Two issues have dominated and defined Theresa May’s premiership so far: Brexit and grammar schools.
The case for grammar schools has taken a beating from many since the government announced its proposals to introduce more grammar schools. Critics include Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn who said at PMQs that the idea was “segregation for the few”. Likewise, the head of Ofsted Sir Michael Wilshaw labelled the policy, ‘tosh and nonsense’ - a, ‘profoundly retrograde step’.
The Current State of Grammar Schools
Currently there are 163 grammar schools in the UK, educating a total of 167,000 pupils. A House of Commons report, published in June this year admits that ‘pupils at grammar schools are much less likely than average to have special educational needs (SEN) or be eligible for free school meals (FSM)’. SEN and FSM numbers are used in education to measure the level of deprivation and general background of pupils, although some argue this measure needs updating.
The number of grammar schools has reduced since the 1970s. Tony Blair’s Labour Party enshrined it in law, in the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, that no new grammar schools could open although current grammars would remain open. The South East has the largest quantity of existing grammar schools with 12%, followed by the South West with 6%, while the North East is the only region without a single grammar school.
Grammar schools are more likely to have a single sex intake, with 74% of grammars taking this route compared to just 11% of all state secondary schools.
In 2008, the then Department for Children, Schools and Families, began a study into the intake of grammar schools in comparison to schools in their area. The study found free school meal rates in grammars were not representative of their local areas.
The same 2008 study also looked at the proportion of pupils that grammar schools selected from different quartiles of deprivation. Grammar schools in 2007 took just over 40% of their intake from the least deprived quartile but just 8% from the most deprived.
In comparison, non-selective schools in the area took 25% from the least deprived and 20% from the most deprived quartiles. Free school meal rates in grammars in 2007 were just 2% as compared to 18% nationally. Some suggest this could be due to the ability to pass the 11+ exam where those from the least deprived quartile may be able to afford tutors, may have extra parental support and may live in a more settled home.
Comparing Grammar Schools to State Schools
One of the most important aspects of schooling is achievement. In 2014/15 there were 501,242 pupils in secondary schools taking GCSE exams, 66.3% of these achieved 5 or more A*-C grades and this drops to 56.7% when English and Maths are included in the 5 A*-C grades. Meanwhile of the 22,493 pupils in selective schools taking their GCSEs in 2014/15, a huge 99.1% achieved 5 or more A*-C grades and 96.7% with 5 or more A*-C GCSEs including English and Maths. (HoC briefing paper)
While the totals taking their GCSEs are smaller, it is clear those who enter grammar schools get much better results than those in non-selective schooling. This could be linked to the fact Grammar schools take in a far smaller percentage of the most deprived children compared to state schools.
The argument that comprehensive schools let down those with the most ability looks outdated after looking at results over the past few decades. In 1976 only a quarter of pupils achieved 5 or more GCSE, or O Levels as they were once called, but this number has increased so massively that in 2008 thee quarters of pupils achieved this target. There has been a fivefold increase in those going on to achieve a degree, while four in five schools are now rated good or outstanding as well as 94% of parents saying they were happy with their child’s school in an Ofsted report from 2011.
An investigation by Chris Cook for the Financial Times looked at achievement at grammar schools in areas where the majority exist such as Kent, Lincolnshire, Medway and Buckinghamshire. He compared those to the wider education system in the same areas. He found that, ‘Poor children do dramatically worse in selective areas’, and the idea that grammar schools are better for propelling poor children to the top of the tree is, ‘Not true. Poor children are less likely to score very highly at GCSE in grammar areas than the rest’.
One of the crucial aspects in the grammar school debate is the long-term effect of passing or failing the 11+ test. Critics of the system say that failing can be a huge hit to confidence and stays with those who fail for decades. A study by Love to Learn, who offer adult learning courses for over 50’s, found that over one in three people who failed the 11+ ‘lacked the confidence’ to undertake further education and training courses. One in eight reported that it had ‘put them off learning for life’ and almost half reported that they still carried negative feelings with them into their fifties, sixties and beyond.
Teachers at Grammar Schools
The final area of comparison is in the ability to attract and retain teachers between selective and non-selective schools. A report from Education Data Lab and Social Market Foundation showed that schools in larger areas of disadvantage found it harder to recruit and retain teachers.
Education Data Lab looked into this further and found that of the annual proportion of teachers leaving schools, grammar schools had a higher rate of retention in each aspect of the study, in comprehensive areas, partially selective areas and areas that were fully selective. Grammar schools were also able to attract more experienced teachers across all three research areas. Grammar schools had around 15% more teachers with between 10 or 30 years of experience than non-grammar schools, who had to employ up to 6% more non-qualified teachers in fully selective areas.
This shows that selective schools can attract the top pupils and also gain from having more experienced teachers and a higher retention rate. This imbalance only increases in fully selective areas which suggests that introducing a more selective system will leave the comprehensive system further behind as gradually more top teachers work in grammar schools.
The statistics show that grammar schools may be good for the goose, but are not good for the gander.
Although achievement in grammar schools may be outstanding for those who attend, for those who are not fortunate enough, their achievement suffers. Areas that have grammars have a greater achievement gap between rich and poor, and the selection system appears to favour those who have wealth and leaves those without behind. Failing to get into a grammar school also appears to have long lasting effects beyond just lower grades and fewer opportunities.
The statistics also shows that the school system has been, on the whole, improving with 80% of schools now good or outstanding. This then begs the question of why is the government focused on introducing a system which is proven to work for a few but not for the many, especially as the system is on a current upward trajectory in terms of results.
There are still many questions to answer about this system and Theresa May is scheduled to bring out a white paper on the issue with further details in late 2016 or early 2017. This will certainly be an issue to watch in the coming months but there is no doubt that the Prime Minister faces an uphill task in the face of huge evidence against grammar schools.