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Article published 12th December 2008

Entry to top performing state grammar schools is more competitive than ever and forward planning is essential.

You will need to think about revision, tuition, a back-up plan, even moving house....

Results are good; grammar schools regularly top state school league tables with results not too far adrift of those in the independent sector... but considering their selectiveness and middle class bias, some do not perform as well as many, less selective, independent schools.

Why are grammar schools more popular than ever?

It's not just parents from the state sector who are flexing their muscles, much of the increase is attributed to the credit-crunch and escalating fees at independent schools. For those hitting on hard times, grammar schools are an ideal and free alternative to expensive, independent fee-paying schools.

With this in mind, not only do you need to start your search for the ideal school as early as possible but you need to add a tutor to your shopping basket too. 'A little extra-help' is now de rigueur even for the brightest spark; not just in the 3R's but in VR and NVR too. Don't however, expect friends to share tuition secrets; it's their child they want to pass the 11+ not yours! Ask someone whose children have already leapt the hurdle.

What's in a name?

State grammar schools are free to those who pass muster at selection but some former schools are now independent schools. They have retained 'grammar' in their school name but they are fee-paying and academically selective. Examples of fee-paying schools are, Bristol Grammar and Manchester Grammar. Always check that any 'grammar' of interest is indeed a state grammar school (or state academy), else there may be more than the gas bill landing on your mat. Conversely, there are a number of schools, such as Dr Challoner's High School, where the name gives no hint that the school is indeed a grammar school.

When selection isn't the whole picture - partially selective and bilateral schools

There are a handful of partially selective secondary schools. These select a percentage of their intake based on published criteria such as general ability, music, languages or sport. If you live within commuting distance and your 11 year old has a talent, it may be worth applying for a selective place rather than under general admission rules.

Bilateral schools are partially selective schools with both a 'grammar school' intake and a comprehensive stream. These tend to be found in the less densely populated areas, of those authorities, where grammar schools still exist. Unlike wholly selective grammar schools, if too few pupils meet the selection criteria, the places must be offered to other youngsters.

Selection usually operates in one of two ways:

1) Pupils are ranked and those who achieve the highest grades (order of merit)  are selected. Under this system a child may have reached the 'pass-mark' and live on the door-step but not be offered a place.

2) A predetermined 'pass-mark' is set.  Published admissions criteria are then applied to all those who pass. Places are offered on the basis of how well an applicant, who has passed the examination, meets the admissions criteria. Under this system a child may have the highest mark in the examination but not be offered a place.

A borderline child? Worried they may not make the grade?  

Even for gifted children the 11+ can be stressful. For the borderline child applying to a sought-after school failure is the likely outcome.  Will they cope with rejection at such a young age? Importantly if they are successful, and gain a place, can they cope with the continual pressure?

Carefully consider your child's personality and esteem. Tutoring may help but, before investing heavily in tutors or cramming your child, think how they will feel if they are always bottom of the pile and continually struggling. On the other hand if your child has missed out on education eg because of illness, it may be worth the push.

The Schools Admissions Code of Practice states that schools should take 'all reasonable steps' to inform parents of the outcome of any tests prior to the admissions deadline (usually the last day in October for the year prior to entry). This does not guarantee a place if a child make the cut but it does removes the anxiety of wasting a valuable preference if they don't.

Missing the test deadline

A state grammar or state selective school cannot refuse to admit a child just because they missed the entrance test for selective places. Admissions rules do apply though, so it is not a route we recommend. 

Why choose a state grammar school education?

Reasons to be cheerful:

  • Full of eager (mainly middle-class), bright young things whose parents will push, to ensure they prosper.
  • Grammar Schools foster a good work ethic, in and out of the classroom.
  • Crowd control and police presence are unusual, except perhaps on entrance exam days.
  • Bed and board may be on offer (for a small additional fee).
  • Results are good. Grammar schools regularly top state school league tables and results are not usually too far adrift of rivals from the independent sector.
  • Orchestras, choirs, sports, chess... Expect to find a profusion of extra-curricular activities and events.
  • No school on Saturdays.
  • Discussion, debate and work beyond the curriculum is encouraged and expected.
  • Experienced at securing Oxbridge and Russell Group university places. Don't expect university bias though - grammar school pupils are not usually given any form of preference under open access rules.
  • Increasingly popular and socially acceptable - expect an approbatory nod at dinner parties.
  • They get politicians hot under the collar and provide broadsheets with copious column inches.

Why not?

Reasons to steer clear:

  • Extra tuition to sally through eleven plus exams, can prove an expensive gamble. Educationally and financially worthwhile if you hit the jackpot though.
  • Expect to find a plethora of pushy, middle-class parents, rather than a true representation of society.
  • Large classes (30+) the norm, especially in younger years.
  • Frayed fixtures and fittings. Often they have much less money spent on them by local authorities than other state schools.
  • Constrained by The National Curriculum; but watch this space...
  • A bias against the arts (except music)
  • Some perform less well than less-selective, independent schools.
  • No Saturday school (though some have optional weekend activities).
  • Complaints (from some) that extra-curricular activities are aimed only at those who excel. Teams for the elite expected but run-outs for the eager are oft elusive.
  • Demoralising: for those who just scrape through to be constantly bottom of the pile; for high-fliers to be constantly spoon-fed and forced through a battery of exams.
  • Soul destroying for those who don’t get a foot in the door. Unless the process is very carefully handled, those who fail the 11+ or don't sit the exam can spend future years riddled with guilt and foreboding.
  • Separates families - less able siblings can’t share the spoils.
  • Universities do not grant grammar schools ‘state-school bias’ when deciding which candidates to admit.
  • Limited availability - just one in five education authorities have grammar schools.
  • Lack of availability can make for an exceptionally long commute.
  • House price premiums in 'grammar school catchment areas' may make fee-paying schools a surprisingly more attractive, less expensive proposition.

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