The British Education System has changed monumentally in recent years, shifting through many phases as different governments implement their own, modern policies such as the 1944 Education Act and the 1992 Education Act. One way in which the changes can be seen is through the long-lasting debate around and existence of grammar schools. Boris Johnson, the current Secretary of State for Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs and former Mayor of London, described the decline of the grammar school system as a “tragedy”.
Jeremy Corbyn, current Labour party leader, has vowed to make reversing Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May’s plans for new grammar schools his top priority if he becomes Prime Minister. It is almost surprising how divisive the topic can be, considering it is nothing more than a way around 160 schools in England are run. However, it could be argued that grammar schools are not simply a school ‘format’, but stand for deeper political issues such as social mobility and inclusiveness. Grammar schools in the British Education System “have existed since the 16th Century, but the modern grammar school concept dates back to the Education Act 1944.” (Richardson, 2016) Before 1944, secondary education was costly. It was necessary to pay to attend secondary schools, but the Act made it free which made it possible for even the poorest of children to attend.
It also sorted secondary schools into two broad types, one of which was secondary modern schools, which concentrated heavily on training students in a wide range of simple, practical skills. The second type was grammar schools, which had an emphasis on academic studies, for students who were planning on going to university. The system was called the ‘tripartite system’ due to the fact it also provided for a third type of school, called technical colleges, but few were ever actually built and therefore “the system was widely regarded as being bipartite, with the best going to grammar schools and the rest going to the secondary moderns.
” (Politics.co.uk, 2012) The tripartite system was debated heavily and proved to be controversial amongst many politicians and sociologists, who feared that the system reinforced class division and the advantages of the middle classes over families from lower socio-economic backgrounds. During the 50s and 60s, it also became unpopular amongst Labour supporters and politicians, who stated that secondary modern schools were giving a second-rate education, and that the system was depressing expectations of pupils by branding them as “failures” at age 11, as well as reiterating concerns voiced by sociologists around the division and inequality between classes that the system institutionalised. Although a handful of local education authorities had already tested and established comprehensive schools for pupils of all abilities before, in 1964 the new Labour government told all education authorities to make arrangements for ending the tripartite system of grammar schools, secondary modern schools and technical colleges in order to replace it with a comprehensive system. This process was set to begin in 1965, but due to the government leaving the timescale for reorganising and completion to local authorities, progress varied massively across the country. Overall, the fastest changes were made in Labour supporting areas, while strongly Conservative areas made little progress or in some cases none at all. Conservatives soon switched to support the new system despite their original opposition.
Throughout the 80s and 90s, Conservative governments were happy leaving the situation as it was, with many grammar schools still open, although the Labour party remained in opposition to the schools that had not transitioned into the comprehensive system. “The creation of new grammar schools… was banned by Tony Blair in 1998, although he allowed the approximately 160 such schools in England that had survived the educational changes of the previous two decades to continue.” (Ross 2016) In 2016, the Conservative government under Prime Minister Teresa May revealed the party’s intentions to allow grammar schools to expand and for new ones to be built, contrary to what politicians from all parties had been saying for decades. This succeeded in reopening the debate around selective education, class inequalities and the idea of choice and opportunity. One of the most interesting ways in which the Conservative party have argued their point is that the focus on grammar school expansion is part of an effort to increase opportunities for children from lower socio-economic backgrounds to access ‘good’ schools. “we need to give all schools with a strong track record, experience and valuable expertise the right incentives to expand their offer to even more pupils, driving up standards and giving parents greater control. And thirdly, we need to deliver a diverse school system that gives all children, whatever their background, the opportunity to help them achieve their potential.” (DfE, 2016) The Prime Minister echoed these words, stating “Selective schools provide a stretching education for the most academically able, regardless of their background, and they deliver outstanding results.
In fact, 99% of existing selective schools are rated good or outstanding – and 80% are outstanding, compared with just 20% of state schools overall. So, we help no one – not least those who can’t afford to move house or pay for a private education – by saying to parents who want a selective education for their child that we won’t let them have it.” (May, 2016) However, despite these claims, independent research criticises the track record of selective grammar schools in providing quality education for all, both currently and historically.
“The evidence demonstrates that grammar schools undermine social mobility. Very few of the poor attend grammar schools, even in areas where there are multiple grammar schools like in Birmingham or Kent. Only 2.6% pupils are on free school meals (FSM) in existing grammar schools, compared to 15% across the UK.” (Shaheen, 2016) Shaheen speaks here of grammar schools having a negative impact upon social mobility, contrasting starkly with the intentions of the Conservative party. As Ball (2013) argued whilst reviewing education policy in England, grammar schools have remained largely out of reach for families from less wealthy backgrounds, with only a small percentage managing to be successful in gaining a place via tests such as the 11+. Such concerns about access and social inequality were at the heart of the move towards non-selective secondary education in 1965 (Lawton, 1975; Silver, 1980) and limitations imposed on grammar school expansion under Labour post 1997 (Ball, 2013).
It isn’t only the issue of social mobility, however, there is evidence to show grammar schools do not increase overall educational performance. There is also the argument that grammar schools are complicating the system and the debate is nothing more than a distraction from increasing the quality of comprehensive education: if the time spent debating grammar schools was instead spent improving and adapting the comprehensive system, students across the country would benefit hugely. The debate surrounding grammar schools has been going on for many years, and is unlikely to end soon due to Conservative’s push to reinstate grammar schools as highly regarded institutions as well as establish more across the country.
Over the years, it is interesting to see that the issue of inequality has been used as a reason for both the limiting and eradication of selective schools over the last fifty years and, now, their expansion. While this may be an indication of different political motives and ideas, the fact remains that more recent national and international research seem to show that very little has changed and that selective education continues to have a negative effect on social mobility, working to disadvantage children from lower social classes. (Cribbs et al, 2013; Andrews et al, 2016) Grammar schools are an antiquated, elitist group of schools that have survived past their prime. Historically, attending a grammar school was an important step for any young student with hopes of attending university.
Now, however, they are so similar to comprehensive schools in almost every aspect, it is strange they weren’t instantly folded into the pack in 1965. Understandably there is still a connotation of prestige surrounding grammar schools, as there are with many historical institutions, but perhaps this undertone of prestige should instead be granted to the physical buildings, to the area that holds these grammar schools – no one is saying they must change their names too, just the system they operate under. For example, ‘Marling Grammar School’ could easily become ‘Marling Comprehensive School’: it would still be the same school, with the same prestigious history, but arguably a more modern and inclusive one. There have been many policies throughout British history that have attempted to deal with the subject of grammar schools, the closest to achieving its aim being the introduction of the comprehensive system in 1965, however no policy introduced so far has fully succeeded in dealing with the topic, perhaps due to the strong opinions regarding grammar schools that many political parties differ in.