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Grammar schools: a failed concept

Roger McKenzie, Unison Assistant General Secretary, examines the latest "education lunacy" from the Conservative Government: the reintroduction of grammar schools, which comes at a time of dumbing down of the quality of teachers and a looming school funding crisis.

The latest education lunacy from the Conservative Government comes in the form of reintroducing grammar schools.

Not content with changing exam systems and de-professionalising the teaching profession, Theresa May is now forging ahead with another failed policy from the past dressed up as the new social mobility – selection at 11 and ending the ban on new grammar schools.

There are currently 163 grammar schools scattered across England, with a concentration in London and in Kent, where the Tory county council has been supportive of selective education for a very long time.

The idea behind grammar schools that children can be divided at age 11 into different types of intelligence was an integral part of the tripartite system introduced by the 1944 Education Act. Through the use of IQ tests it was thought primary school children could be sorted into gold, silver and bronze intelligence – each type of intelligence “benefiting” from a different type of school – grammar schools for those with “gold” (for this read “academic”) intelligence, technical schools for those with “silver” intelligence and secondary moderns for those with “bronze” intelligence.

The concept was that such schools replicated the class structure of post-war Britain: those attending grammar schools were likely to go onto university and join the professions, while those at technical schools would become skilled or white-collar workers, and those at secondary moderns, manual workers. The system fell apart for a number of reasons: first, so few technical schools were built that it became a straight grammar vs secondary modern system; second, the theory behind “IQ” was debunked in the 1960s and 1970s when it was shown simply to reflect the affluence of a child’s parents – that is it was a measure of “middle classness”; and third, middle-class families whose children didn’t pass the 11+ became aggrieved that children from “poorer” backgrounds were taking places in the “better” schools.

There was also the problem that the pass mark for boys had to be “lowered” so that enough boys could pass (a greater number of girls were passing the 11+).

There is little evidence that grammar schools act as an aid to social mobility. In fact, the reverse is true: study after study shows that selection at 11 reinforces social divides and does little to tackle the under performance of children on free school meals (a measure of poverty). Hampshire is one of the least selective education authorities and consistently outperforms Kent, with its highly selective system; in London, of course, schools perform extremely well, building on London Challenge, an initiative which brought schools together and focused on making every school a good school, particularly in supporting children from poorer backgrounds.

What is odd about this latest policy is that it seems to have come out of the blue, and has little or no political support. Indeed, the Government’s own backbench is not supporting it and the (outgoing) Chief Inspector of Schools branded the claim that grammar schools would help poor children as “tosh and nonsense”.

It always worries me when the Tories announce education policies that are so controversial that even their own side doesn’t support them. It’s as if they’re trying to hide the “real” policies behind a smokescreen of incompetence.

So remember, at the same time as the grammar school debate is raging, the Government is quietly introducing measures to stop teachers being trained at university as part of a “dumbing down” of the quality of teachers – all this at the same time as two reports (one from the National Audit Office and one from the Public Accounts Committee) slam the Government for poor value for money and failure to train sufficient teachers. Add to that a looming crisis of school funding – schools in Sussex are looking at moving to a four-day week to save money, and a London grammar school is turning to parents to help out with its financial woes – it may be that the resuscitation of a failed 1950s’ grammar school policy is the least of our worries. 

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