England has long been viewed as a classist society. One of the things that has given people this impression, or has perpetuated the social structure, depending on which newspaper you subscribe to, has been education. The sons (in the past, at least) of noble families went to Eton or Harrow, and then Oxford or Cambridge (or St. Andrews, like Prince William). And then, presumably, off to their country estates for some “huntin’, shootin’, fishin’”, while the poor man’s son learnt a trade in a Ragged School. Then there were the old versions of grammar schools, where Latin and Greek were taught to academically oriented pupils, enabling them to go on to University, and perhaps join the Church. Grammar schools maintained this exclusivity, selecting the most intelligent of the common population and catapulting them to a life of earnings and academic achievement, until they were abolished around 1976.
Many now believe that we seem to be reinforcing this stereotype with the ‘bring-backery’ of the grammar school system. Nothing has been a more divisive subject across party lines and across parent lines. The crux of the matter with parents, of course, is whether their child is going to pass the selection process at the ridiculously low age of 10+ – or fail it. If their child can get into a grammar school and receive a ‘better’ education, why wouldn’t those parents be in favour of it? Or is that furthering ‘middle-class privilege’? Of course, hardly any of the children of political big-wigs who make these decisions would have to deal with the grammar school selection process, as they probably have always gone to exclusive private schools. Earlier, though in these schools, money and not merit was the main admission criterion. However, those days have passed.
The reason the new grammar school debate is flawed is because its premise is incorrect. Grammar schools are not the only ones being selective and having tough 11+ tests; private and independent schools have also become selective. The 11+_ everywhere is tough. So the debate, if it is about selectivity, should be asking about the 11+, and not about the equitability of grammar schools. I am a tutor, and many children require extra help from teachers like me in order to pass the difficult exams that start from the age of 4+. The system is the way it is. And as controversial it might be to say, I believe that Theresa May’s strategy of more grammar schools might actually be the answer. I’ll justify this statement in a minute – let me first talk about Mrs May’s plan.
So much has now changed because of Brexit. According to Theresa May the reason for the vote result was that people had a “profound sense of frustration” about a layered social and economic structure that kept the privilege status-quo and did not take into account the average Joe, or his kids. She says bringing back grammar schools and selection, not just at 11 but even older, is her way to make the UK a “great meritocracy”, giving intelligent children from all backgrounds a chance to get in on merit alone. The truth is this is possible, if some extra help is given.
The reason grammar schools are the most over-subscribed schools in England is because last year alone, almost 98% of their students received at least a C in their main GCSE subjects, including English and Maths. At comprehensive schools this number was more like 66%. Which school would you send your child to? No wonder thousands of parents send their children from a very young age to 11+ tutors like me, to give them the advantage that preparation has. However, it is very likely that a lot of these grammar (and even private and independent) schools’ students get outside help. The problem with the current system is that working class, or even middle class, children might not be able to afford this tutoring. State primary schools themselves would have to begin to train their students to pass this test. Right now, the flaw in the system is that children are being tested on things they aren’t taught how to do. As a result, the students who get explicit instruction from tutors on how to ace the tests have a definite advantage over those who sit the test with no prior help. All bright children deserve the right to get the best education.
Theresa May rightly pointed out that there is already unfair selection in schools, as house prices around the best schools are higher, making it more likely that the poorer families don’t stand a chance of being in the catchment area. So what will make Theresa May’s grammar school system better than what came before? According to her, one of the things she will do is make sure that all selective school must take in children from poorer backgrounds. They will also have to assist under performing and non-selective schools and academies. She has also changed the age that grammar schools will be able to admit students, keeping it 11, but adding 14 and 16. So, your child has more than one shot to get into a grammar.
Boris Johnson is a supporter of the grammar school system, dubbing it the “great mobiliser and liberator”, helping the “brightest children from poor homes”. However, it is evident that grammar schools do NOT serve the poor. The number, and history, show that grammar schools do indeed perpetuate the social structure status-quo. Recent figures show that just 3,100 of 117,000 students (2.6%) in grammar schools are eligible for free meals. A study showed that there was more inequality in wages in places where there was a selective school system.
The outgoing Ofsted chief, Sir Michael Wilshaw is definitely not a supporter. According to him, the idea that reintroducing grammar schools will help the poor is “palpable tosh and nonsense”, and he called it a “profoundly retrograde step”. Needless to say, he is not going out quietly, and is a loud critic of Ms. May’s rhetoric for wanting to govern for everyone. He says schools need to raise standards for all children, not just for the few. “By their very nature, grammar schools are for the few, otherwise why have them?” Hopefully, more grammar schools would make them schools for more than just the few.
The population of children attending school is increasing every year. Given that undeniable fact, it does make sense to create more selective schools, if the government stops stacking the deck against the kids who can’t afford the help they need. So, either the nature of the tests needs to change, though standardised exams have always required teaching to the test, or state schools need to start providing the necessary preparation for all students from Year 5 at least, and preferably Year 4. Though schools and the government are trying to make the tests tutor-proof and preparation-proof, the truth is that most students who do well in the 11+ up to the GCSEs are those who come to tutorials like mine. So, until the system changes, choosing the right tutor for your child is the best bet, if you can afford it.
Something Wilshaw says does strike a chord though. According to him Brexit will bring challenges to the education system of the UK. EU teachers will leave, and recruitment will be even more difficult. Also, he says we will need to develop a skilled workforce that will replace the immigrant workers who will leave. These are things that should be the main priority of the government at this time, according to him. Spending time, money and resources to reintroduce grammar schools now shows the May government’s preoccupation with those in the middle class and above, reinforcing the global view of the UK as a classist society. We need to rethink how to give our children a better chance of improving their long-term future prospects, in light of a UK outside the EU.