When becoming Prime Minister Theresa May stated that her vision was to make Britain work for all and to increase social mobility. Fine words. With regard to education this has meant opening up the debate over Grammar schools.
The Butler Education act of 1944 outlined the tripartite system of state education to be rolled out in the UK following the cessation of the Second World War. Academic, Technical and Functional schools were to be the norm matching a student’s talents and focussing them on achieving their best in a future career. Nevertheless, all too soon technical schools were not envisioned and the new Secondary Modern schools were chronically underfunded compared to their Grammar counter parts. Due to this governments of the 1960s began to favour comprehensive education and to force grammars to convert. Many did and indeed many did not, some, such as Manchester Grammar school becoming fee paying independent schools.
Of course the historical term ‘Grammar’ School was just that; a school to learn Grammar. Traditionally funded by wealthy men of a local borough they would educate the sons of poor but well standing men of the local community to assist them in gaining employment in higher strata of job. Many of these traditional Grammar schools still exist (although, as outlined many have become independent) such as the Blue Coat schools in which boys were not only educated but given clothing, meals and a bed.
There are still around 160 maintained Grammar schools in the UK; those that are funded by the state. These are allowed to select on the basis of academic ability at 11. Theresa May comes from a long line of Grammar educated Prime Ministers including Margaret Thatcher, John Major, James Callaghan, and Edward Heath. Her ambition to expand selective education is bound up with the belief that everyone should have the opportunity to compete with the best and be pushed and stretched. Perhaps this is also bound up with an attempt to break the hold that public school educated politicians have had on government positions for the past decade or so.
May’s ideas are admirable, rewarding effort, doggedness, excellence and a competitive spirit, nevertheless, in practice can this expansion work?
The great grammar debate has numerous facets. Many believing a system of selective education to be unfair and wholly damaging to a child’s development, particularly if that child fails their 11 plus examination. Indeed, much evidence exists to suggest that 11 is too young for a selective exam that will determine their future. Therefore, could a solution be to raise this selective exam to 13 or indeed 16 and make A level study the time when selection really comes into its own? A student is certainly more mature academically.
Others suggest that Grammars are bastions of privilege and that not enough local students are able to pass the entrance examinations, thus leading to wider catchment areas and indeed calls to end selective status. To me this is nonsense, unfortunately there are times when life is difficult and to debar a child form the opportunity of studying with the very best is wholly unfair. I have been fortunate enough to teach briefly in a boy’s grammar school and it was a wholly enjoyable experience. Boys would bounce ideas off each other, would compete for the top spot in homework and would also want to achieve their best consistently. These institutions are certainly not bastions of priviledge either, one girls grammar school in Berkshire has an oak tree in the middle of its hockey pitch and the boys school is a marvel of Victorian architecture and is in some ways still part of that era with draughty class rooms and boys eating lunch outside. Certainly some of these schools have not had new schools funds lavished on them and shiny new campuses built.
The current make up of Grammar school pupils (not all, but a significant number) in terms of their financial background is a wealthy one. Some are coached through their entrance exams giving then a distinct advantage over their less well-off contemporaries. How can this system, at the moment, claim to live up to its meritocratic roots? Some have suggested recently that a lower bench mark be set for those students from less affluent back grounds or that a quota system be introduced. Nevertheless this is no better than a system of coaching s this certainly debars children with more affluent parents.
So what is the solution? Can this work? To me I think not, even though in my heart I fully support the principle of Grammar schools my head rules as the ‘theory’ has become warped and wholly unfair in 2016. Firstly, the government has only put aside a mere £50million to focus on this issue far too small to make any great impact. Secondly, we may return to a two tiered comprehensive system the type of which caused the conversion of Grammar schools in the 1960s due to the chronic under funding of non-Grammars. A solution could be to introduce more rigorous streaming in maintained schools. A national, standardised level assessed through examination at 13. This would lead to setting for at least the next 3 years. There would invariably be regional difference in the numbers achieving the highest levels, but so be it. To return to a fully segregated system is, in my opinion, a recipe for disaster.