With the government set to announce the expansion of a Kent selective school, why is this still such a thorny issue in British education?
The government’s decision to allow what is in effect a new grammar school in Kent reopens an old debate in British education: who gets to go to the best state schools?
What is a grammar school?
It’s another name for a selective school, a school that makes admissions decisions on the basis of academic ability – in this case through an exam known as the 11-plus sat by pupils entering secondary school. There are 163 state secondary schools in England designated by law as able to select on entry to year 7.
Where did they come from?
The modern grammar school dates back to the 1944 Education Act, which established a tripartite secondary school system. Those pupils who passed the 11-plus got into a grammar school; the rest went into non-selective secondary moderns; and there was also a technical college strand, although very few were built.
Didn’t Margaret Thatcher abolish grammar schools?
Not quite, although as education secretary Thatcher did bring about the closure of more grammar schools in the 1970s than any other politician. From the 1960s onwards both central government and local authorities began to prefer all-ability comprehensive schools, as a way of providing a better education to the 75% of children forced into inadequate secondary moderns.
Where did grammar schools survive?
Some local authorities were determined to retain grammar schools. A handful of counties and local authorities in England have largely intact selective schools systems, including Kent, Medway, Buckinghamshire and Lincolnshire, while others such as Gloucestershire, Trafford and Slough have a mix.
In other places, a few grammar schools survived in areas that were otherwise fully comprehensive, such as Birmingham and Bournemouth.
Grammar schools also survive in large numbers in Northern Ireland.
Are grammar schools successful?
Measured by academic attainment, yes: grammar schools on the most part have an excellent record in gaining top grades for their pupils. Then again, because they select by ability, and the number and quality of applications is high, it’s hardly surprising that bright pupils get good grades. And they tend to add little value because there is little room left to add any.
Why is the Kent decision so unusual?
Not only will it be the first selective grammar school to open in England for many years, it is also the first test of the 1998 legislation introduced by Labour that barred any new school from adopting selective admissions.
How will Kent get around the law?
The approved site in Sevenoaks is an expansion or satellite of an already existing grammar school nine miles away in Tonbridge. The school plans to establish that the new site is an extension of the old one by running staff and pupils between the two. But legal challenges are expected, with a judicial review most likely.
Will other areas follow Kent’s lead?
As night follows day. Areas with existing grammar schools, such as Buckinghamshire, Reading and Wiltshire, will be watching with interest. And there is Maidenhead, which does not have any grammar schools but is keen to try its luck with an expansion of a grammar school in neighbouring Buckinghamshire. Its attempt is thought unlikely to pass the legal tests.
Don’t grammar schools reward talented but underprivileged pupils?
The evidence is that grammar schools do not promote social mobility, as is often supposed, but are instead hijacked by the middle classes. Data from the Department for Education shows that existing grammar schools have far fewer children from poor backgrounds than their neighbourhood – and some have almost none.
Then there is the problem of the pupils who don’t get in to grammar schools: they tend to do worse in selective systems than their peers elsewhere.
Can’t admissions to grammar schools be fairer?
There have been reforms to the 11-plus exam to make it “tutor-proof” so as not to penalise those from backgrounds without access to private tuition. But so far the evidence suggests little has changed. Some schools have begun offering a small number of places to pupils eligible for free school meals by lowering the marks they require to pass the 11-plus.
Why is the government’s approval a surprise?
Because it cuts across so much of the thrust of existing government policy, which is aimed at relieving the effects of disadvantage through education. Hence policies such as the pupil premium, which funnels extra funding to pupils from poor households, and academy sponsorship, an effort adopted from Labour to transform struggling schools.
Government league tables and Ofsted inspections also highlight the attainment gap between pupils as a matter of concern.
Six key facts about grammar schools
- there are currently 163,000 children studying at grammar schools in England,
around 5% of all state secondary school pupils.
- the number of state grammar schools peaked at almost 1,300 in the mid-1960s, when a quarter of all pupils in state secondaries attended grammars.
- fewer than 3% of entrants to grammar schools are entitled to free school meals, compared with an average of 18% of pupils entitled to free school meals in areas with selective schools. The proportion of pupils with special education needs is also well below the national average.
- the proportion of pupils from non-white backgrounds going to grammar schools is higher than other state schools. But grammar schools have lower proportions of black pupils than other schools.
- in local authorities that operate selective admissions, children who are not eligible for free school meals have a much greater chance of attending a grammar school than similarly high-achieving children.
- in 2015 virtually all pupils in grammar schools achieved five or more good grades at GCSE and equivilent qualifications compared to around two-thirds at comprehensives. The gap is wider when qualifications are restricted to GCSEs only and when the measure includes passes in English and maths.