Debates around grammar schools have riddled the British education system for decades. Last year, Theresa May heightened the controversy by announcing plans to plough £320 million into creating 70,000 more spaces in selective schools. This right-wing affiliation was also exemplified by UKIP’s 2017 manifesto, in which the party pledged to open a grammar school in every town.
Yet the truths about grammar schools are too often concealed by a sense of desperation thousands of parents face every year in trying to secure what they believe to be the best possible education for their eleven-year-old. But it is time Britain opened its eyes to the effects of the competition that eleven year-olds are forced to take part in.
The truth about grammar schools
Despite UKIP stating that “grammar schools boost social mobility by giving children from poorer backgrounds access to career paths they might have previously thought out of their reach”, few children from disadvantaged backgrounds actually attend grammar schools.
At the start of 2016 less than 3% of students in grammar schools were eligible for free school meals, compared to 14% for all school types. Areas with grammar schools contain earners that are likely to earn £16.41 an hour more than those on the lowest incomes.
Such social inequality is further exacerbated by the fact that families with higher incomes can afford to pay for tutoring sessions to help increase their child's likelihood of passing the eleven-plus entrance exam. Not only does this give affluent children an unfair advantage, but defeats the objective of the grammar school, which is to offer an escape from poverty.
In 2014, even Kent County Council (the largest selective area in the country), decided that an eleven-plus based on reasoning skills was too easily influenced by tutoring, yet independent schools in Kent are still openly advertising their success at coaching pupils to pass an eleven-plus test against their council’s ruling banning such tutoring.
Grammar schools also tend to receive more government funding than other schools. New analysis shows that grammar schools are now 24 times more likely than primaries, comprehensives and secondary moderns to have their budgets boosted by at least 10 per cent by 2019-20. A dangerous cycle emerges from this elitist perspective, as an increase in funding towards grammar schools inevitably leads to a decrease in government attention towards comprehensive education, creating further disparity between the two types of schools. This further pressurises parents to aid their child in obtaining a place at a grammar school, thereby increasing the likelihood of tutoring.
Children’s Mental Health
The grammar school test was once casual and simply perceived as a measure to enhance social mobility for the most disadvantaged in society. Nowadays, the test is seen in a very different light. In the haste to secure a grammar school placement, which comes with immense pressure from home and competition among students, not passing the 11-plus can have a detrimental effect on children.
Pupils are being given as much as six years’ worth of preparation for school entrance tests - one tutor even having reported turning away a family that wanted their daughter to be given coaching for the 11-plus from the age of just three. It is therefore no surprise that mental health issues amongst schoolchildren are on the rise.
Most devastating of all, the entrance exam is not reflective of a child’s intellect - the human brain is not fully developed until the age of 25. Even the North London Independent Girls’ school Consortium, which is made up of twelve of the leading London independent schools, has announced they are abolishing their eleven-plus entrance exam system amid fears that it is putting children’s mental health as risk. It is also alarming that children who fail the entrance exam will likely develop a negative pre-conception of comprehensive schools, destroying their faith in the education system.
An Education System That Fails to Educate
Grammar schools often put into question the true meaning of education. Aside from exam results and academics, secondary school and sixth form is supposed to be an experience which prepares its pupils for the realities of life, and life certainly isn’t just a bunch of middle-class tutored kids.
Even in my own schooling experience, I have witnessed teenagers pounce upon the opportunity of joining a grammar school sixth form at the end of GCSEs - the symptom of years’ worth of feeling ‘second best’.
What does the existence of selective schools actually reveal about our country? That the state is willing to categorise young people according to their academic ability at the age of just eleven? That, as a country, we don’t want our smartest pupils to be ‘indoctrinated’ by the versatile skillset of a mixed ability class? That British parents lack trust in comprehensive education? To truly shift these profound inequalities, we need to eliminate this harmful message sown into the minds of our children. We need to stop segregating classrooms, and that starts by abolishing grammar schools. Education is a right, not a competition.