Sunday, 26 June 2011

Why I believe in Grammar Schools

As Principal of an independent school that is in direct competition with a number of Buckinghamshire Grammar Schools, I know that I meant to be upset by the Government's intention that "Grammar Schools should be allow to expand" [Daily Telegraph 23rd June 2011], but I am not.

Why? Well my starting point is that I believe that there should be opportunities for the Nation's talent to rise to the top regardless of their social and financial background. I have argued previously that university entrance should be on the basis of merit and that there should be transparency in the admissions process. By the same token, there need to be mechanisms in place to enable talented young people to develop the skills that they need to demonstrate that they are amongst the best. Clearly Education has an enormous part to play here. Sadly, the problem is that large portions of the Maintained sector is preoccupied with gaining level 4 in KS2 SATS and turning D grades into C grades in order to meet the Government's performance criteria, rather than developing the Nation's most talented. Ultimately the Government encourages Maintained schools to operate at the level of the lowest common denominator: it is about the norm, rather than the exceptional.

What Grammar schools do is that they provide opportunities for young people to go beyond the norm, regardless of background. They provide free access to a high quality education that focuses on moving from A to A*, rather than from D to C. So I am all in favour of more places being available to offer to enable this to happen. The only sadness is that so many young people are subjected to tutoring and cramming for the 11+. This is perhaps not surprising given that the alternatives are a D-C focused education in the Maintained sector or a £15k p.a. bill in the independent sector.

I know the difference that a good education can make. Passing the 11+ and attending one of this country's top state Grammar Schools [King Edward VI Grammar School, Chelmsford] transformed my life by opening up the possibility of attending a top university and of having a professional career. Throughout my teaching career I have seen the impact at first hand on young lives that a top independent school education can have. It is no surprise that I believe that Education should be the greatest vehicle for social mobility in this country.

Independent Schools, too, have a part to play here - indeed they are already playing it well. By offering 100%+ bursaries that cover tuition, uniform, trips etc. to talented young people, they are opening doors and giving opportunities that few in the Maintained sector can experience. I am delighted that recent recipients of such awards from Berkhamsted have gone on to read Medicine and to gain places at Oxford, opportunites which I doubt that they would have had in the Maintained sector.


  1. And what about the local comprehensive which is left to pick up the pieces? I see your point about offering opportunities to the bright but when it is clear that the bright are often coming from middle class homes as they have the resources to back their kids up then the grammar school mechanism is something which is there to only offer support to a class of society. It ignores what I think should be the central core of education, which is that opportunity and paths to success should be offered to all, not just those with the money to afford it.

  2. Brian
    Thanks for this.
    So the key to the grammar school debate is the mechanism for selection. The question is whether or not it is possible to contrive of an admissions process that will not be dominated by Middle Class parents' "buying" places by tutoring.

    However flawed the process is the facts remain that a disproportionate portion of working class people who gain places at top universities come from Grammar Schools or were recipients of bursaries from Independent Schools. These remain the most effective vehicle for social mobility in this country.

  3. As one who has benefitted from a grammar school education, I agree with your comment about social mobility. My misgiving about grammar schools is not the fact that the able are selected and pushed, but that providing this facility takes a disproportionate amount of the available funding - cf Chesham Park vs Challoners. This means that the less able are cast aside at the age of just 11 with very little chance to change things for themselves. It surely has to be about equality of opportunity?