Category Archives: Grammar School Myths

G2 grammar schools & educational apartheid

G2 – Grammar schools and Educational Apartheid

The fiftieth anniversary of Anthony Crosland’s Circular 10/65, in which the Labour minister decreed Local Authorities should plan for comprehensive education, passed by un-noticed. Yet it was not, as often thought, the end of the Grammar Schools. Indeed, by allowing a local option the way was left open for continuation of state funded grammar schools in Tory Local Authorities, and some grammar went independent as Grant Maintained status became an insecure option. This article looks at what has happened in one Local Authority area – Lincolnshire – and should be read alongside Margaret Morris’s assessment of the history of post 1944 education in the Theory section.

Educational Apartheid in Lincolnshire: selective education as a catalyst for driving inequalities.

It is a popular misconception that secondary modern schools went away. In Lincolnshire we retained this type of secondary school designed for the majority of students – those not in the so-called top 25% ability-range of the 11-plus. To confuse matters still further, most secondary modern schools are now academies, some offer A-levels while others don’t; grammar schools offer A-levels but are selective. Lincolnshire does not have a comprehensive education system due to the sporadic nature of its school structures. Secondary modern schools and grammar schools maintain the 11-plus status quo, while academies complicate matters further.


Sadly, comprehensive schools of the 1950s and 1960s never reached South Lincolnshire. I went to a “red brick” secondary modern school in Louth while my better-off counterparts attended the local grammar school, the history and traditions of which go back to at least 1548, supported by the Church and local guilds. On leaving school in 1976 I was conscious that university wasn’t an option. None of my peers left school to go to university because we didn’t have a sixth form, which meant there were limited opportunities to combine O-Levels with CSEs and no opportunity to do A-levels. There were, and, still are, inequalities within Louth that are symptomatic of selective education dividing social class. There are still demarcations across housing and income as to which schools serve particular parts of town.

Inequality has become so embedded into our culture that no one speaks out. Each year children are divided into sheep and goats at 11-plus for transition into secondary schools and we turn the other cheek. Grammar school supporters try to justify their system so we are faced with unfounded comments, such as “there’s no difference between schools selecting students and setting within schools”. In my opinion, having one’s own children rejected by this system seems like child abuse – it is totalising and brutal. Children’s friendships are torn apart. Rejection at 11-plus hurts everyone around the child. It damages community cohesion.

My observations are based on my own experiences, those of my children, their friends, parents and grandparents. I am also speaking out for those teachers whom I know are oppressed by the system.

Local context

In 2001 I moved to the coastal part of Lincolnshire within the district of East Lindsey, to a seaside town in-between Skegness and Mablethorpe. Our area suffers from 40% child povertyi iiand multiple inequalities that are exacerbated by selective education.

In 2013, in a TES article called, Waiting for a Sea Changeiii Emma Hadley, executive principal of an academy group in Skegness, estimated that about 30% of students at a primary academy lived in caravans. She explained that the seasonality of employment means that at Skegness Academy (an all-ability school with a sixth form) about half of students in year 11 joined the school after year 7 and 45% were eligible for the pupil premium.

School wars or a “Coastal Challenge?”

In his rebuttal of the evidence from the Sutton Trust, that showed grammar schools take far fewer children in receipt of free school meals than other state schoolsiv, Robert McCartney QC, chairperson of The National Grammar Schools Association (NGSA) said:

Many, many parents from deprived areas, including what is generally called the dependency classes, are essentially not particularly interested in any form of academic education.

It would be ridiculous to say that parents are not interested in education or that schools cannot make up for some surrounding poverty and inequality, but it would be equally crass to give schools the target of overcoming the link between social background and educational achievement and then punish them for failing. In my experience of my own children’s education, schools can and do make a difference, but they can only do so within the limits that political parties are prepared to invest in deprived areas. The language of “low-ability”, “chaotic”, “lacking resilience to accept disappointment” from those who should know better has offset scrutiny and responsibility for every child to be educated free from coercion and stress so that the powers that be can protect the remnants of an outdated education system that supports one child to the detriment of several others under the rhetoric of “parent choice”. The point is that the structure of selective education limits achievement and social integration. Even if parents are aspirational, unless children pass the 11-plus grammar schools don’t want them, which is ironic considering the pressure on school places is likely to move to secondary schools.

In light of Nicky Morgan, the Secretary of State for Education, approving a Kent grammar school’s expansion, Ian Widdows, founder of The National Association of Secondary Modern Schools (NASM) in Schools Week defends the successes of secondary modern schoolsv. However, the point is secondary modern schools are for “failures” and are seen as such. It is common parlance – fail the 11-plus, go to a secondary modern. Meanwhile, the elephant in the room for “coasting schools” (those rated as inadequate) is growing up poor affects child development, being best prepared to learnvi, and from deduction having the knowledge to pass 11-plus tests, getting good SATs and achieving benchmark GCSEsvii. For me, the obvious solution is to end the 11-plus and establish local school partnerships to work at the heart of local culture.

Back to reality; the effects of child poverty, the 11-plus and lack of investment in our area have not been addressed. The secondary modern school in Mablethorpe has suffered and 60% of parents have chosen not to send their children to that school, which is now earmarked for closureviii. I think school closure might become more commonplace if grammar schools are permitted to become academy sponsors in Multi-academy Trusts and then seek to break away from weaker schools such as in Mablethorpe, which is in a federation with Louth. I strongly feel that if grammar schools are to become sponsors in Multi-academy Trusts that they should be willing to work much more locally to save weaker schools from closure and to prevent children being bussed for miles – we could call this “The Coastal Challenge”.

Post-16 education also presents a problem on the Lincolnshire coast. Grammar schools provide some of the nearest sixth forms for A-levels but if a pupil fails to get good GCSEs, given our isolated location, they are likely to face a considerable journey and costs to get to a college that might not provide suitable courses.

Cuts to the local authority’s budget are likely to be exacerbated by selection. Transport is provided to schools within two Designated Transport Areas, one with free, non-means-tested, transport to grammar schools, the other with concessionary transport to non-selective schools, which is means-tested. To qualify for transport schools must be further than approximately 3 miles from home. But if your child fails the 11-plus and your catchment school happens to be coasting and you have to send them elsewhere you will have to pay, even if the better alternative school is located next to the nearest grammar school.

At post-16 better-off students leave grammar school if they don’t get the grades but can afford to drive to college. Meanwhile in light of the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance, poorer students have to make do with concessions colleges are still able to offer.

In summary, the notion of educational apartheid should not be understated. I think that middle class professionals whose children fail at 11-plus should make common cause with working class and unemployed parents who also have their children fail.

Alan Gurbutt, parent, former school governor (SEN) and member of Comprehensive Future’s steering group, 2015

i ‘Stark Child Poverty Figures in Mablethorpe and Sutton on Sea Are Revealed’, 2013, http://www.louthleader.co.uk/news/local/stark-child-poverty-figures-in-mablethorpe-and-sutton-on-sea-are-revealed-1-4833216, accessed 17 December 2015.

ii ‘Lincoln, Boston and Skegness Named as Most Deprived Areas in the Country’, Lincolnshire Echo, http://www.lincolnshireecho.co.uk/Lincoln-Boston-Skegness-named-deprived-areas/story-28011239-detail/story.html, 2015, accessed 17 December 2015.

iii I. Barker, ‘Waiting for a Sea Change’, TES, 29 March 2013, https://www.tes.com/article.aspx?storycode=6326724, accessed 18 December 2015.

iv S. Malik, ‘Free School Meal Pupils Outnumbered 4:1 by Privately Educated at Grammars’, The Guardian, 8 November 2013, sec. Education, http://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/nov/08/grammar-schools-admit-more-privately-educated-children, accessed 17 December 2015.

v ‘Secondary Moderns Must Have a Voice, Too | Schools Week’, http://schoolsweek.co.uk/secondary-moderns-must-have-a-voice-too/, accessed 17 December 2015.

vi B. Whitener, ‘Income Levels Affect the Structure of a Child’s Brain, NIH-Funded Study Shows’, (23 April 2015).

vii ‘Narrowing the Gap in Deprived Areas of Lincolnshire’, (2010), http://archive.c4eo.org.uk/narrowingthegap/files/ntg_lincolnshire.pdf, accessed 18 December 2015.

viii ‘Consultation | Monks’ Dyke Tennyson College’, https://www.mdtc.co/consultation/, accessed 17 December 2015.

G1 – The Bindweed factor – ‘The Grammar School Which Made Me’ Myth.

The Grammar School and Social Mobility has become a key element of the New Right attack, embracing media support as Michael Pyke’s article makes clear. But it is not just BBC4 which embraces this, and no amount of factual evidence makes any inroads especially in Kent and other areas with Grammar Schools. Michele Lowe calls this the ‘Bindweed factor’, ideas that can never be disposed of by evidence and rationality. It is however vital to put the arguments and the facts however, and SOSS will continue to do so. TF.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that grammar schools in Britain were ladders up out of poverty and the making of many a child from a working-class background. Well, if not quite universally acknowledged, it has become the received wisdom of countless newspaper articles, radio and television programmes.

The notion that many now successful people from humble backgrounds owe their success to the grammar school which educated them is so deep rooted that it has become like bindweed: you can never really fully extirpate it.  Those for whom it was the leg up they needed are so enthusiastic they never stop to think that a comprehensive school could have done the same for them.  There’s clearly something very powerful in the voodoo effect of passing an exam at 11, which most kids fail.  You’re anointed and the seed is sown: you are academically gifted, part of an elite.

So when the BBC4 ran ‘The Grammar School: A Secret History’ in 2012 it possibly did not strike many as especially controversial, though one critic described it as ‘a love letter to the grammar school system’.  Michael Portillo spoke movingly about his alma mater, Harrow County Grammar School for Boys.  He, Diane Abbott (who attended Harrow Country Grammar for Girls at roughly the same time) and Andrew Neil all chant the mantra on ‘This Week’, whenever education is up for discussion about grammar schools enabling social mobility.  They all have compelling reasons to feel this way. Talented and able children, to use the current educational descriptors, picked up and promoted by an education system which worked for them. Alan Johnson, another regular guest doesn’t though.  He left his grammar school at 16 with one O level – English.  As good as some grammars were, they were helpless in the face of the hardships of a childhood like his. He describes in his memoirs how it was the Post Office union structure which made him.  In fairness, he says this on air, but he’s something of a voice crying in the wilderness. His experience illustrates well, however, what is a little-spoken-of truth about grammar schools: they were not the force for social mobility they were claimed to be.

A research paper in the British Journal of Sociology in 2011 entitled ‘Do Comprehensive Schools Reduce Social Mobility?’ attempts to get at the nub of the question. Its author, Dr Adam Swift, Fellow in Politics and Sociology at Oxford University set out their methodology. They needed enough children in the sample to match children going to comprehensive schools with those going to grammars and secondary moderns. They were able to use a large, longitudinal study of all children in a week in March in 1958. What they had was a snap shot of children with the same level of ability in different schools. That means they were not just looking at who got into grammar schools, but those who didn’t and also children of similar abilities who went to comprehensives all at the same time. The children in the sample were all born in ’58 and were all in secondary education at age 11 in ’69. The study’s findings confound the myth.

What were a child’s chances of getting out of the bottom 25% of the income distribution if they went to grammar school?

Their research found there was no difference in progress between the grammar school children and those who went to comprehensive schools.

The grammars did, however, have a slight influence on mobility from the bottom half of the income distribution to the top half, but critically not to the top quarter. Yet, as Dr Swift emphasises, it was only a slight difference and not the progress they had expected to see in the light of the claims made for grammars. But grammars did seem to help middle-class children to at least maintain their advantage.

Now, whilst the champions of the grammars are vocal, the dissenters are subdued. It’s difficult to imagine a programme entitled ‘The Comp Which Made Me’. There are some prominent people who acknowledge their comprehensive school background – thank you Robert Peston, BBC Economics Correspondent and Evan Davis of Newsnight to name but two. But ‘comprehensive kid’ doesn’t have the same ring as ‘grammar school girl or boy’. The latter is a badge of honour, whereas the former is still a badge of shame. And yet entrance by state-educated pupils to Oxford stands at 57.4% and to Cambridge at 63%. Admittedly, still heavily weighted towards privately-educated students, but higher than in the halcyon days of the so-say class-barrier-smashing grammar schools.

But the public discourse still has it that social mobility has ground to a halt, because ideologues wrecked education in the 70’s. The most invidious aspect of this thinking is how it stops us considering other ways of looking at education. Television or radio programmes examining other countries’ education systems seem unthinkable.  Finland’s schools are frequently cited as one of Europe’s most consistently successful systems, yet nary a peep from commentators outside educational circles. It’s fascinating that the most watched TED talk is by a British education thinker who is roundly ignored in Britain, namely one Sir Ken Robinson. His talk ‘How Schools Kill Creativity’ has been watched 33,320,445 times (and counting). Professor Maurice Holt’s thinking on slow and deep education has attracted international critical acclaim, but he is without honour in his own country.

Calling educationalists names like ‘the Blob’ and ‘the enemies of promise’ does gain traction, however. There are profound changes underway in the English education system at present, notably the academies and free schools programmes. Whilst attention is distracted by fond, backward glances at the good old days of selective education, no one is looking to critically at what’s happening right now under our noses. So when it comes to questioning whether the marketisation of public education is a good idea, there is a profound silence. Except on grammar schools.

Michele Lowe