By Joseph Poppy
To expand or not to expand? That is the question the Department for Education is currently unable to answer. Plans for a £200 million fund aimed at helping existing grammar schools expand may not go ahead. At a quick glance, it’s easy to conclude that grammar schools are good schools. Over a third of UK politicians attended a grammar school, many others were privately educated and only a select few gained an education via comprehensive schools. A 2015 report from the House of Commons Library states that “in 2015, 96.7% of grammar school students achieved at least five GCSEs at grades A* to C including English and maths, compared with 58.1% in state-funded schools overall.”
With this information alone, we could conclude that grammar schools produce better academic results. Therefore, expanding existing grammar schools or building more will lead to more children attending them, which in turn will mean more fantastic GCSE results. As a result, everyone will end up going to the best universities before all going on to get the best jobs possible. We will enter a golden age, the UK will become a utopia, a bastion of knowledge where the best and brightest dwell. It’s a great shame then that this funding may not go ahead.
Ignoring the economic woes that this exaggerated hypothetical world would suffer (the lack of those willing to do the hard, laborious jobs due to all the PHDs would eventually cause a number of problems), it sounds like a good case for grammar schools. However, as is always the case, it is not that simple.
Selective schools are just that: selective. It’s very easy for a school to have a 90+% rate of A*s to Cs if they only admit students likely to achieve an A* to a C. The percentage for comprehensive schools is that much lower, because they accept one and all, regardless of academic ability. The report from the House of Commons Library then, is a redundant one.
Expanding Grammar schools will be of little help to those who actually need it
Children have to take a test to get into grammar schools. This usually takes the form of the 11 plus exam. This exam, which tests pupils on a variety of subjects. The sort of questions asked are not the sort a typical child would be prepared for. The standard primary education will not furnish children with the knowledge required to pass this test. What’s more these tests are usually taken by students aged just ten. Unless tutored, or urged by well-informed parents, it’s unlikely a ten-year-old will understand the gravitas of the situation. Those that take the test and go onto pass it are, more often than not, tutored. Those whose parents can afford tutors are more likely to experience the luxury of a grammar school. This rules out children from lower income houses.
It could be argued that more grammar schools or expanded grammar schools will open the door to more. This is all well and good, but the process will still be selective. Those taken on are likely to do well anyway. A grammar school will make no difference than if they attended a comprehensive, their grades should remain consistent. The only benefit then, can be the perceived notion that grammar schools = better. This can attract the best teachers. This smacks of elitism. Which is of course another concern.
Being unable to get into a grammar school can make students feel like they have somehow failed
In the 21st century, there’s still a sense of elitism ingrained in our culture. There is a bizarre gap in opportunities available between the rich and the less well off. A piece of research from 2013 conducted by the Institute of Fiscal Studies found that grammar schools were arbitrarily less likely to admit students who were eligible for free school meals or were from poorer neighbourhoods, despite good grades.
I myself, educated in a state-funded comprehensive, know many people who achieved fantastic grades, went to great universities and went on to get good jobs. Whilst everyone’s lives are different and every individual places varying levels of importance on different things, on the whole, I noticed these people happened to be very driven where education was concerned. Their parents encouraged and pushed for them to study. Noticing this apparent dedication, teachers would often pay them special attention (good grades make the school look good). This atmosphere, in which education is given an elevated level of importance in life, led to many achieving those highly sought after A*s to Cs.
I also know many people who didn’t achieve A*s to Cs in at least five subjects. This is inevitable. In a school that takes one and all, some will just not be as academically minded as others. In some cases, it’s because teachers in a busy comprehensive will not have the time to focus on every student individually. It may be a lack of resources available made it harder for them to learn. It may be that they didn’t want to learn, which is more of a key issue than it might seem.
Those attending grammar schools will, more often than not, be from environments pushing education and its importance. This is perceived to be a class thing. Parents who enjoyed a good education themselves are more likely to focus on it and push their children to achieve more academically. Whilst this is not a rule, it is generally accepted to be a pattern. Whilst grammar schools are not middleclass ‘clubs’ for lack of a better word, they do have this perception. Historically, this has alienated people against the concept and led to a certain division in society. I don’t feel the expansion of grammar schools will do anything to remove this perceived ‘taint’.
We live in precarious economic times. Is plunging £200 million into a system made up of overachievers and those from (on the whole) wealthier families a wise investment? As already established, those chosen to attend selective schools are already on track for great academic achievements regardless. Wouldn’t it be better to put the money where it is more needed?
Focus on making comprehensive schools around the country as good as they can possibly be, rather than making schools that are already known to be good slightly bigger.
Attract the best teachers to the comprehensives to bolster the A to C percentage and encourage students to want to learn. The money can be invested into offering a greater array of extra-curricular activities that may go onto aide in the development of other skills. Schools could buy better sports equipment or new technologies to improve learning. More classrooms could be built to combat over-crowding, which is perhaps the biggest concern for most mainstream comprehensives.
All in all, investing a large amount of money into grammar schools helps no one. Those benefitting from the money will already have been on track to achieve a top notch education and to take advantage of the opportunities that brings. It takes funding away from those who really need it. Those who require and deserve greater opportunities will get less. Comprehensive schools accept everyone, giving them extra funding benefits the many rather than the few.