The grammar school debate has been whipping emotions into a frenzy again following Prime Minister Teresa May’s announcement that she plans to lift the government’s ban on new grammar schools.
Sian Goodspeed, founder of Flying Start Tuition, who tutors children for the 11 plus exam, shares her thoughts on the pros and cons of grammar schools.
What are grammar schools?
Grammar schools are secondary state schools, which select their pupils on the basis of academic ability. Pupils sit the 11 plus exam (which is mainly English and maths based) in the last year of primary school. Children have to achieve a certain score in their 11 plus in order to be eligible for a place at a grammar school.
What are the PROS of grammar schools?
Grammar schools get great academic results. This is not only because of the selection of more able pupils, but also because they can often be pushed harder due to a more equal level of ability in class.
In 2006, pupils in England’s 164 grammar schools produced more than half the total number of A grade A levels in so-called harder subjects than those produced by the up to 2000 comprehensive schools, according to the National Grammar Schools Association.
Many of the country’s celebrities, top business people and politicians have been the products of grammar school education.
One of the strongest arguments for the grammar school system is that it gives an opportunity for low-income families to escape poverty and for children from these families to gain access to a high standard of education, which they would not otherwise be able to access. It is argued that the system increases the social mobility of bright children from working class families.
It has been argued that children in grammar schools are less likely to be bullied for wanting to work hard and excel at school, because of a more academic environment.
What are the CONS of grammar school?
It is claimed that wealthier children have a better chance to get into grammar schools because their parents can afford tutoring. The schools are therefore seen as being classist and perpetuating a more divisive society.
The 11 plus exam is unfair
Many people disagree with the principle of selection at the age of 11 – which results in some children perceiving themselves as ‘failures’ and can have a long term adverse psychological effect. It is also argued that many children are not ready to take the exam at this age and are still developing cognitive skills, i.e. it is ignoring late developers.
Failures of curriculum
There is a feeling that in areas where there are grammar schools there is pressure on primary schools to prep students for the 11 plus, which takes the focus away from the national curriculum.
As a former school teacher, I have experienced firsthand the challenges of teaching classes of pupils with vast ranges of ability. I have also seen how much faster children progress when grouped by ability, which enables the lessons to be tailored to an appropriate level and pace for the group. A selective secondary school system should provide the environments (in grammar and upper schools) for challenging and pushing the more academically able pupils as well as supporting and encouraging the less academically able.
There are strong arguments for retaining grammar schools and abolishing the system completely would not be in the interest of more able children, regardless of their background.
On the other hand, it is undeniably true that children from low income families are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to the 11 plus. Like any exam, practice invariably leads to better results, meaning those children whose parents can afford extra tuition will often have an advantage over those who cannot.
One way to help level the playing field would be to offer extra free or subsidised tuition to children from disadvantaged backgrounds, to give them a chance to prepare in the same way as their more economically advantaged peers.
One such example is the Tuition Plus project, funded by the Vale of Aylesbury Housing Trust. This project offers free weekly tuition to children who are resident in the trust’s homes and has been delivered by Flying Start Tuition, since its inception eight years ago. There are also a number of tuition companies (Flying Start included) offering bursaries to children whose parents would otherwise struggle to pay the fees.
Introducing selective vocational schools
In any type of selective system, there will be children who are selected and children who are not – with the inevitable knock-on effect on self-esteem. This narrow focus on academic performance ignores children who show an aptitude for more vocational and creative subjects – which arguably are even more in demand in our modern society.
Rather than having an exam that decides whether or not a child ‘is suitable for grammar school’, based essentially on maths and English skills, would it not be better to create a more rounded system – one placing equal value on other abilities, such as artistic and creative strengths? With a system of selective schools which focus on vocational subjects, as well as schools selecting on a more academic basis?
Children would then choose which type of school would best suit their strengths and interests and schools would select pupils on a range of criteria rather than on a ‘pass or fail’ basis.
Delaying the selection process
If the selection process took place at around the ages of 12 or 13, this would give children the chance to mature and develop their strengths and interests.
Of course, with any type of overhaul to the education system, there would need to be investment in resources for all types of schools. To ensure that the education system is truly fair, all schools should provide every child with a real chance to fulfil their potential. That way, all schools would be seen as good options and no child would feel a failure for not getting into grammar school.
Perhaps such a system would help to address the divisions in our society and also create a more balanced picture of what it takes to be successful in life and how to get there.