Selection in state schools remains controversial but grammar school are secure

Little prospect though of   any new grammar schools


Grammar schools are defined under section 104 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 as maintained (community, foundation, voluntary aided and voluntary controlled) schools which select all, or substantially all, of their pupils by reference to high academic ability.

They select their pupils by examination of their high academic ability, usually through the  11 plus examination.

The number of grammar schools had peaked at 1,298 in 1964. The proportion of secondary school pupils in grammars was highest in 1947 at just under 38%. The absolute number of pupils in state grammar schools peaked at 726,000 in 1964.  Their number went from 1,298 in 1964 to 675 in 1974 and 261 in 1979. The fastest period of decline was the 1970s. Between 1971 and 1978 650 grammar schools closed, an average of more than 90 per year.  The last grammar school in Wales closed in 1988.   However, there was a modest increase in the number of grammar schools in England in the early/mid 1990s. Their number remained at 164 up to 2012 with roughly 5% of secondary pupils in the maintained sector in grammar schools.

Under the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 no new maintained grammar school can be opened and existing schools cannot introduce new selection by ability. Section 39 of the Education and Inspections Act 2006 re-states section 99 of the 1998 Act. This prohibits any new selection by ability, other than for banding or for sixth forms. So, current legislation does not allow for a new grammar school to be established. But the Secretary of State is allowed to designate a new grammar school where it is established to replace existing grammar school provision.  And, any grammar school can seek to expand by opening another site .

The Education and Inspections Act 2006 and the Academies Act 2010 effectively mean that there can be no ‘new’ grammar schools (ie in addition to the 164 grammar school already operating).   However, as illustrated by the so called Sevenoaks   model, it is also the case that any school can seek to expand by opening another site. This has been allowed since the 1944 Education Act.  But to do so it must be a continuance of the original school.  In 2012, some councils attempted to use loopholes in the schools admissions code to expand the number of grammar places – building “annexes” of existing schools in new towns several miles away.  Hence, the compromise endorsed by councillors in Sevenoaks in 2012.  The promised extra provision in Sevenoaks will not be in a ‘new’ grammar school, but in two “satellites”, each with 60 places, run by existing grammars in other towns.

The first new state-funded selective school for many years opened at the start of 2012/13 –the Tauheedul Islam Boys’ High School -Blackburn and Darwen)– Which is a Free School catering for 11-18 year olds.

Seven Local Education Authorities (LEAs) Trafford, Buckinghamshire, Slough, Torbay, Southend, Kent and Medway- out of the 151 with secondary schools, have a fully selective system (grammar and secondary modern schools). A further 29 have partially selective secondary systems (grammars/secondary moderns alongside comprehensives).

Grammar schools remain though controversial. They are a totemic issue for the left in politics who eschew any form of selection in the education system and want a fully comprehensive  system, believing that selection diminishes individuals, casting the majority as failures at an early age (11), and  leads to social segregation. The Right see them as a ladder for bright disadvantaged pupils to improve their life opportunities and point to the fact that less working class children accessed the best universities   as the number of grammar school places  declined. If anything social mobility has been in decline over the last generation, mainly because of this.

In 2008 the (then) Department for Children Schools and Families looked at the intake of grammar schools in comparison to that of their local area. This found that free school meal rates in grammars were not representative of their local areas. They were around one-fifth of the level in their local area in 2007. In addition they also had fewer pupils from the low attaining ethnic groups –Black African, Black Caribbean, Bangladeshi and Pakistani- than their local area. The gap varied somewhat by ethnic group, but was typically around half the rate in their local area in 2007. This study also looked at the level of deprivation affecting children in the areas that different types of schools took their pupils from. In grammar schools in 2007 the proportion of pupils from the least deprived quartile was just over 40%, compared to around 25% in their local area. (Faith schools, research suggests, also tend to fall below the local authority average for pupils on Free school meals, and tend to perform better than peer schools).  Research for the Sutton Trust in 2008 looked at the ‘social selectivity’ of secondary schools and found that grammars were more socially selective than other schools and that they made up 17 of the top 100 most socially selective secondary schools, but 5% of all secondaries. This general finding should be little surprise given the lower attainment of pupils eligible for free school meals at the end of primary school.

Andrew Neil, the former editor of the Sunday Times, now a commentator  in the broadcast media,   made a documentary about  two years ago on grammar schools .In it  he argued  that the grammar schools provided bright working-class and lower-middle class  children with a route to educational and career success.  Far from being elitist and unfair institutions, they were actually effective engines of social mobility, he argued.  One of the most striking pieces of evidence for Neil’s thesis is the social background of UK Prime Ministers.  Between the Eton-educated Alec Douglas-Home and the Fettes-educated Tony Blair, five successive UK Prime Ministers were from modest backgrounds and four were educated at grammar schools.   Chris Cook of the FT who recently researched grammar schools results says ‘there is an idea out there in the ether that grammar schools are better for propelling poor children to the very top of the tree.’  But, that is not true he claims.   ‘Poor children are less likely to score very highly at GCSE in grammar areas than the rest.’ (FT 28 Jan 2013)

To recap – A single (grammar) school can operate from more than one site, but to do so ‘any other site must be a continuance of the original school.’ But new wholly selective state schools are not permitted under existing legislation.   It would be rash, though, to assume that all grammar schools wish to expand.  And indeed of those who rather like the idea of scaling up   not all will have the space or the capital to do so. We are not going to see an expansion of grammar schools any time soon although arguments over selection in the state system and the future of grammar schools will  doubtless continue.


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