A couple of weeks ago, Theresa May’s new Conservative government took us back to 1997. Fear not: we’ve not returned to the days before the Human Rights Act 1998, but the grammar school is back. Due to the Labour-introduced ban on the creation of grammar schools and Conservative efforts to turn under-performing schools into academies, the number of grammar schools has dwindled in the last two decades. Like many political issues in the UK at the moment, the re-introduced power to create new grammar schools has divided opinion: some decry it as further increasing the benefits available to the privileged, whilst others see it as a welcome method of increasing social mobility. My position is somewhere between the two: I think grammar schools have the potential to become excellent engines of social mobility, but the selection process needs to be refined in such a way as to ensure that children cannot gain an advantage through extra tuition.
The argument against
Whilst I don’t really agree with the 1997 Labour government’s decision to ban the creation of new grammar schools, I appreciate some of the reasons for doing so. In the late twentieth century, many grammar schools were going in the same direction as many British public schools at the beginning of the century. Instead of admitting only the brightest children, regardless of their social backgrounds, it was far easier for privileged children to gain a place. The hallmark of grammar schools has always been that entry is selective; but by 1997, the entrance tests set were becoming increasingly easier for wealthier children, since they could afford extra tuition which would better prepare them for the sometimes fearsome entrance exams. Today’s picture is not so different.
This had a negative impact on the bursary systems in fee-paying grammars. Once again, the grammar schools went the way of the public schools before them; financial support fell into the pockets of the middle-classes in the absence of pupils from lower-income families. Not only, therefore, were less privileged children less likely to study at a grammar school, but in fee-paying schools, the money put in by parents wasn’t being used most effectively. Furthermore, wealthier parents have been known to move into the catchment area of good schools simply in order to ensure that their child can study there, at the expense of families who do not have the financial means to live there. Given this, it is hardly surprising that many grammar schools have gained the reputation for only being for the privileged.
There remain some shining lights in the grammar school system. Whilst this may sound like the biased view of a former grammar school pupil, I couldn’t agree more with this article, written in The Independent, about the Manchester Grammar School. The school has been known not only for attracting the brightest boys from across the North West for the last five hundred years, but for ensuring that the less privileged can study there through its excellent bursary scheme. In this way, it firmly unseats the notion that fee-paying grammars in particular are only for the privileged. For many years, it has been a cauldron of boys coming from a wide range of social backgrounds and cultures; a number of privileged boys have undoubtedly passed through the school, but it would be a mistake to suggest that all Old Mancunians are of that ilk.
The school’s bursary scheme has been central to this. As the author of the aforementioned article notes, it is through the contributions of the more privileged that those from less privileged backgrounds are able to benefit. From a financial perspective, this is undoubtedly social mobility in action. If fee-paying grammars are created in higher-income parts of the country after the creation of twenty schools in low-income areas, their bursary systems must be similarly effective. Basing the new grammar schools in low-income areas is certainly a wise move. In part, this should help to target the less privileged pupils, but the risk of ‘educational tourism’ remains in the future.
The selective process
Since placing new grammars in lower-income areas is no guarantee of absolute fairness in the selection of the first batches of pupils, there must be greater scrutiny of the processes by which students are selected. A grammar school entrance exam must by definition by rigorous; it must be able to weed out the very brightest and differentiate them from the rest. Like public exams, however, there is a risk that such entrance tests can become predictable. As soon as any selection process becomes predictable, it is possible to train someone to pass through it. In order to minimise the disadvantage created by private tuition, the Department of Education must ensure that the entrance tests at the new grammars have an element of uncertainty to them.
There must of course be a clearly-defined format, and candidates should have some idea in advance of what they will face. The variation between each year’s papers, however, must be such that the answer to a question is not immediately obvious from having practised past papers. I am not advocating an Oxbridge-style entrance test here; they are built to test different skills, and contain far more uncertainty and fluidity than it would be wise to subject an eleven-year old child to. It is a highly rigorous, age-appropriate, academic test, much like the fearsome Part II exam at Manchester Grammar, which most accurately identifies the brightest children at the age of 11, and those who are therefore most suited for a grammar school education.
The return of the grammar schools is a great opportunity for an education system that is currently scratching its head and looking for answers to take a big step forwards in social mobility. It is a chance to erase some of the flaws that have crept into the system. But measures must be taken to refine selection processes, end ‘educational tourism’ and where necessary, establish effective bursary systems.