Where to find a state grammar school
If you live in an area such as Torbay in Devon or Buckinghamshire, you will have several local state grammar schools. Elsewhere there may be just one grammar school you can apply to – but in this case it is likely to be ferociously selective.
You don't necessarily have to live in an area with state grammar schools to gain a place at one. Some schools will recruit from beyond their home authority, while others, such as Ripon Grammar School, offer boarding facilities for children with an identified 'boarding need.' However, the majority now give preference to those living in defined catchment areas, or within reasonable commuting distance of the school, with distance often used as a tie-break.
Identifying and locating grammar schools
Grammar schools are located in 36 English local authorities. Almost half of these are considered 'selective authorities' (eg Kent and Buckinghamshire), where around one in five local children are selected for grammar school entry based on ability. The others are areas such as Barnet or Kingston, with only a few grammar schools.
A word of warning: not all selective grammar schools have 'grammar' in their name. Bournemouth School and Dr Challoner's High School are just two examples. Likewise, many schools with grammar in their title are actually fee-paying independent schools (Bradford Grammar School is an example).
State grammar school admissions
State grammar schools are permitted, under the Code of Practice on School Admissions, to select pupils by ability. Children are usually tested in the final year of primary school (aged 10/11), by an exam commonly known as the 11+; a few schools (such as Cranbrook School) test for entry at 13+, and many re-open their books at 16+. Some grammar schools now give preference to qualifying children on Pupil Premium.
Entry is possible at other times if places are available and the child meets the academic entry criteria. However, grammar schools do not have to take pupils that fail to make the grade, even if they are not full.
Tests usually include some or all of maths, English, verbal reasoning and non-verbal reasoning; however, the exact entry requirements and competition for places vary, so do check with the school to ensure you have the most up-to-date information. Entry requirements can change year on year. NB Grammar schools now have to run at least the first round of tests in time to give initial results before other state school application deadlines, so parents know whether or not to include the grammar school on their list. This means that many have a registration deadline in July and run tests in September.
In The Good Schools Guide review of Tonbridge Grammar School we write:
Entrance via the Kent Test at 11+ in verbal, non-verbal reasoning and maths administered by Kent County Council and places are hard fought. No allowance made for siblings. No catchment area but most fairly local and proximity to the school taken into account where there are two girls of equal ability. A minimum of 35 ‘Governors’ places’ reserved for able pupils from outside the area but same criteria apply as for Kent selection.
Within the entry criteria for Wallington County Grammar School we report:
In a civilising touch, current parents serve hot drinks and snacks to the 1,500 or so nervous candidates from a wide range of state and independent schools in south and west London (inevitably, there’s a vast catchment area) who sit maths, English and verbal reasoning tests in mid-September. (Essential to note horribly early end of August/very early September deadline for completion of school’s on-line application form). Results are out in October, giving parents of the 450 or so who have passed enough time to include school on the common application form used by all London boroughs.
Places are offered to the 120 top scorers in the spring of the following year, though there is a waiting list (automatic inclusion until 31 December of year of entry, when parents have to re-apply). Looked after children and those with statements who pass the exam take precedence, tie breaks determined by home to school distance – otherwise no geographical barriers.
For the many disappointed, appeals offer little hope (success rate in last four years is nil) though 15 further places are offered in year 9 and a minimum of 20 (in reality at least 30) in the sixth form, when girls join from a range of mainly local schools.
To tutor, or not?
With such a scarcity of places it will come as no surprise that, despite the schools’ reassurances, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find children who haven't received some coaching.
The type and quantity of tuition varies: some children receive a little extra help to ensure they understand the way questions are presented; others are carefully coached from a tender age - not just in the three Rs but in the nuances of verbal and non-verbal reasoning and other tests which, ironically, are ostensibly designed because they 'cannot be coached for'.
Grammar schools - a little bit of history
The term grammar school was coined in medieval times, but modern-day state grammar schools came into being as a result of the 1944 Education Act; this made provision for a tripartite system of education, open to all.
The tripartite system comprised of:
- Grammar schools for the academically able
- Tertiary schools for those with a technical bent
- Secondary moderns for everyone else.
In reality very few tertiary schools were opened, secondary moderns became synonymous, in many areas, with 'sink school', and grammar schools, which were designed to select the top 25 per cent of academically able pupils by means of an 11+ examination, were criticised for being elitist and divisive.
Detractors of the grammar school system felt that the future of pupils was irretrievably determined at age 11.
Typically, grammar school students would study for the School Certificate - later O levels and A levels, with many continuing to further education. Until the introduction of CSEs in the sixties, most secondary modern pupils would leave school without any qualifications (many subsequently become qualified via trade apprenticeships or night school study).
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, many grammar schools were abolished in favour of comprehensive schools for all-comers. The Direct Grant Grammar Schools (Cessation of Grant) Regulations 1975 led to the abolition of many grammar schools - some became comprehensive schools, while others opted to become fee-paying schools. As a result of parental pressure and decisions at local level, some authorities managed to hang on to their grammar schools.
Today there are fewer than 200 state funded grammar schools; where they exist they are often viewed as a credible, free alternative to an independent school education, with places sought after and hard fought.
Nevertheless, they continue to divide opinion. Supporters believe a grammar school education gives all children, regardless of social class, a passport to a good education and future. Detractors point out that grammar schools take very few pupils entitled to free school meals, and denounce them as elitist, divisive and damaging to the moral and esteem of children who feel themselves to be failures at the age of 11.
Moreover, many view grammar schools, which are primarily located in middle class areas, as the preserve of that class - with intensive private tuition and a house in a good area as precursors to entry.
The schools themselves are keen to dispel this view and ensure they attract the brightest children, rather than those best prepared to pass entrance exams. Many schools continually review their entry procedure and examination structure in an attempt to thwart attempts by pushy parents to skew the system.
Where to find state grammar schools
State grammar schools are located in the following local authorities:
- London Borough of Bexley
- London Borough of Bromley
- London Borough of Enfield
- Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames
- London Borough of Redbridge
- London Borough of Sutton
- North Yorkshire
- Stoke on Trent
- Southend on Sea
- Telford and Wrekin
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Selective grammar schools are often viewed as a great and free alternative to an independent school education. Most have a highly competitive entry, of course, and in areas with large numbers of grammar schools, the remaining non-selective schools tend to suffer from the ‘creaming off’ of the most able pupils.
Most UK schools are now genuinely thrilled to welcome foreign students, and no longer regard a cosmopolitan mix as a matter for shame (that they cannot fill the school with home-grown products). Foreign students are perceived to add breadth, excitement, new horizons, not to mention fantastic exam results in exotic languages.
School admissions in England are regulated by the Schools Admissions Code, and schools must play fair, ensuring their admissions policy is not only fair but also transparent. Parents must play fair too: schools and local authorities are wising up on parental attempts to circumvent the code, and hundreds of school places are withdrawn every year, sometimes after the child has started school.
What do you want for your child? State school or fee-paying? Day or boarding school? Single sex or co-education? It helps to have a game plan, even if you change it at a later date. What do you want from the school? Undoubtedly you want to find a great school, one that's ideal for your child, with great teaching and possibly good facilities to match.
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