Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

Is there anything left to say on grammar schools? Maybe just one thing…

  • 30 September 2016

A lot of nonsense has been expressed on both sides in the debate on grammar schools. But it can still be summed up like this: one side claims to have all the evidence while the other flounders when asked to provide any.

Given this imbalance, the interesting question is not who is right. Pretty much everyone who has considered if academic selection at the age of 11 enhances social mobility has come up with the same answer: it is good for a few and bad for the many. Even the Department for Education’s consultation on bringing back selection says ‘there may be an association with poorer educational consequences for those pupils not attending selective schools in areas where selection is allowed.’ They just think selection in the future could be different from selection in the past.

There is no more point arguing against the weight of evidence on this than on other issues: it is for people with too much time in their lives, too little history in their heads and a Twitter app in their hands. (I’m looking at you Arron Banks.)

The interesting question lies elsewhere: why does the discussion about grammar schools continue to flourish in such unpropitious circumstances? It is like the weeds outside my home. They grow back every time I uproot them, blast them with a flamethrower or squirt weed killer at them.

There is, I think, one good reason why the argument will not die which has gone unrecognised in the debate: some politicians emphasise the needs of society more than the needs of individuals and some do the opposite.

Even the fiercest opponents of grammar schools admit a minority of children do better academically in them. But they focus more on the majority, who do not. On the other side of the debate, those who support grammar schools aim for the best fit between individual people and their education. So they worry less about the collective impact. They say it is imperative that those who could benefit from selective education have the chance to experience it and, if that provides new challenges for the rest of the education sector, then you should fix those other challenges rather than ending selection. (For example, you make sure the alternatives to grammar schools are better than they were in the bad old days.)

In other words, many of those wanting to see academic selection become more common again at school age do not refute the current evidence; they just think it is not the killer blow that the opponents of grammar schools assume. They also see selection flourishing elsewhere in national life, including in other parts of the education system, such as in entry to university. It is because the UK university system is so selective and hierarchicial that it includes what the Times Higher Education claims to be the best university in the world.

The difference between those who place the interests of society above the interests of individuals and those who put individuals above society goes to the heart of politics. It is part of the difference between parties of the left and parties on the right, and why parties of the left favour the term ‘collective’ while those on the right dislike it. It even divides single parties: who would deny that Thatcherism focuses more on the needs of individuals than One Nation Conservatism?

In reality, each person – not just each political party – is a mix of the individualistic and the communitarian. For example, a good manager simultaneously cares about the health of their organisation and its individual members of staff. The same goes for politicians: MPs oscillate between acting in the interests of society as a whole and acting in the interests of individual citizens. It is the difference between fixing the problems raised by someone at a constituency surgery and being a Minister, frontbench spokesperson or Select Committee member. These two roles clash to comic effect in the film In the Loop.

(In the real world, the tension between the needs of society and the needs of individuals can lead to behaviour that seems hypocritical – such as when a politician helps an individual migrant earn the right to remain in the UK while calling for tough restrictions on migration overall. Or when they oppose school selection for the country while benefiting from it for their own children. On Tuesday, Emily Thornberry, the Shadow Secretary of State for Defence, told Channel 4 News: ‘I’m a mother and I’m a politician and as a mother I will do the best for my kids and as a politician I will do the best I can for all kids.’)

Most big political questions can only be answered by balancing the needs of individuals against society. For example, should we reduce spending on welfare because of the way it can disincentivise good behaviour or should we ensure no individual lacks the basics? Should we turn back refugees because of the pressure they put on public services or should we welcome them as individual people with something to offer? Should we put more focus on preventative health campaigns or spend as much as we can on each individual patient?

This may all seem obvious but wise people can differ in their answers to such questions and the debate over who has the best evidence on grammar schools has lost sight of this fundamental truth. Surely a healthy debate on education policy – just as with on welfare, refugees or healthcare – needs both individualistic and more communitarian voices to be heard loudly and clearly? After all, a defining feature of any successful educational institution is that is helps individuals flower within a collective environment. Isn’t that precisely the goal of democratic government too?

After all, weeds once thought to be annoying have sometimes turned out to serve a useful purpose.


  1. Alex Conner says:

    I am a University academic involved in widening participation but I was also one of these kids who went to a rough comp and got to University. I went to school every day with a credible and genuine threat of physical violence against me. There is no place for that and it does not happen in the grammar system. So I would have selection for high schools based on behaviour. Most pupils would NEVER punch someone in the face (physically or symbolically) and as the Brexit vote showed, compassion is not about IQ. That would create the learning environment I would have wanted.

    1. John Plowright says:

      I went to a grammar school via the 13+. During my two previous years at a secondary modern and during my time at the grammar school I was occasionally subjected to violence by fellow pupils. At both I was also subject to a much more ‘credible and genuine threat of physical violence against me’ in the form of corporal punishment by the teaching staff. In fact, the grammar school was worse in this regard. Happily corporal punishment is no longer with us but the idea that behavioural vetting could eliminate bullying is – at the risk of being accused by Mr Conner of symbolically punching him in the face – laughable. The meek will inherit the earth but not, I would suggest, by means of high school selection.

      1. Alex Conner says:

        That doesn’t make any sense. There is no clear point being made. I think you’re saying “violence didn’t do me any harm” and that it is wrong to be meek. But I’m not sure.

  2. John Plowright says:

    Please allow me to try again. You assert that the ‘threat of physical violence … does not happen in the grammar system’. I know, from my own experience, that it did and I assert that it does because aggression is a (regrettable) feature of human nature. You cannot deny that this is so given that a) you claim (and I do not doubt it) that you were subjected every school day to a ‘credible and genuine threat of physical violence’ and b) you feel the need to separate the ‘sheep’ from the ‘lambs’. Incidentally, your proposed grammar schools are going to be huge if you genuinely believe that ‘Most pupils would NEVER punch someone in the face (physically or symbolically) …”

  3. John Plowright says:

    Apologies: that should read “separate the ‘wolves’ from the ‘sheep’ …”

  4. John Lewis says:

    Put simply it is the “me,me,me” people (who vote Conservative) versus the more society-oriented people who vote Labour. Every grammar school place creates FOUR secondary modern places and the spend per pupil in a grammar school is TWICE that in a secondary modern. See

  5. Sean Lang says:

    This was my contribution to the debate on Michael Fordham’s blog:

    Back in 1997, in the aftermath of the Blair election victory, to my great surprise I found myself being driven by the poor thinking and shallow arguments of government spokesmen (one of whom came to Hills Road, where I was working) into a defence of the hereditary principle in politics – which, incidentally, I still regard as infinitely less corrupt than giving peerages to political cronies. By a similar process I am finding myself being driven by the very narrow arguments being put forward against them into a defence of Grammar Schools.

    The argument about Grammar Schools is a decidedly curious one, because it is not, in fact, about Grammar Schools at all; it is about Secondary Modern Schools (just as the debate about ‘faith schools’ is not actually about education at all but about opposition to religion – but that’s a debate for another day). It is certainly true, as I have often said in conversation, that, while I have often heard people calling for the return of Grammar Schools, I have never heard anyone call for the return of Secondary Moderns. I hesitate to write off an entire class of schooling, as I know that many devoted teachers worked in Secondary Moderns, but there is no pretending otherwise: they had a pretty dire reputation – I suppose the film ‘Kes’ gives a fairly good picture of how they were generally seen.

    It is also a curious one, especially for historians, who are meant to have a sense of the passage of time and the changes it brings, because it is couched in explicitly exaggerated (and frankly ridiculous) terms of ‘No return to the 1950s’ (there is no such thing as a ‘return’ to any time in the past – can’t be done). In fact, to listen to some comments you would think that Grammar Schools were some evil malign force – indeed, I think opponents of Grammar Schools are more vocal and more extreme in their language on this subject than they are about Independent Schools.

    So, let’s do what good historians are meant to do and go back to look at the sources and the facts, and to look at the origins.

    Grammar Schools as we know them were born in the 1944 Education Act – it is worth remembering that before 1944 Secondary Education was not available for all and poor children had no hope of it at all unless they won a scholarship to a fee-paying school – my own mother is a good example. The 1944 Act introduced a tripartite system, based on Secondary Technical Schools, Secondary Modern Schools, and Grammar Schools. A tripartite system was always perhaps rather ambitious, and the Technical arm never really took off; it was largely incorporated into the Modern. But it is worth stressing, because the point has been lost sight of, that the system of selection for one branch or another was NOT supposed to be on the basis of ‘ability’, by which is always meant ACADEMIC ability, but on APTITUDE. The intention was that the Secondary Modern was to lay more of an emphasis on technical and vocational and the Grammar School on academic ability.

    Now, I realise (as some will doubtless point out) that it is not unknown for students to show aptitude in both, but I would maintain that most experience in education would suggest that this division of types of ability is broadly correct. It is reflected in the German education system and in every training programme where young people having difficulty with a ‘traditional’ academic curriculum are given a more rewarding programme of work in more vocational work or training. Indeed, it is implicit in the objections to the Ebacc, when it was argued that it would end up forcing children into an academic curriculum to which not all of them were suited.

    The problem with the old process of selection was in fact twofold: one aspect was and still is loudly trumpeted; the other is British society’s and especially British education’s secret shame which people usually keep quiet about. The problem which everyone knows about is that the 11+ was far too crude an instrument of selection. It was based on Piaget and Cyril Burt and much of the thinking behind it has been long discredited. It didn’t allow for late developers, it divided children, often very visibly: my Grammar School (for yes, I went to one, and it is still a highly sought-after Grammar School to this day) had (and still has) a very distinctive striped blazer, so that the ‘successful’ pupils declared their success every time they went out of doors in school uniform. All this we know.

    The other problem, though, and critics of Grammar Schools are very bit as guilty of this as anyone else, is the appalling national snobbery about vocational education. We see this time and time again. Leaving aside the point about age 11 for a moment, why should going to a Modern Vocationally-orientated school be regarded as a failure? But it was and those who decry Grammar Schools are still doing it.

    Of course this problem goes far beyond the Secondary Modern. Our educational history is full of examples of failed attempts to raise the profile and esteem of vocational education. The death of apprenticeships; the scorn directed at BTEC courses or Applied A levels; dare I say the snobbery that was encountered by those who went to Polytechnic rather than university, so that Polytechnics felt obliged to seize the chance to become universities (and the scorn still directed at ‘former polys’ – step forward many Oxford and Cambridge students: I’ve seen what you write online) – the list goes on.

    As long as we continue to denigrate vocational education, to regard it as second best, the argument against Grammar Schools will continue. But it seems a rather disappointing and, frankly, rather dishonourable ground on which to base it.

    Where they went wrong in the past – and this is a mistake that could be avoided this time round – was in having only one form of selection: the academic. The 11+ asked “Are you good enough for Grammar School?” and decided Yes or No: Win/Lose, Success/Failure. But what if, in keeping with the spirit of the 1944 Act, it had asked both “Are you good enough for Grammar School?’ AND “Are you good enough for Modern School?” If, instead of containing only what were in effect IQ test-type tasks, the selection process had also involved motor skills or problem-solving? If it had given as much prominence to practical skills as to mental? In those circumstances we might have achieved something closer to the German system, where there is still a selection process, but there is much more parity of esteem between the two types of education. Moreover, they also maintain a certain level of overlap between the two types of education: so apprentices also learn about the theory – even the history – underlying their craft.

    Dream on, you might say, at least in relation to the 1960s or 1970s. But, as I said at the start, we are not in the 1950s or any other decade other than the 2010s, and things have changed. Specifically:

    a) Since Kenneth Baker introduced the National Curriculum, and its principle was upheld by his successors like David Blunkett, Charles Clarke and especially Michael Gove, the argument about the merits of the Grammar School curriculum have been largely won. There are still a few figures in Schools of Education who grumble about children learning subjects and having to know things, but they have been largely marginalised: they have certainly lost the argument. The essentials of the subject-based Grammar School curriculum have been reinforced as a national model, largely – but only largely – with great success.

    b) This success has owed a tremendous amount to two separate developments:
    1. The introduction of testing in the primary school. While this was heavily overdone in the early stages, the introduction of SATs at the end of KS2, coupled with the emphasis on literacy, including grammar and parts of speech, and on numeracy, has enabled secondary schools to continue, develop or, if necessary, introduce a ‘Grammar School’-type National Curriculum
    2. The growth of Academies and, latterly, Free Schools. These too have led the way in promoting the sort of education that Grammar School products would recognise and value.

    Thanks to these developments, the Grammar School curriculum has become more mainstream, with, I think it is fair to say, considerable public support.

    c) The ‘Grammar School curriculum’, while it maintains an emphasis on academic subjects and on broadening and deepening pupils’ subject knowledge, has not in any way stood still. Not only has teaching in Grammar Schools themselves or those schools which might be said to teach a GS curriculum kept up with the times, but it has often also been allied to tremendous work in other areas of the curriculum, including sport and the arts.

    Now, the strongest argument against reintroducing Grammar Schools might well be that many schools are in effect replicating all the best features of Grammar Schools without the need for selection, so why reintroduce GSs? If true, this is a powerful argument. But is it? There is more than one way to skin a cat and there is more than one way to operate selection. Free Schools, for example, are, at least at the moment, pretty small: there has therefore to be a sort of selection process by demand: you may not have failed an entrance test to get in, but you have failed to get in nonetheless. We also know that many good schools effectively operate by a postcode lottery, as was recently pointed out (by Sir Michael Wilshaw, if I remember rightly?) And while there is no denying the major transformation that has taken place in London, it is by no means typical of the whole country.

    A Grammar School is not just a place where academically-inclined children happen to be gathered together; it has an atmosphere in which openness to academic learning and enquiry is the norm. Not all schools have this. In fact it was my experience in working in two neighbouring but very different sixth form colleges in Cambridge. Hills Road had a genuine academic buzz, in which debate, discussion, visiting speakers and so on were always, as it were in the air. Long Road did some of the same, but it always felt more of a special occasion, not something that was happening on a daily basis. I enjoyed working in both of them, but they were undeniably different in feel and tone. In many ways they were a sixth form equivalent of the Grammar School and Modern educational approaches that lay at the heart of the 1944 Act. And both served (and serve) their students’ needs with exemplary professionalism – in their different ways.

    You will notice I have said nothing about social mobility. I don’t deny that Grammar Schools could contribute to it – indeed, I saw plenty of examples of it. But, not only do I not necessarily believe that social mobility is the prime purpose of education, but I am suspicious of any concept that is bandied about without being subject to scrutiny. What do we mean by social mobility? Do we mean by it that people born into working class families are only successful if they climb upwards and out of that background? If so, then ‘social mobility’ sounds a very patronising idea and really rather snobbish.

    So, having not given the matter much thought for years, I find myself coming to a different conclusion from most in education. Where comprehensives, whether LA-run (are there any left?), Academies or Free Schools are genuinely offering a broad curriculum to all their students, and where the vocational is both offered and valued to the same degree as the academic, then let them continue. But in those areas less well served, where students are being pumped through an academic curriculum for which they are not well suited, where academic aspiration is not central to the school ethos, then I think there is a case for looking again at the issue of selection. But this should not be a return to the 11+. It may not be best done at 11, indeed (I think there is a stronger case for it at the end of KS3), and it should certainly not be exclusively academic – it should cover a wide range of different aptitudes. And it must involve the provision of high-quality highly-regarded vocational education and training. In that context, I think the case for Grammar Schools is much stronger than their critics have allowed for.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *