The deception of grammar schools

29 Aug 2016



The arguments both for and against grammar schools are not new. It is an issue which splits politicians, with those on the left fighting against, and those on the right fighting for grammar schools. However, the really interesting part of this debate is the public’s perception of them.


The latest polling suggests that the British public are in favour of grammar schools. This is a significant shift, considering, in the 1960s, it was widely accepted that comprehensive schools were the fairer educational system. Why then do the public now view grammar schools as a useful way to improve social mobility? The answer, in my opinion, is that the arguments for are far easier to understand than the arguments against, which require an in-depth analysis.


Let us first take the argument the grammar school system eliminates the correlation between a parent’s wealth and their child’s academic success. The simple argument in favour is that there are no fees, and it’s based purely on academic ability, as to be accepted a child has to have passed the 11 plus exam. It is easy to see why this concept would be popular, particularly among the working-class, as it seems as if their children are on a level playing field.


Yet, a deeper analysis shows that only 3% of those at grammar schools receive free school meals. This clearly suggests a lack of improvement in social mobility, with those that can afford it paying for private tuition to help their child pass the 11 plus test.


The second deception of grammar schools is the argument that it allows those who work hard to have a better chance of achieving academic success. Again the pro argument is very easy to understand.  Students with a higher level of academic performance, shown by the 11 plus test, are separated from those with a lower academic performance. This idea is appealing on the surface, after all why should a hard working child be forced to work at a slower pace to allow other children to keep up?

Once again this is deceiving. One exam can hardly be a measurement of academic ability and the pressure of taking such a significant test may also reduce the performance of hard working students.


Herein lies the problem; the public arguably focuses on the ideal principle and ignores the real effects. This makes it incredibly difficult for the left to win over public support against Grammar Schools as it is impossible to beat the ideal, the vision with reality.


These two examples highlight a problem for the left. They have lost control of the narrative. The right has done what it does so well: spin. They portray the left to be against aspiration, as the Conservatives have stated so often. Over time, this has led to public opinion being in favour of grammar schools. With public opinion being where it is, there is an important question to be answered. What happens now?


The future looks bleak. With a majority in government with public support behind them, it looks likely the Conservatives will allow more Grammar Schools to be built. How long will it be before the deceptive argument of increased social mobility begins to unravel is unknown. Though perhaps the more pertinent question is how much damage will have been done?



More articles by this commentator







Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Please reload

Want to respond? Submit an article.


We provide a space for reasoned arguments and constructive disagreements.

Help to improve the quality of political debate – support our work today.