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Grammar schools

This guide explains what grammar schools are, why they are controversial, and who is for and against their presence in the English educational landscape.

What are grammar schools?

Grammar schools are state-funded (this means parents don't have to pay fees to send their children there) selective secondary schools. Selection is based on academic ability at the age of ten when grammar school applicants take an examination called the 11-plus. The highest-scoring pupils are then eligible to attend the grammar school, while the remainder of applicants attend non-selective state-funded secondary schools which make up the comprehensive system instead, where pupils of all abilities are taught together.

What is the purpose of grammar schools?

Grammar schools were established to select children of high academic ability where there were reasonable expectations that they would go on to higher education at a college and/or university, and thus have greater career opportunities and expectations. Since the schools are non-fee-paying, grammars are intended to give academically-gifted children a high standard of education without cost implications to their parents. 

Where can grammar schools be found?

Grammar schools are only part of the education landscape in England within the UK. Some comprehensive schools have 'Grammar' in their name, but this can be residual, and does not confer any academically-selective status. 

Weren't grammar schools banned?

Tony Blair's New Labour government banned the creation of new grammar schools in 1998 and focussed instead in raising standards in comprehensive schools, but they did not force existing grammar schools to change status. A relatively small number of grammar schools still exist across the UK, with counties such as Kent and Buckinghamshire selecting pupils via the 11-plus test. 

Why are grammar schools controversial?

Grammar schools polarise opinion. Selection was supposed to enable the brightest pupils in the state system (as opposed to those in private education) to receive the highest standard of education, so that students from traditionally poorer backgrounds could achieve well academically and thus be more likely to attend university and gain wider career opportunities compared to their comprehensive school-educated peers. Defenders of grammar schools claim that they enable social mobility by offering a way out of poverty. Detractors say that there's scant evidence of that, but are instead elitist and socially divisive, and point to what they see as the inherent unfairness of selecting children. 

Who is in favour of grammar schools?

While the bulk of former Prime Minister David Cameron's cabinet were privately-educated, Theresa May's ministerial team is largely state-educated, and the prime minister herself attended a grammar school, and it's this change in ethos that many believe has prompted a renewed interest in a return to selective state schooling. It is seen to chime in with Theresa May's pledge to, "make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us," by developing a system of social mobility from an early age. Following the loss of her majority after the General Election 2017, Theresa May has now formally dropped the move to lift the ban on the creation of new grammar schools. 

What are the arguments in favour of grammar schools?

The main argument in favour of grammars is that they give children from less wealthy backgrounds the opportunity to receive a better education than they could otherwise expect to receive in the comprehensive system. It is claimed that they are the best opportunity for exceptionally bright pupils from poor backgrounds to get the best possible start in life. It is thought that educating selected pupils together engenders a strong school morale and benefits the education of all of the pupils. There is evidence to suggest that those pupils who make it into grammar schools have greater academic attainment and career earnings than they would otherwise have enjoyed after schooling in the comprehensive system. 

Who is against grammar schools?

A number of education commentators and teaching unions oppose the return of new grammar schools. The political left has been against them for decades, increasing their disapproval from the 1960s. Current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has previously stated that he wants "all grammars to become comprehensives" and an "end the 11-plus where it still exists," while Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner has said that grammar schools belong "in the dustbin of history".

Tim Farron, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, stated his party's opposition to the creation of new grammar schools prior to the General Election. He said: "Those who hold up grammar schools as the gold standard are less keen to talk about what happens to those children who, at the age of 11, are told they are not good enough. What does that do to a young person's confidence and self-esteem?" 

What are the arguments against grammar schools?

Opponents of grammar schools claim that they are elitist, that they foster social division and that they decrease rather than increase social mobility (the chances of people from poorer backgrounds having the same opportunities open to them as their wealthier peers). They claim that children who fail the 11-plus examination may unfairly perceive themselves to be failures from an early age. There is also the argument that grammars reinforce middle class privilege, as wealthier parents can afford to provide tutors and/or private education through primary school so that their children are better-prepared for the 11-plus compared to their state-educated peers. While the 11-plus is designed in such a way as to make preparation difficult (by setting questions requiring reason and logic to arrive at an answer, rather than memorising facts), educators widely believe that coaching in the 11-plus format helps children to prepare, and that extra tuition can pay off. There is also some research to show that, in areas where grammar schools remain, children in local non-selective schools do worse compared to children in comprehensive schools in areas where there are no grammars. This may be because of the difficulty in attracting and retaining the best teachers in areas where grammar schools may entice them away. Where grammar schools exist, a significant proportion of places are taken up by pupils who were privately-educated at primary school level.  

What does the public think?

A YouGov poll showed that 38% of respondents wished to see the creation of more grammar schools, yet 67% would send their children to a grammar school if they passed the 11-plus. This is down on the 51% of respondents in a ComRes survey in 2015 who supported allowing new grammar schools to open. Our own research revealed 46% of parents agree with an increase in selective (grammar) schools, while 36% are unsure and 18% disagree.

Would any new grammar schools be the same as the old?

The suggestion was that any new generation of grammar schools would differ from the previous model by tackling the criticisms most-often levelled at them by their detractors. This would mean any future new grammar schools having to admit a significant proportion of pupils from low and middle-income families.

What has come out of the consultation?

The Education Committee, which is made up of members from across the political parties, have scrutinised and collected evidence relating to the grammar school proposals set out in the government's consultation. Their findings were released in a report on 13th February. Overall, they show that the Government must demonstrate that new grammar schools will help to close the attainment gap between poorer children and their better-off peers, as well as within the wider school system, rather than just for individual pupils. It also suggests that selection tests should not be the only basis for admissions, especially since a tutor-proof test is elusive. The findings also call for the government to "look carefully at the consequences for school funding, the supply of teachers, and the overall health of schools in England". You can see the report's conclusions and recommendations as well as the full report. The government has for the moment shelved plans to lift the ban on new grammar schools.

Reviewed: January 2018

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