Grammar schools were made to be inclusive. In 1944, the Education Act was passed to create an opportunity for children from disadvantaged backgrounds to receive a top-class education, at a time when the education system was openly divided. No doubt, at the time, this was an important step in bridging the class divide and probably benefited many of our grandparents. Today, however, there are many social factors that make the grammar school system unfair and unnecessary.

A Divisive System

In grammar school areas, only one out of every three children who live there will be offered a place. According to a BBC analysis, fewer than 5 per cent of grammar school children were eligible for free school meals (often an indicator of social background), compared to a national average of around 23 per cent. This suggests that the system often excludes students from lower-income backgrounds — the very group they were created to serve. 

There are many reasons for this. One is the pervasive impact of the UK’s existing class divide on education, with trends generally showing greater academic achievement among students from high-income families. This has several causes, such as access to private tuition. Income inequality has of course been with us for centuries and affects more than just education. Still, inequality in schools predates grammars and is a direct consequence of the income divide. The bigger problem is that there is evidence that the grammar school system makes the social divide deeper.

Durham University’s School of Education reported that grammar schools damage social cohesion, with the gaps between attainment of grammar school and non-grammar school pupils in grammar school areas showing some of the largest educational gaps in the UK. Interestingly, no real evidence was found for grammar schools producing better results than other comprehensive schools. This suggests that grammars are not necessarily leading to outstanding results. All of this raises the argument of unnecessary division, largely based on family background, and the realisation that grammar schools do not give us a solution to healing the UK’s worrying economic segregation.  

The Lucky Ones?

Certainly, there are students who benefit from grammars; particularly those from lower-income backgrounds. Over the years, many grammars have tried to modernise by introducing quotas that give priority to poorer students. This is something that 116 out of 160 grammar schools have chosen to adopt. The King Edward VI grammar school in Birmingham has provided a quota of 25 per cent of places reserved for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, showing that many schools are embracing social mobility. Unfortunately, though, this inclusivity only benefits those students who pass the notorious eleven-plus exams (around one in three). From personal experience, failing the Eleven Plus can be mentally difficult. My own failure and that of many of my friends left too many of us struggling with self-esteem issues for long stretches of time. This raises another potent question: Is all this pressure worth the trouble? Personally, I have come to the realisation that dividing us at a young age, though it may provide benefits for those who succeed, damages more children than it helps.  

For those that do pass, evidence has shown the benefits to be minor. The University of Durham researchers conclude that academic attainment at the grammar school level is very similar to all other schools across the country. However, in grammar school areas, children who do not earn a place are found to be disadvantaged in comparison to children of similar backgrounds who live in areas with only comprehensive schools. It’s a bit of a conundrum but we cannot lose sight of the problems that early division may cause and the minor benefits that follow.

The introduction of quotas shows that the middle-class domination of grammars is being taken seriously. However, the idea of grammar schools as stumbling blocks rather than solutions to inequality is evident from the outset. A system that divides children based on familial background and allocates places according to academic performance at a relatively young age, has little to contribute to social mobility or equality. The grammar school system is an isolating one with dubious end results. Perhaps, it’s time to admit that while social mobility in education is extremely important, more division is not the answer in the twenty-first century. 

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