Grammar Schools – what to do, what to do…

Recently I’ve been pushed (in a good way) to confront my nemesis education issue. Grammar Schools.

I have four perspectives when it comes to selective state schools – as a pupil, on free school meals who attended one, as a policy wonk, as a governor of a large secondary school in the catchment area of a state grammar school and as an active member of the Labour Party.

From a personal perspective I know that Grammar Schools can have a significant impact on the life chances of young people – without a doubt the grammar school that I attended transformed my life. However as a policy wonk I know that’s OK for those kids who get in; for those that don’t and for the system as a whole the impact is a negative one. This is backed by my experience as a governor where we not only struggle with recruiting a strong gifted and talented intake at 11 but again at 16 when the top A Level students are ‘creamed off’. That all said, as a politico I’m not sure ‘good for kids’ or ‘bad for kids’ is particularly important. This is such a heated topic in some circles (Labour and Tory). I’m convinced that no party has the combination of desire and political capital needed to close the remaining schools down (my school was established in 1472 – it’s survived just about everything since the dark ages).

The simple conclusion is, that for now at least, we’re stuck with them. Therefore I’d like to add some thoughts to the debate about how to we increase the number of young people from low income backgrounds who get into these highly selective state schools. How do we ensure that grammar schools actually are a vehicle for social mobility for a greater proportion of young people. Because, let’s be honest, claiming that you’re good for young people from low income backgrounds when this group make up 3% of your school population is laughable.

I want to deal with three of the Sutton Trust recommendations and one of my own.

  • Schools should consider the merits of powers available in the admissions code to attract high achieving students who are entitled to the Pupil Premium.
  • Improve outreach work significantly, actively encouraging high achieving students from low and middle income backgrounds to apply.
  • Build new partnerships with non-selective schools to support their high achieving students.
  • Leadership

Selection and the 11+

One suggestion from the Sutton Trust and others has been positive discrimination in favour of pupils eligible for FSM. I like the principle but as always I think that the devil is in the detail. We must be careful not to assume that grammar schools have the necessary expertise to close the gap at the pace that would be required if FSM pupils were admitted without taking the entrance exam or by, without consideration, being admitted with a lower pass mark than the one generally required.

Those who had the very worst experience at my school were those who were deemed ‘not clever enough to be there’. The pace expected is fast and in many cases unforgiving. Part of this does come from the school (and therefore could and should change) but the other part comes from the pupils and is a direct consequence of selecting by ability. In my case the smartest 11 year-old boys from 50 primary schools all landed in one school – competition, as you can imagine, was fierce.

It’s therefore vitally important that if a kid – FSM or not – goes to a selective school they are able to cope with this (partly) inevitable environment. I think we could see a significant negative effect on outcomes for FSM pupils bumped into selective schools without passing then entrance exam.

There is a slightly more nuanced option which would have a (albeit smaller) positive effect on numbers. I know that my old school selects pupils in the following way:

  1. The kids sit a 11+ test which has a clear pass mark,
  2. The tests are marked and the kids are given a score,
  3. The names are arranged highest score to lowest score,
  4. Those that were below the pass mark are not offered a place,
  5. Places are then awarded to those who pass, starting at the top of the list until all the places are full.
  6. Those in the ‘grey zone’ (i.e. passed but didn’t get a place) are then put onto a waiting list.

One solution, which I like, is to replace 5 with:

5.   Places are then awarded to all FSM pupils to those who pass. Following that allocation the remaining places are allocated to those who pass, starting at the top of the list until all of the places are full.

This would ensure that any FSM pupils who are smart enough to pass the test are offered a place even if they don’t get the very highest pass mark. I doubt this would get us very far but it would compensate for some of the attainment gap that develops over the course of primary education.

Taking this a step further you could also see selective schools to consider how much accelerated progress they could confidently secure over a single year. Once they have a clear idea of this they could then look to a differentiated pass mark for kids on FSM, secure in the knowledge that they would finish the end of their first year in line with the wider population of the year group. The EEF/Sutton Trust toolkit might be a good place to start when looking at what might be possible here.

Widening Access

The next significant piece of work should involve looking to the very best widening participation teams at Universities and adapting their learning to meet the needs of bright KS2 pupils from low income backgrounds. In a recent meeting with my old school I was heartened to hear about a significant widening access project working across over 50 local primary school.

What’s less clear is the impact of these projects – very few have had any kind of significant evaluation. A point echoed by the Sutton Trust report. There is positive anecdotal evidence around the work going on but in order to a) secure the long term future of these projects and b) share  best practice across the grammar school network this evaluative work is, in my view, essential.

Partnerships with non-selective schools

Whilst I’m always keen for collaboration between schools I think this recommendation deserves some very specific scrutiny. I think we need to re-imagine where the partnership benefits are here. The report says:

‘Further partnerships between grammar schools and comprehensives or secondary moderns in their areas could be developed to ensure that high achieving students from low and middle income backgrounds have access to good local teachers in their areas.’

This is a bold and I suspect inaccurate assumption. I haven’t seen evidence to suggest that teachers in grammar schools are better, particularly when it comes to improving outcomes for vulnerable young people, than their peers in the non-selective sector (I’m happy to be corrected if there is any research). For me here, the benefit in partnership comes from the grammar schools looking to other local schools with very high numbers of pupils from low income backgrounds and, coming back to my earlier point, understand how they can accelerate progress in the first year in order to that pupils from low income backgrounds can ‘catch up’.


The final issue is the leadership of this agenda within the remaining grammar schools. Taking these three things together, alongside the other recommendations from the Sutton Trust report (including 11+ test design, tutoring and the role of primary schools) will, I think, make a difference if and only if this agenda is taken seriously by the heads. Without that, we’ll get nowhere.


4 thoughts on “Grammar Schools – what to do, what to do…

  1. Of course, the weird thing with grammar schools is the presumption that all bright children have to be within the same four walls to achieve well. It still doesn’t make any sense to me. If we really think it’s about making sure children of the same ability are grouped together, why not just go for setting within a comprehensive environment?

    The 25% thing works better for private schools than for grammars. Especially private schools who currently give scholarships out purely on academic selection but who have a much more liberal policy for entry among fee-paying people.

    1. I agree entirely. Sadly my point about political will and capital mean that I think, at least in the medium term, they are here to stay.

      Politically it’s an odd one – many typical labour voters (not activists) still believe in the social mobility argument and typical middle England like the security they bring for their kids. Everything from this is the best education to this is the best social mix for my kids.

  2. As a teacher with (deep breath) centre-right political instincts, I’ve never quite understood the obession with reintroducing the 11+ on a wide scale. From a Tory point of view, what is the State doing telling parents where their children are Allowed to go to school?
    My hunch is that when campaigners argue for a big expansion of grammar schools, the important part is the expansion of a certain type of education, with a certain way of insisting on a certain set of academic and behavioural standards. My experience as a pupil was getting the same expectations in a comprehensive system, but I suspect that wasn’t universal. Thinking about it, wasn’t that (merging grammars and sec moderns and ending up with the worst sort of 70s trendy mush) part of the plot of the first few series of Grange Hill?

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