Stephen Lambert is a Newcastle City Councillor and a community governor for Newcastle City Learn – the adult education service.

Grammar schools are not the answer

A collection of essays has been published today (23 Jan) by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), Social Mobility and Higher Education: Are grammar schools the answer? 

KevinCourtney100x100Kevin Courtney, joint NEU General Secretary said:

“International research, such as the OECD Pisa survey and other internationally recognised data sets, show categorically that the most successful school systems globally are comprehensive, with schools that are non-selective and open to all local pupils, irrespective of prior attainment.

“The NEU supports the conclusion of the authors of this volume that “expanding the number of grammar schools is unlikely to increase levels of educational or social mobility in this country”. This calls into question why the Government is promoting an expansion in the number of grammar school places in England through its £50 million a year Selective Schools Expansion Fund.

“If this Government is serious about advancing social mobility, it would do better to ensure that all schools have the funding they need to provide a high-quality education for their pupils.”

In 2018 Durham University published research on grammar schools and on the attainment of pupils at selective schools comparative to non-selective schools.

Amongst its key points, the report "Grammar schools in England: a new analysis of social segregation and academic outcomes", claims that social mobility is hampered by grammar schools. 

Last year Damian Hinds (Education secretary at the time), called for the restoration of Grammar schools to kick start ‘social mobility’ and promote social justice.

The researchers say a policy of increasing selection within the schools system is dangerous for equality in society, but in a drive to create more good school places for families, the Government still unveiled measures to launch their £50 million a year Selective Schools Expansion Fund, so that existing selective schools can expand their premises to create more places.

Instead, the Durham University researchers are calling on the Government to phase out grammar schools as their analysis shows that Grammar schools are no better or worse than non-selective state schools in terms of attainment, but grouping more able and privileged children in grammar schools can harm the majority of others who don’t attend those schools.

Today 90% of youngsters attend state comprehensive schools, 7% go to Independent schools and a tiny number go to one of the 164 remaining English Grammar schools.

Although the non-selective comprehensive system has been around since the mid-sixties whereby children of abilities go to one school right-wing Conservatives and UKIP claim that it’s failed to create a more just and social mobile society.

For the author James Bloodworth, former Labour Minister Alan Milburn and former advisor to the Government, social mobility has ground to a halt.

Despite the social and technological advances of the last three decades both the North of England and elsewhere, is as class bound and divided as ever.

The top Russell universities like Newcastle or York, the BBC, the prestigious professions like law and medicine, are still the preserve of the upper-middle classes.

Is restoring the Grammar school of the 1950s with Enid Blyton, warm beers and cricket lawns the answer?

The foundations of the old ‘Tripartite system’ were laid down in the war-time Norwood Report of 1943. Norwood argued against the idea of a common secondary school for and argued there should ‘’selective’’ grammar schools for bright children and schooling geared to boys and girls ‘’who desired to enter industry or commerce at 16’’.

By 1944 Butler passed the Education Act recommending the need for three types of school to cater for three types of ‘’intelligence’’: academic, practical and one that ‘’dealt with concrete things rather than with ideas’’.

Butler’s Act represented a major stage of state intervention in mass schooling. The Act was based on the key ‘meritocratic’ principle of equality of opportunity which meant that every child should have an equal chance to do as well as his ability would allow and that youngsters with talent could fulfil their potential.

Provision was expanded after the war with the introduction of the Tripartite system (in practice a Bipartite system as few Technical schools were built) and the school leaving age was raised to 15 by 1947.

Grammar schools were designed for that quarter of the population deemed academic and secondary moderns for the rest. Selection was based on an IQ exam, the 11-plus, the brainchild of the pyschologist Sir Cyril Burt.

Passing the 11-plus was the visa to the local Grammar school. The system lasted till the 1960s when a number of Labour intellectuals including Tony Crosland and Michael Young called time.

The system wasn’t working. The time was right for the comprehensive revolution. In 2016 most youngsters in the region go to their local high school.

Comprehensive education isn’t cutting the mustard, so the Government conclude that Grammar schools need to be restored, to boost social mobility and to enhance the life-chances of the able working-class child. The case for selection is based on the following arguments: One, ‘creaming off’.

Where Grammar schools continue to thrive alongside comps, as happens in Buckingham or Kent , they cream off the most able pupils. Comps are not true comps at all, as they lack the brightest students.

They are barely distinguishable from the old secondary moderns of the ‘Bipartite System’.

High flyers are held back by the slower pace of learning to meet the needs of the less able. With a selective Grammar the more academically able are taught in the same school.

The large scale of Comprehensive schools make it hard for teachers to know their pupils personally.

The talents of some may be overlooked. Discipline remains a problem. Advocates of the Grammar argue that the more able can be stretched through streaming rather than mixed ability teaching.

Grammars they maintain have had a long history of tradition and success opening up opportunities for the disadvantaged child. Even the Labour PM Harold Wilson in 1966 defended them.

But there’s little evidence that the fifties was a ‘golden age’ in terms of educational access or success. The notion of the Grammar school as a vehicle to upward social mobility is a myth.

The system, based on the then fashionable 11-plus, failed to deliver genuine equality of opportunity. The exam was flawed. It was an unfair and unreliable indicator of future achievement. It took no account of late development.

The 11-plus was culturally biased against the working-class and ethnic minorities in that it used concepts that were more familiar to middle-class youngsters.

Even access to the Grammar school was small compared to the pre-war years. The 1944 Act perpetuated the selective tripartite system which had existed since 1902.

The Grammar did offer an academic curriculum. But in practice it was designed for students with academic ability who passed the 11-plus. Most pupils sat ‘0’Levels taught by qualified university graduates.

Some sat A-levels at 18 with the opportunity of going to university or joining a profession.

These pupils were mainly middle-class. Even today only 3% of kids on free school meals attend a Grammar school according to the Sutton Trust.

The secondary moderns in contrast offered a non-academic, practical curriculum with technical drawing for boys and needlework for girls.

The teaching was poor and few kids sat exams until the CSE was invented in 1965. The pupils were working-class having ‘failed’ the 11-plus.

Rather than promoting a meritocracy, the Tripartite system with the Grammar school as the jewel in the crown, reproduced class inequality by channelling the two social classes into two different types of secondary school which offered unequal opportunities.

The system discriminated against girls, requiring them to get higher marks in the 11-plus than boys. The system legitimised unfairness through the ideology of the time the time which believe that raw ability could be measured when a child reached 11.

Yet as Bloodworth and Milburn point out a child’s social background is the chief factor which determines access to a good school or doing well.

There was no golden age of Grammar Schools. What social mobility that did take place was attributable to the post-war expansion of white collar jobs. If the PM gets her way there may well be a Grammar school for every town.

But there will have to be two secondary moderns too. Of-course comprehensive education is by no means perfect. Social mobility is limited. Inequality is alive and well with family background the key determinant to job success.

But the comprehensive school – a Labour government innovation has opened up wider educational opportunities for many. More young adults today acquire academic and vocational qualifications by the age of 18 than ever before.

Policy makers must step up their campaign against Grammars and reaffirm the principles of comprehensive secondary education.

Councillor Stephen Lambert, Director, Education4Democracy

About Stephen: A Newcastle City Councillor representing the Kenton Ward, he is a former senior lecturer at Bishop Auckland College and now sits as a community governor with Newcastle City Learn  – the adult education service. He is a writer with 30 years teaching and management experience in further, adult and higher education. A member of the Advisory Board, ‘Policy North’, Stephen failed his 11-plus in 1970, attended county secondary school till 1973. In 1973 he attended Gosforth High School and left with 8 ‘O’ levels and 2 ‘A’ levels at grade A in 1977. He graduated from Warwick University in 1981.

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