Should the ban on new Grammar Schools be lifted in the UK?

Email this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on RedditShare on TumblrShare on LinkedIn

Today roughly 1 in every 25 students in the United Kingdom is receiving their education in one of the 233 grammar schools across the nation. As the nature of post-secondary education has become progressively competitive and high-wage employment prospects increasingly scarce, the equity of what has come to be seen as an “advantageous” or “elitist” educational opportunity provided at these grammar schools for a small minority of families is facing serious doubt.

Established by the Education Act of 1944, schools that once accepted pupils on the premise of private donation (and to a lesser extent) academic ability were altered into what we know today as Grammar Schools, state-funded schools operating on the meritocracy of academics. Intended to assert equality in an education system wrought with class inequality, grammar schools sought to enable poorer students the chance at an unrivalled education along with their more privileged counterparts in the classroom. For the past 44 years, every British Prime Minister, from Harold Wilson to John Major, has been educated at a grammar school.

From their inception in 1944, grammar schools have faced an uphill battle ripe with controversy. In 1997, Labour MP Harriet Harman was admonished after sending her son to a selective school. A decade later, facing a proposal to increase funding of such schools, David Cameron asserted his position not to reintroduce grammar schools.

Originally intended to bridge class division in education, critics of grammar schools often cite the promotion of inequality and elitism as their main opposition, arguing that these schools only endorse enduring social divisions while widening the gap between Britain’s middle and working classes. Phil Willis, Liberal Democrat MP at the time, claimed in 2001 that increasing funding for grammar schools would allow “schools around the country to reintroduce social, economic and academic divisions by selection”.

The consequences as speculated by opponents (or proponents?), however is arguable. Currently, of the 22,070 children attending grammar schools, only 2.3% are of “black ethnicity” and less than 1% claim school meals. Likewise, an astounding 50% of current students were privately tutored for entrance examinations.

This suggests that these schools do not promote equality, as not all students are capable of affording tuition and therefore do not have an equal chance of attending this schools (Does the state fund these schools or is there tuition?). Another key aspect of selective schools which remains under scrutiny is the use in many education authorities of the 11-plus exams for selection to grammar schools, although the number using this system has reduced greatly in the last few years. These exams have been polemical while many argue that they cause stress at a young age, and in extreme cases define a child’s future too early without taking into account different speeds of academic development – let alone the impact of social backgrounds on academic achievement.

A recent poll by ICM for the NGSA (National Grammar School Association) showed that 70% of the population support keeping grammar schools. Many still see grammar schools as a way of giving their children greater prospects in life and a good working ethic. In some communities, parents see grammar schools as the only acceptable alternative to private school.

But do these schools really prepare children for academic success or simply perpetuate out-of-date elitism at the expense of greater opportunities for the majority of students? In modern Britain, which supposedly holds itself up as a society where every child, regardless of background is afforded equal opportunity, do grammar schools still maintain relevance? While the intentions behind the development of this schooling model were virtuous, they have become a systematic paradigm of inequity in education and opportunity. With extensive funding allotted for the advancement of such schools, already proven to be implausible for many students being educated in Britain, non-selective schools are given a cold shoulder when it comes to funding, leaving them unable to compete academically. At odds with the progressive society in which we wish to live, the concept of grammar schools in the 21st century seems ominously platonic.

Article by Tilly Peterken. Edited by Mariam Boakye-Dankwa.

Sources and Further Reading