What are grammar schools and why are they controversial?

Grammar schools, established in the modern sense with the Education Act of 1944, are state secondary schools that select their pupils by means of an examination taken by children at age 11, known as the ‘11-plus’.  There are only about 163 grammar schools in England, out of some 3,000 state secondaries, and a further 69 grammar schools in Northern Ireland.  There are no state grammars in Wales or Scotland, and although some retain the name, they are non-selective and have no special status.  Under the grammar school system, pupils who pass the exam can go to the local grammar, while those who do not go to the local ‘secondary modern school’.  Most children in the UK are educated in the ‘comprehensive’ system, where all abilities and aptitudes are taught together.  The reason they have become a hot topic is because Mrs May has indicated that she would like to see more of them, which would potentially mean overturning a ban on the building of new grammar schools implemented by Labour in 1998.

Despite what those in favour of the system claim, evidence-based studies show that grammar schools do little to aid social mobility, if anything it can be argued that they entrench inequality. The ex-Shadow Education Secretary David Willetts (Con) stated that ‘the chances of a child from a poor background getting to a grammar school in those parts of the country where they do survive are shockingly low’. The number of children in receipt of free school meals (FSM) is a useful measure here. Grammar schools currently admit around 3% of children eligible for FSM compared with a national average of 18%, which clearly illustrates that far fewer poor children gain admission. One reason for this is that grammars tend to favour those heavily tutored in the requirements of the 11-plus entrance examinations.  Such examinations can consist of all or a subset numerical reasoning, verbal reasoning, English comprehension, punctuation and grammar, non-verbal reasoning, creative writing and most state primary school do not prepare students for them.

Grammar schools can also be criticised for adding to burden of examination stress experienced by many children in the UK.  Since the 1990s, an increasing parental fixation on school league tables – which ranks schools according to the number of top grades achieved by their students – has led to a culture of excessive-testing.  If Mrs May gets the go-ahead to expand grammar schools, the 11-plus will only add to this culture.  According to the two-year Cambridge Primary Review enquiry conducted by the University of Cambridge, UK children, amongst the most heavily tested in the world, are being placed under extreme pressure which could damage their motivation and self-esteem as well as encouraging schools to ‘teach to the test’ at the expense of pupils’ wider learning.  Christine Blower, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, has reinforced these findings, arguing that ‘young people are suffering from increasingly high levels of school-related anxiety and stress, disaffection and mental health problems caused by increased pressure from tests and exams’. Students who fail to make the grade for the 11-plus will almost certainly be reinforcing their ‘failure’ anxieties. Parties across the political spectrum have committed to prioritising children’s mental health; this commitment might become more urgent if Mrs May gets her way following the general election.

The Unit 3 Welfare State topic requires students to have a good understanding of the education policies pursued by recent governments.  Grammar schools have long been controversial in terms of thwarting social mobility and in terms of deleteriously determining a child’s future through selection at the age of 11.  What remains to be seen, of course, is if Theresa May’s proposals for a new generation of such schools can deliver the positive changes she believes that they can.  See below.





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