift the ban on new grammar schools being created across Britain. Tony Blair introduced the ban in 1998 and it has been hotly debated since. Do grammar schools help the poor and should the new Education Secratary, Justine Greening, end the ban? That sounds like the makings of a debate, so let’s have it.

Finn

Proposals to introduce new grammar schools, after their decline over the past 60 years, is a topic that is of importance to me as a grammar school student myself. Before any possible misconceptions occur I do not take my position lightly, I realise that I am indeed in a fortunate situation. However, I cannot argue for the introduction of more grammar schools, or for that matter the existence of the existing institutions, because of their conservative mentality being a pernicious concept.

Grammar schools are a relic of the past, the dead belief of “one-nation conservatism”; for our perpetually socially advancing society we have yet to abandon one of the institutions that continues to tie us down. The Conservative government have proposed (and have done under Nicky Morgan) to build new grammar schools, which I fundamentally disagree with. For one they highlight socio-economic divisions in society and instantiate class divisions. Grammar schools are paragon for this divide; they are tools for social engineering and grammar school advocates neglect to see their unbridled arrogance. Why should such a system exist which hands one child the key to success by virtue of coming from an affluent family who have the resources to afford years of 11+ tutoring, whereas another child is denied this, and essentially punished due to being economically deprived. In many cases this damage is irreparable. Even though there is a chance to later access a grammar school for sixth form, this is unlikely for the majority of comprehensive students who may not have gotten sufficient GCSE results to reach the entry requirements as a result of poorer teaching quality or government underfunding (as funds are deviated towards grammar schools).

The 11+, the exam that must be passed to enter a grammar school fails to serve the purpose of its supposed aim of “giving the poorer classes a chance to socially and economically advance”. This is pure nonsense. Coming from a family that had the ability to put me through 11+ preparation, I know this was the main reason I passed and this is the case for virtually every other child taking the test. The 11+, however, is not the first factor, it is merely a factor in a sequence leading up to walking through the grammar school gate. Many children may not have the economic or academic groundwork provided by parents, for a multitude of reasons (such as both parents being economically active and thus having little time to assist in homework or other academic endeavours). If children are not persuaded to apprehend the importance of the 11+ from parents, guardians or peers they are unlikely to succeed, through no fault of their own. The ensuing repercussions can have detrimental effects on the rest of the academic and professional lives, thus grammar schools perpetuate social disadvantage but also ensure wasted talent by pinning the focus on financial ability to pay. Extending the grammar school system will only ensure a higher percentage of wastage. The 11+ is an entity that I fundamentally disagree with. The high volume of children that fail are put under humongous ordeal of pressure. I can vividly remember results day and, with hindsight, 10-11 year olds certainly don’t have the mental maturity to comprehend or deal with such a crucial stage in their academic career and is not a burden that we should place on them.

Grammar schools are iniquitous so no they shouldn’t be further extend. Under this current system, I propose a Corbyn-esque approach to education. For modernisation to occur effectively, we cannot stratify our society from 11 years of age. The focus should be on equally investing in the younger generation, providing an opportunity for all children to be placed in an academically inspiring environment. Society collectively gains from the academic advancement of its children, not only for obvious economic implications but also for possibly eradicating many of the social issues that currently plague us.

Emily

I am in favour of grammar schools. As a student, I have attended one for the entirety of my secondary school education and have found that it is the best style of school for my individual needs. Grammar schools have allowed me, and many similar students, to flourish through hard work and discipline. This does not mean that all state schools must become grammar schools; many students choose to do more vocational subjects, such as hairdressing or cookery, which are not taught to the same level or standard as traditionally academic subjects at grammar schools. As such, I believe that both grammar and normal state schools should be available in the UK. The Guardian reported that selective grammar schools continue to produce the best GCSE results in the country, with grammar schools holding the top 35 places in the country for state schools that obtained 100% of grades between A*-C. Therefore, aiding the individual success of students around the country. This opportunity would not be available to many students across the UK without the grammar school system, as many families simply cannot afford to send their children into the private education stream. This is especially prominent, due to the fact that since grammar schools have been largely abolished, Oxbridge intake from state schools has decreased. Grammar schools are a public good that this country needs to retain. By abolishing grammar schools, there is a risk of a ‘one size fits all’ education system, which is simply not suited to every student’s needs. Some students truly choose to follow a more academic route, and they should have the ability to do so in the correct environment. As such, not only am I in favour of grammar schools, but fully advocate the creation of more.

Adam

The reintroduction of grammar schools nationwide is a terrible idea. It creates a division which does very little good and certainly a lot of bad. The 11+ itself will always be flawed. At such a young age, and with often little to no preparation for the exam in school time, success will depend almost entirely on how much each child’s parents can spend on tutoring, as they do now in Buckinghamshire. Even if the test was made to be more like SATs and it was educationally useful and teachers prepared their students for it properly, it is still likely that those who are tutored more or who go to primary schools that focus relentlessly on the 11+ (at the expense of more varied activities for the children), often private prep schools, will succeed. Again, it will not be based on the children’s effort or intellect, but on how much their parents spend on their education.

British education claims to be free, with poor and rich having an equal opportunity to succeed, and yet the grammar school system ensures that it is not. Proponents of the system claim that it makes education more free because it is less necessary to send a child to private school for them to do better, but since the selection system can only be (more or less) in favour of those who have tutoring, it’s largely richer parents who are the ones who stand to gain from the system. Indeed, at grammar schools on average only 4.85% of grammar school students have been eligible for free school meals at any point in the last six years (FSM6). The national average is 29.4%. The grammar school system worsens the existing divide between rich and poor and entrenches it.

There’s also the question of what the grammar school system actually achieves. It wants cleverer students (an arbitrary top 30%) to be separated from not-so-clever students by putting them in separate schools. Supposedly, this will create classroom environments more suitable for each ‘type’ of student, since cleverer students are not going to be dragged down or distracted by less-clever or less-hardworking students in the classroom and lessons won’t be too hard for less-clever students. Ignoring the fact that this doesn’t happen in terms of clever and less-clever but richer and poorer (due to the high use of tutoring for the 11+), is it really necessary to split students in this way? Good teachers are able to cope with teaching students of different competencies, and schools can use setting/streaming to ensure students are in the classroom with other students of their ability if necessary (particularly useful in Maths, also in English). As for students who don’t work as hard as others and are distracting, is putting the bottom 70% of students in a particular test into a certain type of school really going to solve this problem? If anything, it gives those students license to be worse and teacher’s encouragement to tolerate them, because “secondary moderns are all like this anyway”.

Grammar schools invariably achieve Outstanding and Good ratings from Ofsted whereas secondary moderns receive worse. Why should students who place in the bottom 70% in the 11+ receive worse teaching and go to an objectively worse school, surely they should be going to a better school which will help them achieve more, don’t they deserve more help than already-high-achieving students? But this doesn’t happen under the grammar school system.

The system also encourages a division of culture. Grammar schools frequently seem snobby, with some students having a tendency to look down on secondary modern students, and secondary schools often have a higher rate of drug problems and a higher rate of truancy. Further, grammar school students experience incredibly high a pressure to go to university (when it may not suit them) and, conversely, secondary modern students do not receive the benefit of high expectations or good enough teaching that would enable them to go to the best universities. Why risk creating this divide throughout the entire country? Why not instead keep the current comprehensive system which ensures a level playing field for all (or, at least, more so than the grammar school system) up to age 18?

The Government should be looking to scrap grammars in counties which still have them, rather than expanding them further.

Joe

My colleagues in this article will doubtless argue that it is wrong to tell children at the age of 11 that they are failures – that they will never amount to anything because they didn’t pass a single test to decide whether they will get into a grammar school or not. For this reason, they will state, we should deny all children the opportunity to reach higher because to deny it to any would be unfair.

I disagree. The argument that the 11+ test is more soul-crushing exam culture just doesn’t cut it for me. The kind of person that receives one failure and takes it to heart is the kind of person who simply won’t rise to the top. The kind of person who will surrender at their first hurdle isn’t the kind of person who will succeed in life. We need to show our children that success comes from hard work and dedication, it comes from a refusal to surrender even when you’ve been knocked down again and again. In the real world, these are the kinds of people who triumph. The people who refuse to accept that they aren’t good enough, that they aren’t worthy – and instead chose to improve themselves, to make themselves worthy.

If a child fails the 11+, there is the 12+ and the opportunity to join a grammar school in the sixth form. Numerous non-grammar schools around the country have entrance tests, and many of those are even more detrimental to social mobility due to excessive entrance fees. If we really intend to improve social mobility through our education system, then why do we make these opportunities available to those only with cash to spend, on the grounds that it hurts people’s feelings?

The grammar school debate is one that will decide what kind of people the British will become. Do we want to tell our children that it’s OK to accept less than their best, that it’s OK to get knocked down once and not even try to pick yourself up again? We want to tell our children that what brings success is a refusal to surrender, a refusal to lie down and accept failure because of one slip-up. In a time when more than ever Britain needs to fight for our place on the international stage, we need to imbue our education system with this stubborn attitude. Complacency simply will not cut it.

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