Geoff Tennant - Promoting access to mathematics for all
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20/5/17: UK Conservative Manifesto (1): are grammar schools the way forward?

Here in the UK we are very much in the middle of the General Election campaign, with voting on June 8th.  If the opinion polls are to be believed, then we are heading for a huge win by the Conservative party.

This last week saw the publication of the party manifestos.  Whilst I have read each of the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative Manifestos, particularly as they relate to education, I have paid most attention to that of the Conservative party, simply because it has by far the highest chance of being implemented.  In this blog post, and in the next three, I want to look critically at some of the proposals being made.

So let me start with the planned expansion of grammar schools, ie. selective schools, normally determined by tests sat by children aged 10 or 11.   Soon after Theresa May became Prime Minister last July she started to talk about this as a key policy for the way forward, to which the response, in part, from many people including myself was, "But this wasn't in the 2015 Manifesto, you have no electoral mandate to be doing this."  Well, that is soon going to change, and it was with considerable interest that I looked to see what the new Manifesto says on this point.  Before looking at what is proposed, I want to look briefly at the historical background of grammar schools, then to see how we might move forward today.

A brief background to grammar schools
Grammar schools have existed in various parts of the country for centuries.  It was the 1944 Education Act which formalised the secondary school sector, and established the tripartite system of grammar schools, secondary moderns and technical schools.  This was, of course, before the end of Word War Two and was viewed, along with the creation of the National Health Service, as a major component of post-war reconstruction and moving forward.

There are a number of key points to be made here.  One is that this tripartite system was created as part of a vision of education for all, with a key phrase at that time being, "Parity of esteem."  Children with a more theoretical way of working, so it was said at the time, would go to grammar schools, those with a more technical / mechanical orientation to technical schools, whilst secondary moderns would provide more general practical skills.  There was to be, the original drafters said, no sense of better or worse, but different provision for different children with different needs - including the suggestion that some children might be able to pass the test to go to grammar schools but nevertheless choose to go to the technical or secondary modern schools as being more appropriate for them.

At the time is was not expected that youngsters other than those at grammar schools should take school leaving examinations.  In 1944 the minimum school leaving age was 14, the intention had been to raise it to 15 in 1939 but this actually started to be enforced in 1947.  It was not until 1974 that the minimum school leaving age was raised to 16, so it has only been in the last 40 years that all youngsters have been in school when O levels and CSEs - since 1988 GCSEs - were sat.

Of course, we can look back now 70 years on from the 1944 Act to see that in a whole number of respects it was not implemented in the manner in which the drafters had intended.  Technical schools were the exception rather than the rule, in most areas it was just grammar schools and secondary moderns.  And one might reasonably consider that the "Parity of esteem" principle was undermined by the fact that the test determining which school children went to was actually a test for the grammar school, 'failure' then meaning the secondary modern.

(Parenthetical thought: I love the idea that, in some parallel universe, children were given a practical test, failure to pass meaning they had to go the grammar school.  One of the reasons I like this idea is because, 40 years ago, that child could have been me - says the man for whom shaving is still a hit and miss business....  End of parenthetical thought).

As time went on it became apparent that many of the youngsters going to secondary moderns were, in fact, perfectly capable of doing school leaving examinations, with CSEs introduced in 1965, and even instances of secondary moderns having A level sixth forms.  The move to comprehensive schools, which started in the 1960s, was in response to the need for more youngsters to be achieving academically than the drafters of the 1944 Act had supposed.  Whilst they are to be applauded for their desire to provide a quality education for all children and their vision for how this was to be implemented, it has not stood the test of time.  It is true that grammar schools provided a route for some children from the 'deserving poor' to achieve highly, however in practice the numbers were limited, with disproportionately children at grammar schools coming from middle class backgrounds.

Coming to the present day, with most secondary schools now being comprehensives, those grammar schools which still exist broadly come into one of two categories.  There are those in the spirit of the 1944 Act which operate alongside secondary modern schools as a matter of routine, most noticeably in Kent, and those, eg. in Reading, which are very few in number given the geographical areas they serve, so the other schools remain comprehensives, they are catering for the vast majority of the attainment range.

The Conservative party proposals for more grammar schools
One key question to ask is: are the Conservative proposals within a framework of education for all?  In one sense the answer to that is yes, I think.  The education section is in a chapter headed, "The world's great meritocracy", and there is a clear stated desire, which I have every reason to believe is genuine, that opportunities should be based on merit rather than accident of birth, along with an awareness that education can, and does, improve people's life chances, and that high achievement should be accessible to all.

And yet, and yet, and yet.  There seems to be a disconnect here.  in a speech given on 13th April 2017, Justine Greening, the Education Secretary said of the proposed new grammar schools, "This will be a new model of grammars, truly open to all - we will insist on that."  On the face of it, this does not make sense, the whole point of grammar schools is that they are not for everybody, there are for about 25% of the attainment range. "Open to all" in context appears to mean, "All can have a shot at this irrespective of background," but is this really good enough?  Leaving aside the fact that grammar schools disproportionately cater for the middle classes, we need an education system - as visualised if not realised by the 1944 Education Act - which maximises the potential of all, whether or not they are able to achieve a score for entry to grammar school within the top 25%.  In 2016 65% of 16 year olds achieved 5 or more GCSE passes at A* to C grade, way above the proportion who would be going to grammar school.  Does it really make sense to tell the majority of these youngsters that they are second best?
I would also want to pick up on another point.  On page 50 of the Manifesto it is stated that a condition of the creation of a new grammar school will be that pupils will be allowed to join "at other ages as well as eleven".  Now, I wonder the extent to which that policy has been thought through?  Proper assessment systems to determine whether children can go to grammar schools are huge operations, with all kinds of checks and balances to ensure that the tests are fair and not simply repeats from previous years.  Is that whole infrastructure to be replicated, possibly more than once?  If not, how will it be determined how children should be chosen to join the grammar school belatedly?  And if additional children join, does that mean that classes get bigger, new classes will be created, or that existing children doing poorly on tests will be required to leave?  And if a child has been through the assessment process once and failed, is it really good to put them through it all again, would it not make sense to ensure that their secondary provision should be of a high quality?  Is this really the best use of their time and a maximisation of their learning potential?

How multiple entry points are to be managed is one example of the lack of detail in the proposals which is somewhat frustrating.  It is not clear whether the overall vision is to move to a Kent model where grammar schools represent a third of all schools (albeit that they are often smaller than comprehensives) or a Reading model where it is much less.

Do the proposals for the expansion of grammar schools represent a credible way forward for 2017, looking to provide maximal educational opportunities for all?  No, I don't think that they do.  The concentration on grammar schools alone as a way forward really does not make sense given where things are at.  I would imagine that Theresa May was surprised by the negative reaction of a number of senior educators, the chief of OFSTED Sir Michael Wilshaw being one of them.  Grammar schools have an important part in the educational history of the UK as we progressed to a situation where the overall level of achievement is unimaginable a generation ago.  From where we are now, I can only see them as a way backwards.

4 Comments to 20/5/17: UK Conservative Manifesto (1): are grammar schools the way forward?:

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David Warman on 24 May 2017 09:18
Brilliant! I couldn't have argued it better myself. Of course there is nothing wrong with Grammar Schools - I went to one myself - but the problem is with those "failures" in the so-called "Comprehensives". The parents of children who pass the Eleven Plus are most likely to have been to Grammar Schools themselves or at least can afford to give their children private tuition. The answer is universal Comprehensives with a bit of streaming thrown in!
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Geoff on 29 May 2017 01:32
Thank you David, I also joined a grammar school but there were comprehensive intakes from the year after. On a technical note, I wonder if you mean 'setting' rather than 'streaming'? Streaming does an overall assessment with one group of youngsters then going round all subjects together - so one might get into the top group by being good at mathematics rather than English. Makes timetabling easier, but I tend to think that if grouping is to be used, setting - placing children into groups on a subject by subject basis - is a better option?

Jenny Spence on 28 May 2017 06:43
In our experience, grammar schools around here are largely (though not exclusively) for those parents who can afford private tutoring.
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Geoff on 29 May 2017 01:34
Thank you, Jenny, interesting that David also makes the point about tuition! Certainly it is the case that one can learn to do the entrance questions for grammar schools, I find it difficult to believe that it's possible to change the style of questions sufficiently year by year to prevent this. Much as I find it difficult to believe with the recent mistake in the A level English literature examination that it is possible to ensure that no candidate is disadvantaged by the mistake!

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