About Grammar Schools

November 16

Q. Can you please tell me a little more about Grammar Schools? I have three young children and have heard a lot in the media recently about the introduction of grammar schools. They seem controversial. What will this mean for my children? 

Grammar schools are not a new concept and have been around since the 16th Century in one form or another. In their current form, they were introduced through the Education Act 1944, when three distinct types of schools existed – the grammar school, the secondary modern and the technical school (although I do not propose to discuss the latter as these were very rare). 

The fundamental difference between grammar schools and secondary moderns was that grammar schools were largely aimed at those students who were perceived to be ‘academic’ and therefore considered likely to go to university or some other form of higher education (not to be confused with further education). This differs from secondary modern schools which were designed to educate those students who were considered likely to go into a trade.

The grammar school system was phased out by local authorities on the order of central government from the mid-1960s. The comprehensive schooling system we have now took its place which meant that regardless of ability, all students were educated together. Although some grammar schools survived the initial ‘cull’ (there are currently around 163 grammar schools in England and around 3000 comprehensive secondary schools) in 1998 the Labour government prevented any new grammar schools from being established through the School Standards and Framework Act. You should bear in mind that current proposals are to allow ‘all schools’ to expand, including grammar schools, which may bring about the creation of new grammar schools rather than an outright resurrection of the historic system. It remains to be seen whether the legislation will be repealed to the extent that new grammar schools can be created. 

You are right to say that these proposals have been controversial. The same criticisms of the system in the 1960s survive today. By educating students in one of two paths from the age of 11 this system effectively divides them at a very early stage. Although grammar schools are state secondary schools, whilst current legislation and statutory guidance means that comprehensive state schools are limited on the number of students they can take based solely on academic ability, students are selected for grammar schools if they pass a test known as the “11-plus.” Under the grammar school system those students who pass the “11-plus” can go to the grammar school, those who fail cannot and would have to go to a local comprehensive.

The content of the “11-plus” exam is, in and of itself, controversial, because the questions used are often not covered in the primary school curriculum (although this is currently being addressed). Critics have previously argued that this approach has the potential to create social division of students for those whose parents can afford private tuition outside of school in order to prepare their child for the “11-plus” and those who cannot as this could significantly impact on the prospects of less advantaged students in passing the exam or attaining a high level pass mark and attending grammar school.

There is of course a case to be made for both sides, and I do not propose to take a stance either way. However, you have specifically asked how the proposals will impact on your children. 

As it stands, the current system allows you to choose a comprehensive school for your children to attend and the local authority allocates places in accordance with admissions criteria. If you reside in an area where there is access to a grammar school or where a grammar school is created by way of expansion, your children may have the opportunity to apply to attend the grammar school by taking the “11-plus” exam. If your children pass the exam, they may be offered a place at the grammar school subject to numbers and entrance criteria. In the event that they do not pass the “11-plus” they would attend a comprehensive secondary school as the current admissions law provides. However, as with all matters involving education and the law, I would suggest that you keep a watching brief on the government’s position as it may change (and change again) by the time this becomes relevant to your children. 






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