Monthly Archives: January 2016

T5 The Grammar School revival in Perspective

T5 The Grammar School revival in Perspective

2016 will see the 70th anniversary of the origin of the current crisis in secondary education, the 1946 Labour Education Act, which set up the tripartite system and the eleven plus examination which is still the option for UKIP and the Tory right. The following article explains how the post war Labour government enacted the recommendations of the 1943 Norwood Report to create three types of secondary school, which failed to enact a single type of secondary education – the word comprehensive was not used till later – despite Labour rank and file support. This led to the current battles over a system which divides children at 11 and in some parts of the country remains educational apartheid. It is not the case that the 1944 Act passed by Churchill’s coalition set up the system – it was Labour’s Act of 1946 which did this. The article by Michael Pyke at T2 provides a complementary analysis. In 1965 the Crosland circular whose 50th anniversary passed un-noticed in 2015 set up the current system of local option which allows Nicky Morgan to expand grammar schools, though this mirrors shifts in the Tory right which favours the old system- Cameroons favour academies, and these are not grammar schools. Trevor Fisher

THE GRAMMAR SCHOOL DEBATE- The roots of the current impasse

Margaret Morris

Public funding of secondary education began over a century ago with the Act passed by Balfour’s Conservative government of 1902 and it is nearly a century since R.H.Tawney voiced the aspiration that all children should be entitled to “secondary” education. Tawney was not advocating the expansion of the existing system which provided a “ladder of opportunity” for some children to go to grammar schools: on the contrary, he wanted all children to have a full secondary education. Twenty years later the 1944 Education Act was enacted to provide “Secondary Education for All”. Both at the time and today there is a lack of agreement about what this should mean in practice.

Secondary education after the 1944 Act

In 1944 the issue was distorted by the prevalence of the belief that children were born with a fixed level of intelligence, which could be measured. As a result education according to “Age, Abilities and Aptitudes”, such innocent and commonsense-sounding words, led to the foundation of a tripartite system of Grammar, Technical and Secondary Modern Schools, which became every bit as unequal and class-biased as in the bad old pre-war days. The 1946 Labour Act actually legislated to produce the tripartite system, which had been proposed by the 1943 Norwood report, The Norwood Report called for parity of esteem, but this was countered by the blunt facts that Secondary Modern children left school at 15- the Raising of the School Leaving age to a common 16 did not happen till 1970 as part of comprehensivisation – and there were no exams for Secondary Moderns. The Attlee government set up the O Level and A Level system in 1951 but this only catered for the selective minority.

The first step in challenging this system was the debunking of those psychologists, led by Cyril Burt and his academic acolytes, who claimed that there was evidence from IQ testing of the intellectual mediocrity of most working class children – they were just not up to advanced education. The theoretical campaign, in which the Communist Party Education Committee took the lead in bringing together psychologists, academics and teachers, took several years of meetings, conferences, union discussions, letters to the press and advocacy in the wider Labour Movement. It culminated in the publication of Intelligence Testing and the Comprehensive School (1953), which was collectively discussed at every stage as Brian Simon was writing it. Labour Local Authorities and teachers at large began to be convinced of both the falsity and wickedness of testing as an instrument of selection.

Parents too began to distrust the system. There was mounting evidence that IQ tests favoured children from middle class backgrounds, but even middle class parents began to worry about the randomness of tests taken at a set point in time, whereas children develop at different paces. Above all, they became concerned at the impact it had on the 70% – 75% of children who did not pass and went to Secondary Modern Schools with less opportunities to take the courses and exams needed for middle class employment opportunities.

Parents found it difficult when one child passed and another failed, and often felt it was unfair and not a true reflection of the differences between them. Many children who failed suffered psychological damage, lost confidence and saw themselves as likely to be failures for life. It would be true to say that well before Crosland’s 1965 Circular, the 11+ selection process had become distrusted and had few defenders.

This did not mean, however, that there was agreement about what should replace the tripartite system. Both working class and middle class parents were concerned that none of their children should be deprived of a chance to follow the curriculum and take the exams which led to professional or administrative employment. In 1945 there had been outrage at the Labour Party Conference over the statement in The Nation’s Schools (drawn up by Public School educated civil servants) that the education of the overwhelming majority of children should be determined by the fact that “their future employment will not demand any measure of technical skill or knowledge”. Despite the outcry, the expansion of secondary schools continued on tripartite lines, though very few technical schools were opened. Many Labour Local Authorities in the next twenty years reacted by demanding the opening of a larger proportion of grammar schools and by 1965, when the debate had moved on to the desirability or not of the reorganisation of education into a Comprehensive System, many of them had been won over to supporting Comprehensive Schools by the assumption that this meant all schools would become like grammar schools. Prime Minister Harold Wilson called them ‘grammar schools for all’ and it was his minister of Education Tony Crosland after 1964 who had the task of organising a shift.

Comprehensive schools but no comprehensive system

Tony Crosland’s Circular l0/65 “requested” Local Education Authorities to prepare plans for reorganising their schools within a comprehensive system but did not make it compulsory. The practical politics was that the Government’s majority was so meagre – a mere 4 MPs in the House of Commons – that it could not count on legislation being successful. Comprehensive re-organisation would be controversial with opposition even from Labour members, concerned at the loss of their local grammar schools, and there was always the hurdle of the Lords. Secondly, not all teachers were convinced of the virtues of root and branch reform, and legislation could have been counter-productive because its implementation could have been hindered by the powerful weapon of resentment. It was not until l966 that an NUT Conference unequivocally adopted Comprehensive reorganisation and that decision was helped by the Government’s decision to persuade rather than order.

Both Crosland and his successor Michael Stewart wanted to force all LEAs to prepare for comprehensive reorganisation as soon as politically practical and a Bill to that effect was ready to be introduced in 1970, but then Labour lost the Election and Margaret Thatcher became Minister of Education. By that time about 25% of children were already in comprehensive schools and only about 20 Local Authorities were holding back from preparing reorganisation schemes. Mrs. Thatcher immediately removed any requirement to prepare such plans but this made little difference in practice – indeed the pace of conversion speeded up and she authorised the closure of more Grammar Schools than any other Minister before or after her. This was as true for Tory Local Education Authorities (LEAs) as Labour. By 1976, 75% of secondary pupils were in comprehensive schools; a new Education Act was passed allegedly to end selection but there were so many loopholes it made little difference. The growth of comprehensive schools continued, with only a small number of LEAs holding on to selective grammar schools alongside secondary modern schools, though banding was a concealed form of selection in some areas.

There was no blue-print for either the curriculum or organisational structure in the new Comprehensive Schools. Those who had campaigned for such schools defined them as comprehensive in intake and comprehensive in curriculum, but it was up to Head Teachers with guidance from LEA Councillors and officers to decide how they should be run and what they should teach. All those incorporating previous grammar schools offered GCEs, so no parent could complain that their child was losing out by the change and the opportunity to take these exams was available to more children than before. This almost certainly explains why there was electoral support in both Labour and Tory Councils for going on with the changeover. It was a fairer, more equal system and rescued children from having their futures limited by performance in the 11+. The 1960’s and 1970’s, the period of transition to Comprehensive education, was a period when Universities and Polytechnics were expanding alongside a growth in the number of professional, administrative and middle management jobs. This facilitated upwards social mobility even more widely than in the days of the 11+, which helped develop confidence that Comprehensive education worked.

But Comprehensive schools were not the same as grammar schools, they could offer a wider choice of courses. In some of the senior elementary schools before the war, and more widely in Secondary Modern Schools after it, teachers had developed new types of innovative technical and practical courses alongside traditional academic ones. A major advance taking place at the time of the 1965 Circular was the development of the Certicate of Secondary Education (CSE) under the auspices of local Boards composed of elected teachers and Local Authority representatives, CSE’s were available in both academic and vocational subjects, and incorporated controlled assessment, in addition to examinations. They enabled recognition of a wider range of studies than the University-controlled “O” and “A” GCEs. Another development in the same period was the setting up of the Schools Council in 1964 to take over responsibility for curriculum and examinations previously undertaken by the Secondary Schools Examination Council and the Curriculum Study Group.

So this was a period of innovation and development during which the professional expertise of teachers was able to make a substantial contribution through elected representatives on these bodies. Progress, however, was held back by shortages of resources, particularly specialist teachers and by inadequate facilities. The school leaving age was not raised to 16 until 1970. Before then parents could withdraw their children from school before their courses were finished. The teachers who had campaigned for Comprehensive schools argued that all children had an entitlement to a full and balanced curriculum until at least 16 and they wanted a core curriculum to be developed in general outline in order to ensure this. Although examination qualifications played a large part in determining what was taught many teachers saw their task as preparing children for adult life in all its aspects, not just future employment. They opposed dividing children into academic or vocational streams and early specialisation. There were developments in mixed ability teaching in order to keep all routes open for all children as long as possible, and an increase in remedial help. This meant opportunities for staff development courses were needed to help teachers develop the skills required.

Many of these things happened in a large number of areas but the system continued to be decentralised and dependent on local leadership. There were many examples of good practice and many middle class parents were happy to send their children to their neighbourhood school. Those who could afford it, however, continued to send their children to “Public Schools” and other private schools, which were not only better resourced, with smaller classes and better facilities, but also gave their children the opportunity to join the upper class network which dominates all the elite positions in British society. So the development of the Comprehensive system did not eliminate class privilege in education for the upper echelons. A proposal to abolish Public Schools had been passed at the 1958 Labour Conference but never followed up.

The Pendulum swings back c1976

There seemed to be general acceptance that progress was being achieved and evidence was published showing standards were rising, but this didn’t prevent a backlash against the system from right-wing Academics in the “Black Papers” and DES officials in the “Yellow Book”. They complained that the grammar school curriculum was being diluted and students were less well prepared for University study. It was also said that employers were complaining that not enough vocational training was taking place to prepare pupils for the workforce. At the same time problems in a number of individual schools were played up in the press and generalised as overall weaknesses in new methods of education. Despite the lack of substantive evidence these attacks stimulated a mood of unease among politicians and led to Callagan’s Ruskin speech of 1976* which was intended to start a “Great Debate”. A great many meetings and consultations took place but very little came out of them. For the next few years economic problems eclipsed worries about education as a focus of political attention, and the comprehensive system went on quietly developing. However the pendulum had started to swing away from progressive education. In 1979 Thatcher appointed Rhodes Boyson, one of the Black Paper writers, to her education team. The first Conservative victory however did not lead to major changes.

After the second election win by the Conservatives in 1983 the situation changed: the Government and DES began to centralise control over education. The School Council was disbanded; the role of Local Authorities was reduced by LMS; GCEs and CSEs were merged as GCSEs; and the National Curriculum was introduced. The change which probably had most long-term effect on the Comprehensive system was the introduction of the right of parental choice in 1988. Depending on the neighbourhoods their pupils came from schools had different challenges but, until then, all schools tried to be as effective as possible in providing a good and balanced learning experience for the pupils allocated to them. The effect of the Government’s introduction of the right of parental choice was to make schools compete for pupils by getting good results in examinations so parents would opt to send their children there. As schools are funded by the number of children enrolled, market mechanisms would apply – “good” schools would expand and “poor” schools would shrivel and eventually close (the harm this would do to the children within them was ignored).

The publication of League Tables from 1992 after John Major’s Tory victory was intended to facilitate parental choice. The effect on schools was to force them to concentrate on academic exam results over other aspects of education and tempted them to slant their admissions towards children likely to do well. The effect on parents was to make many of them feel it was their duty to to get their children into one of the “best” comprehensive schools to which it was possible for them to travel each day. As middle class parents had greater mobility they had more choice and some even moved house to achieve access to a particular school for their children. “Choice” began to be as socially divisive as formal selection.

Disparity in the standing and funding between comprehensive schools was speeded up by the setting up of sponsored academies and later by specialist schools and other types of state-funded schools but was not accompanied initially by an upsurge of support for the grammar school lobby. On the contrary, in local areas where grammar schools and secondary modern schools had survived, campaigns for their replacement by a comprehensive scheme continued to develop. Elsewhere, many parents remembered how random and unfair the 11+ had been and that 3 out of 4 children had been dubbed failures. During the period before the 1997 Election, Labour Party Conferences demanded that a future Labour Government complete the Comprehensive system by getting rid of surviving grammar schools. When pressed on whether he supported this demand, David Blunkett replied, “Watch my lips, there will be no more selection,“ but once New Labour was elected this was watered down to no new selective schools. Getting rid of existing grammar schools would be left to votes in local areas. When this was put to the test in Ripon in 2000, the composition of the electorate led to the defeat of the local campaign 772 parents of children at prep schools, some living outside the area, were allowed to vote but not the parents of 5 of the 16 local primary schools. Roy Hattersley, the former Labour Deputy Leader, said at the time “the ballot was rigged to produce that result, and the government’s only intervention in the campaign had – by intention or ignorance – been of immense help to the eleven plus lobby”.

Labour Party policy remains the same today: leave alone existing grammar schools but oppose increasing their number – keep the status quo. The Coalition Government did not challenge this but now that there is a majority Conservative Government the pro Grammar School Lobby is on the attack. It perhaps benefits from anxiety over the current reduction of opportunities for upwards social mobility. The Lobby claims that opinion polls show majority support for the expansion of grammar schools, but the evidence is far from conclusive as argued recently by John Bolt in his blog Education for Everyone. The November 2014 You Gov poll showed 38% support for building new Grammar schools with selection by ability (i.e. an 11+ exam). Janet Downs, however, in her comment on the poll in the Local Schools Network draws attention to the differing levels of support by age group: among 18-24 year-olds it was only 29% but rose to 51% in the 60+ group. So the support for building more grammar schools is less strong among those who left school recently or are likely to be current parents than among those whose schooldays are just a memory. A You Gov poll in Febuary 2013 had showed 77% of parents of children in state secondary schools agreed “they generally provide a good quality education”.

The current situation.

One argument sometimes heard is that the stratification of schools as a result of parental choice favours children from middle class backgrounds, and so selection by examination would be fairer. This fails to take into account how 11+ exams are random, stressful and class biased. Giving more children the opportunity to sit them does not mean a higher proportion of children whose parents cannot pay for private tuition would pass. It’s a chimera, recognised as such by parents and teachers in the surviving grammar school local authorities, but forgotten elsewhere, The Comprehensive Future Conference on 21st November provided moving accounts of how socially divisive grammar schools are in Lincolnshire, Bucks, Kent and even Birmingham and how their existence holds back the level of provision for other children. These reports are an antidote to any illusion by those in other areas that it doesn’t matter that a few grammar schools remain or that their increase wouldn’t do immense damage to British education and British children.

The challenge for those of us who believe the evidence shows that comprehensive systems of education produce the best overall results and contributes to the well-being of children, is how best to marshal our arguments against the media-backed, vocal, Grammar School lobby. The achievements of Comprehensive schools – despite their Ofsted straight jacket – need to be extolled more often. The Labour Party needs to be won over not just to oppose expansion, but to propose the merging of all existing grammar schools into a non-selective, comprehensive system.

Margaret Morris January 2016

* SOSS and Ruskin College plan a conference to evaluate the Callaghan speech on October 15th 2016

An important source of information is

The Norwood Report with a very useful commentary can be found at