The pluses and minuses of grammar schools

Right now there’s a ban on building new grammars. Should this rule be changed because they “do a good job of closing the attainment gap” for bright, disadvantaged children? Or are we entering a new phase of preparing children to fail? Words by Nicola Baird

My teenager explaining GCSE revision in maths and science to her Dad. He’s a bit confused…

As a journalist I often interview older people who have had fulfilling working and family lives for Islington Faces. But if asked about their childhood they may become anxious. If I see their hands clench, and a slight shadow cross their eyes, then invariably the next sentence is that they “failed at school”. They’ll explain they didn’t pass the 11+ with the sort of score that took you to grammar school.

It’s not just that they missed out on a good education, they’ve also had 50 or more years of feeling academically inadequate. And that’s not healthy.

Not long after I listened to news about the need for more Grammar Schools (put by Justine Greening) on Radio 4’s Today programme I met a well-educated mum heading to the hairdresser with her two children, one in Year 7, the other Year 5. It’s the Easter school holidays so she was surprised to hear that my 16-year-old was back home revising for GCSEs that don’t start until May. Soon she was talking angrily about the SATs test that is taken by Year 6s at 600,000 primary schools every May.

  • SATs are also taken by Year 2 children. In 2016 they were criticised for being so toughly-worded that many children were unable to complete the questions, or left in tears.

At the moment SATs are not an entry ticket to a secondary school. SATs are used by the government to assess a child’s level of learning at the end of primary school. That snapshot is then used throughout secondary school to ensure that progress is being made.

One of those Year 6 moments (back in 2012) when a surprise spring day led to a fab picnic in the park. And no one needed to revise for anything.

Tutors and the 11+
In contrast the 11+ exam deliberately grades a child’s ability against their cohort, allowing schools to make selective choice of the most able pupils. So does the highly competitive Kent Test, which is taken in September by Year 6 students (mostly living in Kent) whose parents want them to go to the hugely over-subscribed grammar schools in Kent.

  • Just for the record September seems a particularly cruel date as it means many young children will be super-tutored over the summer holidays in order to raise their scores and secure a place.

Parents, who can afford it, are willing to pay for tutoring, because once your son or daughter is in a Kent grammar school the rest of the educational milestones – good GCSEs, excellent A levels and a place at Oxbridge or a Russell Group uni – are going to be much easier.

“There is a lot of bad press given to grammars and private tutors alike. People say that it only benefits the affluent middle classes and to a very high degree that is true,” says Muhammad Ali a maths specialist who runs The Tuition Network, based in Islington.

As well as tutoring Ali helps teach maths to students from AIM, an educational Kent charity set up by three mums in a bid to “level the playing field and offer affordable 11+ preparation to bright children who would not otherwise receive it, and so make grammar school places more accessible to all.” Typically the 10-year-olds from low-income families will receive 50 hours of free tuition one evening a week at a Tunbridge Wells venue and during school holidays, as well as being given mock exams to hone their exam technique. This isn’t building on what their schools give them as local schools do not prepare for 11+ exams; instead they focus on the national standard tests – SATs.

“I do a lot of pro bono work for the disadvantaged (he also works for The Access Project) because I want to make a difference. I am of Bangladeshi/northern (Manchester) roots and went to a run down school in Moss Side,” explains Ali. “My background is ‘poor working class’, my friends went on to youth training schemes, rather than sixth form and my parents had not been to uni, so there was no expectation for someone like me.”

Now the Government is touting the idea that Grammar Schools could help ordinary working families – the sort Ali grew up in. At least this is the message from both PM Theresa May and Education Secretary Justine Greening

  • Interestingly Theresa May was mostly state educated, but at 13 won a place at the former Holton Park Girls’ Grammar School. During her time there the Oxfordshire school system was re-organised and it became a comprehensive. Justine Greening went to a Rotherham co-ed secondary, now an academy.

Better off families throw everything at their child in that bid to get into a grammar school (because whatever the costs of tutoring it is a lot less than years of private school fees), which could be why there’s scant evidence that Grammar Schools aid social mobility. In fact many think their entrance policy prevents bright, but poorer children, getting a place.

Indeed the Government’s own report (published on 12/4/17) shows that better off families are far more likely to fill grammar school places (36% from below average incomes [but not receiving free school meals], compared to 53% from backgrounds with above average incomes).

On BBC News (13/4/17) the politicians spoke out against a return to the Grammar School era too.

  • Labour’s shadow education secretary Angela Rayner said the government could not “hide from the fact that grammar schools do not aid social mobility”.
  • Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, said: “pupils of working families are getting stuffed by this plan, yet again rather than making every state school excellent the government want to spend more cash on another ideological experiment.”
  • Head teachers’ leader Russell Hobby said the government seemed “fixated” on expanding academic selection. “Despite all the evidence showing the harmful effects on social mobility, the government is committed to delivering a policy for the few at the expense of the many.”

How much childhood is lost if you decide to try and make your child an A student?And then what happens if they can’t live up to that pressure?

SATs stress
The Grammar School debate is going to run for a while. Considering that SATs aren’t an entry ticket to a child’s next school, it should be a concern just how many parents find even the SATs process hugely stressful – and carry that stress to their child.

“We were told that level 5c was normal. How awful to know you’ve failed at 11,” said my mum-friend, in front of her similarly-aged daughter and primary-school-attending son. Both her children looked faintly bored. In inner London (everywhere maybe) impromptu chats in the street about education are an interminable part of waiting for mum or dad as you head to the park, shops or even hairdresser.

Should the ban on Grammar Schools be lifted my friends’ kids won’t be looking bored.

Hypothetically, the youngest would be in the middle of stressful (and expensive) tutoring sessions to increase his chances of getting into the nearest Grammar. And he’d know it. While his older sister would already be experiencing which side her life’s bread was buttered – potentially quashing ambition, aspiration and, most detrimentally for a pre-teenager, academic achievement.

Perhaps when the kids can look bored by secondary school chat it’s a sign that we’re still doing education right?

  • Nicola Baird is a parent governor at a community secondary school

Over to you?
What do you think? Should the government be giving the OK for more grammar schools



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4 Comments on “The pluses and minuses of grammar schools”

  1. Well this subject is right up my street – personally, we’re in Kent, and both of my children sat the Kent Test/11+ and are at grammar school, and professionally, my job involves supporting the educational progression of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

    Firstly let me say that I didn’t get tutoring for my children for the 11+, not only could I not really have afforded it, but I wanted to know that if they passed the test it was because they were naturally able to rather than forcing them through and risk them then struggling to keep up with the work at the grammar. The primary school did do some preparation with them (not all the yr 6s take the test) and I did buy them some past practice papers to do over the summer, but this was just so that they could be prepared for the type of questions in the test, which are not the type of thing they would ordinarily have been doing in school, but I was very relaxed about it, I didn’t put pressure on them. When you’re in a county that still has the system in place, then you kind of have to play the game even if you don’t really agree with it, because the reality is, the children that go to the grammar school, do in the main end up getting better exam results and going on to better further or higher education institutions. And of course we all want the best for our own children.

    But aside from the results, I also really liked our local grammar school, it’s a very old historic school, the students you bump into from there always seem happy and friendly and polite, and when we visited, the environment felt quite small and nurturing, with a really sense of family and camaraderie between students and staff. This compared to the local high school, which, while perfectly good, felt huge and impersonal.

    But the system isn’t fair. As you’ve said, it doesn’t help social mobility; even though entry to grammar school isn’t based on income, it still ends up that those families with higher incomes are more likely to end up there. That isn’t just down to tutoring, most of the students that I personally know at my children’s grammar were not tutored, but most of them are high income families, we’re at the lower end of income compared to most there. Students from more disadvantaged backgrounds do worse educationally, at every stage, for a whole variety of reasons, and adding more grammar schools isn’t going to fix that. And nor is forcing more kids through the test by extra tutoring, that’s a sticking plaster approach – that isn’t a criticism of the AIM project that you spoke of, they exist because the system is wrong, and they’re doing what they can to counter that.

    I’m in danger of writing a full essay here, so I’ll leave it at that for now!

  2. Feedback from Facebook:
    Eleanor (the mum in the story): Right, that’s the last time I stop and talk to you in the street, Nicola Baird! Seriously if you’d had me on the subject of grammar schools you would not have got away. The truth is our local schools already suffer from a brain drain due to fee paying schools and reachable grammars in Enfield. This makes me sick. It skews the system and everybody suffers, particularly those children who need ‘social mobility’ to be real. Therefore, come October I expect to be applying for a place for my son at the local community school – recently rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted- that my daughter already attends.

    Nick: Bringing back grammar schools also means bringing back secondary moderns – or their modern day equivalent as that is what other schools will become if the more academically able children (at 11) are sifted off in their area.

    If the grammar school system was so great why did even the Tories favour ditching it in the 60s and early 70s – because it failed 80% of children.

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