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Grammar schools: are they really what’s needed?

As the debate about grammar schools hots up and the Prime Minister herself seems to favour their reintroduction in a limited way, two experienced Good Schools Guide educationalists offer their contribution.

Bernadette John, The Good Schools Guide's Director of Special Needs, discusses key points about grammar schools

Grammar SchoolsIt’s hard to believe that a politician 'accidentally' left details about grammar school proposals on view to a long lens. But it’s about time we had an honest debate about the privileged snapping up the best school places at all types of schools.

Yes, the sharp-elbowed middle class is disproportionately represented at grammar schools but so are they at faith schools, the best comprehensives, and free schools.

In the grammar school county of Kent, fewer children receive free school meals at its two most sought-after faith schools, than at the grammar schools. These schools demand church attendance on three out of every four Sundays – an easier ask when you do white collar jobs which don’t involve weekend working.

A study released by financial services provider, Santander, this week found that parents are prepared to pay premiums of up to £70,000 for a house in the catchment area of a desirable school, and that one in four has moved house in order to secure a school place. Lloyds Bank says that the average house near one of the best-performing 30 schools in England now costs £366,744, compared to a national average of £313,318. 

And, last month, data produced by analyst, School Dash, revealed that primary free schools stand out as some of the most biased against the poorer children in their locality, taking a lower proportion of disadvantaged pupils.

This isn’t right and, of course, we should be doing something about it – but why single out grammar schools?

They are an imperfect route but they do produce some degree of social mobility. It’s not generally mentioned but the 11+ isn’t quite the one-off test it is portrayed to be. There are effective appeals systems in place, whereby parents have an opportunity to present a case to show that their child is deserving of a grammar school place if they weren’t given one following the exam. At The Good Schools Guide, our service which helps parents to prepare for the appeal deals with those from a wide range of backgrounds and those we have helped include a homeless mother and several recent immigrants to the country.

Kent County Council already has a task force looking at ways to improve access to grammar schools for less privileged children.

I would suggest two measures.

  • We know that children develop at different rates, and in the independent sector, entrance points at 11 and 13 help to address this. Why not offer an expanded intake to the grammars at age 13, to allow for the late developers?
  • You are never going to stop motivated parents from doing all they can to give their child the best chance at the test. The way to equalise this is to remove money as the means to do so. Currently state primary schools are not allowed to tutor for the test while independent schools typically spend a year familiarising their pupils with the style of test questions and run extra tutoring sessions and mock exams in the summer holidays. Simply removing this ban would allow state schools to give their pupils a better chance.

Susan Hamlyn, Director of the Good Schools Guide Education Consultants, offers ten points to consider in the debate about grammar schools


  • comprehensive schools were truly comprehensive ie catering for everyone with whatever learning abilities, interests and capacities they have
  • we valued aptitude in technical, linguistic, practical, manual, creative and analytical skills equally
  • we had schools in which all types of learners could flourish without discrimination
  • we assessed and examined learners from the point of view of valuing what they can do rather than what they can't do
  • we saw education as a way to develop the whole person rather than as a process to produce members of an identikit workforce
  • we fostered a school culture in which aptitude and achievement in eg Latin or music was regarded as highly as in football or science
  • investment in teachers were regarded as the most important way to build our national future
  • further education and careers advice in our state schools were as good as that in most independents
  • we understood that we learn in different ways and at different speeds
  • we understood that separating children according to an arbitrary test of a few limited skills at 11 squanders vital talent and potential

we would not now be considering the reintroduction of grammar schools.



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