The case for allowing grammar schools to expand

The comprehensive system is no fairer than the selective schools system, argues campaigner Chris McGovern, and there are many good reasons why we should encourage grammar school expansion

A satellite grammar school is to be opened in Sevenoaks and comprehensive school zealots are enraged. The “one size fits all” mantra is being threatened and the “high priests” and “high priestesses” of misguided egalitarian educational dogma fear a dam has been breached.

But what’s not to like about accepting the clearly expressed wishes of a local community?

What’s not to like about democracy?

What’s not to like about challenging a school system that fails most children?

For failing most children is certainly built into the current system.

What’s not to like about challenging a school system that fails most children?

A few days ago I told the Cambridge Union, in a debate on educational privilege, that Britain today is characterised by a new Great Divide in education. The longstanding division between the private schools and state schools is withering away. It has been replaced by the gulf that has opened up between good schools and sub-standard schools.

The former group is made up of private schools and the best state schools, including grammar schools. Around two thirds of state schools fall on the wrong side of the divide, producing few if any candidates for the Russell Group of universities.

Too many of these failing schools do equally little in terms of vocational training. They are the reason why UK educational standards lags up to three years behind part of the Asia Pacific and why employers’ organisations so often complain of unemployable school leavers.

And in order to ensure their children do not fall on the wrong side of the Great Divide, selection is alive, well and all-pervasive in the maintained sector.

Well-off parents can afford to buy a house in the catchment area of a good comprehensive or use tutors and influence to secure the best schools.

Selection is alive and all-pervasive in the maintained sector

Our political leaders are more aware of how to play the system than most. Tony Blair’s children went to the outstanding London Oratory School for example and, then, received private tutoring from the independent Westminster School.

Harriet Harman’s son went to a grammar school. Leading left-winger Diane Abbott opted to send her son to the prestigious City of London private school – well on the right side of the Great Divide.

And what about the prime minster and his former education secretary, Michael Gove? They secured the “crème de la crème” of London comps – the Grey Coat Hospital School.

The argument against grammar schools on the grounds of selection is, then, a non-starter. It is ubiquitous.

The argument for grammar schools is that children should be educated in line with their ability and aptitude.

We need grammar schools for academic children just as much as we need gold standard vocational schools for youngsters whose aptitude is practical rather than academic.

These are the youngsters who should go on to earn lots more money than most of those who are more academically inclined.

Bricklayers in London, for example, are currently earning between £50,000 and £100,100 pa, and there is a severe shortage.

It is remarkable that, according to the OECD, Britain is the only country in the developed world in which grandparents, educated under the old tripartite system of the 1950s and 1960s outperform their grandchildren in terms of educational attainment.

Less remarkable, perhaps, is the fact that Northern Ireland, which has kept its grammar schools, consistently outperforms the rest of the UK in terms of public examination results.

Chris McGovern is chairman of the non-profit group Campaign for Real Education.

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  1. Janet Downs

    The OECD report which said the younger generation in England and Northern Ireland (not Britain) did not outperform the older generation came with comments that Mr McGovern seems to have missed. The OECD said the seeming lack of progress between young people and older ones was not necessarily a sign that education in England and Northern Ireland had got worse. It meant countries which started at a much lower base than England/NI (ie where the older generation left school barely literate) had caught up and in some cases such as Korea had overtaken England/NI).
    The OECD also said the results should be used with caution because sampling in most countries, including England/NI, did not reach the required standard and was based on ‘assumptions’. To make it worse, England/NI were the only two countries which did not complete all the Non-Response Bias Analyses.

  2. Janet Downs

    The statement that ‘UK educational standards lags up to three years behind part of the Asia Pacific’ is arguable. The ‘part of the Asia Pacific’ which is claimed to be three years ahead of UK is Shanghai which tops PISA league tables. But the OECD has admitted 25% of the Shanghai cohort was missing from the last round of PISA. This makes the results questionable.
    England does better in the Trends in Maths and Science Surveys than in PISA but this fact is ignored by those who want to promote the view that the UK is ‘plummeting’ down league tables. At the same time, PISA shows that while the UK is at the OECD average in reading and maths, it is ABOVE average in Science.
    However, results aren’t everything. And the OECD has said there’s too much emphasis on exam results in England which risks negative consequences such as ignoring important skills. But creating more grammar schools won’t solve that problem. Instead it increases the academic and vocational divide with the latter being seen as something the not-so-bright do.

    • John Connor

      Add to that the fact that in China the majority of children leave school at 14. PISA tests are taken by 15 year olds, and in China they tend to be a) those whose parents can afford for them to stay on b) those with “tiger mothers” and c) those who are tutored seven ways from Sunday, with 12-13 hour days spent in crammers. It might be interesting to compare rates of self-harm and teenage suicide in these table-topping countries. PISA tests are notoriously flaky, given extrapolations and assumptions made about an entire cohort on the basis of those who actually take the tests. Yet these were the experts that Michael Gove relied on, in the days when he wasn’t “sick of experts”, to drive through his ideologically motivated vandalism of state education. A better comparison with Shanghai might be the top 10% of pupils in London.Comparing a city with a country has to be flawed, surely?

  3. I joined a pharmaceutical company in the 1970s and I never progressed very well despite the fact I was well qualified and I have a high IQ. It was later pointed out to me that all those whose careers had progressed very well had gone to grammar school. I never even had the chance to go to grammar school and yet I was discriminated against because I went to a comprehensive. A colleague of mine that was less qualified and actually less able did extremely well because he had attended a grammar school. This type of descimination is as bad as racism and if we return to the grammar school system it will only get worse.