What are Grammar Schools all about?
Our thanks to Mel Ingle, the founder of Ingle Education, for this enlightening article to help demystify Grammar School education.
Grammar Schools demystified: Educational Holy Grail or Unrealistic Pipe Dream?
Firmly entrenched in Mumsnet chitter-chatter and school gate mythology sits the mystical beast known as ‘The Grammar School’. Most of the British public have heard of them, many over the age of 45 will have distinct memories of their own 11+ experience and the extent to which it shaped their educational path. But what are Grammar Schools today and where do they fit in the complex, competitive and hierarchical structure of the UK’s Education System? Do they, as Prime Minister Teresa May, speaking in September 2016 following proposals to overturn the ban on the creation of new Grammar Schools, underpin a “belief in social mobility and making this country a true meritocracy”? Or, as denouncers will claim, are they merely another manifestation of the wealthy few using their affluence to overturn the meritocratic aim of the system and keep it as their own little secret? And in any case, politics aside – how DO you get your child into one?
Grammar Schools: Then and Now
The term “Grammar School” originates in Medieval Britain, where church-controlled schools, such as The Kings School in Canterbury were established to spread the teaching of Latin amongst prospective new Clergy. These schools saw frequent changes to their purpose and student bodies over the centuries that followed, but the modern concept of Grammar Schools came about as a result of the 1944 Education Act. The Act created a Tripartite Education System of Grammar Schools (Selectively Academic), Tertiary (Technical Schools which in reality never really gained traction) and Secondary Modern or Comprehensive (for ‘the rest’). The much-maligned system dominated for the next thirty years with every child sitting an 11+ examination at the end of Primary School, the results of which set their educational path in stone. Funding cuts in the 1980s saw many Grammar Schools converted to Comprehensives or Independents or simply closed down and just 163 Grammar Schools remain in England today (there are none in Wales or Scotland), spread, unevenly across 36 Local Authorities.
Around half the Local Education Authorities (LEAs) which have Grammar Schools have remained ostensibly generally ‘Selective’ – i.e. they have several Grammar Schools within the LEA and routinely assess all children in maintained Primary Schools, channelling the top 20-30% of academic performers into said selective schools.
Kent, Lincolnshire, Medway and Buckinghamshire all fall within this category. The remaining LEAs may have just one or two selective schools remaining, for which competition is frequently exceptionally high (Tiffin School in Kingston Upon Thames for example, frequently sees applicant numbers exceed 1800 for its 160 Year 7 places).
How does my child get a place at a Grammar School?
For those Grammar Schools in LEAs that remain broadly selective, simply living in-borough and having your (extremely academically able) child in a State-maintained Primary School or Partner Prep School is enough. Buckinghamshire have been notable pioneers with the latter, recognising the desire of many local families to start their children off in local Prep Schools with the explicit intention of using the Independent system as a springboard into Bucks’ prestigious Grammars (Dr Challenors et.al) and creating a system by which children attending ‘Partner Schools’ in the Independent Sector are automatically entered into the 11+ alongside their State peers.
In areas where there are just one or two Grammar Schools, the fight for admission comes down, primarily, to geography and the all-important entrance-examination performance. Sutton and Kingston-Upon-Thames’ Grammar Schools, for example, ring-fence places for those living in the immediate proximity of the schools, but they all hold back up to two thirds for their highest scoring applicants regardless of where they live. Many boroughs, in keeping with Teresa’s May’s claims regarding social mobility, also ring-fence places in every intake for children from socially deprived backgrounds, although they must, of course, meet the required academic criteria.
What is Assessed in the Grammar School Entrance Exam?
In LEAs with multiple Grammar Schools, one regional test is administered for all schools. In the half of Boroughs with small numbers of Grammar Schools, the schools themselves set individual entrance examinations and decide on their own pass marks.
The content and structure, however, is broadly universal. Children are registered (if required) from the Spring of Year 5 to sit assessments at the very beginning of Year 6. Written papers are sat in English, Mathematics and Reasoning. In ‘non-selective LEAs’, there are two parts to the assessment process, with the initial round being sat in early September of Year 6, and the results being disseminated within a matter of 10-14 days to enable families of those who have met the initial selection criteria to list the Grammar School on their Common Application Form for Secondary School (the deadline for which is end October of Year 6). Only those families whose children pass this first round and who have listed a Grammar School or Schools amongst their choices will then be invited for the second round of testing later in the Autumn term. Places are then usually offered as part of the general State Secondary Offer Day on 1st March (or thereabouts).
So are Grammar Schools the trailblazers of social mobility and inclusive education?
In short, no. Whilst proponents of Grammar Schools wax lyrical about their ability to offer the best possible standard of education for the most able children, regardless of background, the reality of admissions data tells otherwise. The Sutton Trust in 2013 found that of just 2.7% of successful Grammar School entrants were eligible for free school meals (a social-deprivation index measure) and amongst the highest achieving Primary School children, those eligible for free school meals were significantly less likely to be admitted to Grammar Schools than their wealthier, but academically equal peers. By contrast, just under 13% of entrants to Grammar Schools come from outside the State Sector (primarily from Prep Schools), which, considering only 6% of children nationally are educated privately, is a gross over-representation of the Independent Sector in Grammar School admissions. The simple reality is that as Independent Schooling costs spiral increasingly beyond the reach of all but the most affluent, a huge swath of ‘comfortably wealthy’ middle class families who can potentially afford the soaring property prices that dominate around the best of England’s Grammar Schools, are recognising that the expense of 2-3 years private tutoring in order to help gain admission to Grammar School is a more attractive option than £20k+ Independent School fees at Secondary Level. Despite Grammar (and Independent Schools) best efforts to ‘Tutor-Proof’ their 11+ assessments, the domino effect of tutoring becoming ‘de rigeur’ continues to disadvantage those whose parents cannot afford to do so.
So Why Choose a Grammar School?
Results, results, results. With over 50% of GCSE Grades awarded at A* or A at the top 100 Grammar Schools in England, it is difficult to argue with the academic credentials of the system. Only the top 9 Independent Schools in the country exceed the percentage of GCSE A* and A Grades at Hampstead’s Henrietta Barnett (Grammar) School. For the brightest sparks amongst our children and for those who live in, or are prepared to relocate to the right areas, Grammar Schools can be the ‘Holy Grail of Education’ – an all-expenses paid journey into the country’s finest non-fee-paying educational institutions, which, in turn, attract superb teachers, and all without any risk of reverse discrimination from universities. But parents must be realistic – admissions chances are stacked in favour of those who can afford ‘that little bit extra help’ to tip the balance, and the academic demands on those who are successful are not to be underestimated. Will we see new Grammar Schools being created in the coming years which could change all this? Only time will tell.
Mel Ingle is Founder of Ingle Education, a Consultancy and Advisory Service for parents within London and the South East or relocating elsewhere who are looking for an unbiased, honest assessment of all potential educational paths for their children. Offering guidance on the UK Education System as a whole, Admissions processes and criteria for both State and Independent Schools at all levels and a bespoke School Search service, Ingle Education is unique in both its breadth and tailored approach. Mel is a Mum of two children and lives in South West London.