Few issues raise as much heated debated within education circles in the UK as does the topic of grammar school expansion. Those in favour argue that grammar schools help academically bright children from disadvantaged backgrounds obtain a better form of education than they would otherwise receive in a comprehensive. In defending their position, supporters point to grammar schools’ typically smaller classroom sizes, which provide students more opportunities to participate in deeper discussions and make it easier for teachers to focus on individual students’ needs. Advocates also highlight grammar schools’ stellar exam results and roll call of successful alumni (though many comprehensive schools can also proudly toot their own horns about the accomplishments of their former students).
Research conducted by the IFS suggests that grammar schools are beneficial for having a successful career and higher income. In addition, a report by the Sutton Trust noted that ‘pupils in grammar schools do better than pupils with the same characteristics in other non-selective schools’. These indicate that by receiving a better education, disadvantaged children could be empowered to improve their overall life outcomes.
Those who are against the proliferation of grammar schools contend that selective schools are socially divisive and reinforce middle class privilege. The view of this camp is that families from wealthier backgrounds are better able to prepare their children to take 11+ exams (by paying for extra tuition or sending their children to private primary schools, for example). They can also afford homes, which by virtue of being in the catchment area of good grammar schools are more expensive (and out of the reach of families on lower incomes).
In addition, opponents argue that comprehensive schools in areas where there are grammar schools perform worse than those without grammar schools. This could be because grammar schools are able to ‘lure’ the best teachers or because removing the ‘top students’ has a negative effect on a school’s overall performance. Critics also note that the grammar school system is potentially damaging to young people’s confidence and self-esteem as it inadvertently labels children who don’t pass the 11 + as ‘failures’ or ‘less intelligent’.
In my own opinion, and given my life experiences, I believe the nation would be far better served if the government invested in raising the quality of state comprehensives rather than focusing on a wholesale increase in the number of grammar schools. To be sure, I have many close friends from disadvantaged backgrounds who have benefited immensely from attending a grammar school or securing a private school scholarship. Therefore I cannot deny that attending one of these types of schools can positively impact an individual’s life outcomes. Nevertheless, one should not mix up the potential benefit that attending a grammar school may have on an individual, with the overall effect that an expansion of the grammar schools system may have on the educational outcome of the nation as a whole. The reality remains that the majority of disadvantaged pupils will attend a comprehensive. As such, the government should be focused on implementing policies that will benefit the wider population of young people, rather than a select cohort of pupils who have access to the knowledge and resources required to take advantage of these opportunities.