The case for more grammar school places in Croydon

By - Thursday 29th October, 2015

If Croydon wants to follow Sevenoaks’ lead in opening a ‘new’ grammar school, Robert Ward won’t object

The MP for Croydon South, Chris Philp, has welcomed the announcement that a grammar school will soon be opened in Sevenoaks. Officially, it will be an annexe to the nearby Weald of Kent School in Tonbridge. Why? To get round the 1998 law forbidding new grammar schools. Chris is a strong proponent of additional grammar school places, as is his Conservative colleague, Steve O’Connell, the London Assembly member for Croydon and Sutton. Both men are former grammar school pupils. They are hopeful that Croydon may someday follow in Sevenoaks’ footsteps.

My first inclination, after an initial surprise that a school of any kind could be specifically banned, is to be in favour of Chris’s plan. A well-run, cost-effective school which will add to Croydon’s educational options when schools are sorely needed? There are powerful and obvious arguments for this.

However, grammar schools are controversial because children must pass an exam to get in. Their heyday was in the 1950s, with the nationwide ‘eleven-plus’. Those who passed went to grammar schools. Those who did not went to a secondary modern.

Should we worry about a small expansion of a minor sector of the education system?

That system was phased out in the 1960s on the grounds that it was inflexible (there was no possibility of transfer if a child’s performance changed – schools followed different curriculums); divisive (branding children as successes or failures at age eleven) and too many secondary modern schools were of poor quality. Some grammar schools did, however, remain. Most became something else, although confusingly some of these retained ‘grammar school’ in their names.

The arguments against some selection in the state sector have since weakened. State schools are now largely non-selective, so children are not systematically labelled failures at eleven. We now have the National Curriculum across public sector schools (enabling transfers) and efforts by governments of both stripes have improved educational quality (so there isn’t a systematically second-class stream). Should we therefore worry about a small expansion of a minor sector of the education system?

Although the old arguments against grammar schools have disappeared or are much reduced, there are some new ones. The easiest one to counter is attributing the academic success of grammar schools not to the education provided, but to their different intake. Even the most negative analysis is only able to conclude that grammar schools did not do measurably better than their alternative, allowing for variations in the educational attainment levels of their intake. In such a case, I would leave it to the parents to decide where they might prefer to send their children.

My suspicion is it is easy class-politics to point to financial clout rather than the myriad of other possible factors

Another modern argument is that selection is unfair because certain groups are under-represented in the remaining grammar schools, especially pupils from more deprived backgrounds. This is frequently characterised as pushy middle-class parents gaming the system by hiring tutors to coach their offspring. My only source of information is a sixteen year old grammar school pupil who estimates that only a very small percentage of her fellow pupils were at all coached. Not a huge sample, I admit, but I suspect that it is more data than some of those who blame extra coaching have looked at.

My suspicion is it is easy class-politics to point to financial clout rather than the myriad of other possible factors. Data from English primary schools shows that at reception age (around five), children from the more deprived backgrounds are behind in cognitive development as well as in the particular social areas of concentration abilities and positive response to rules. The statistically significant gap in achievement at age five is there without any imminent selection, and presumably incentive for extra coaching.

Closing that gap is extremely important, hence efforts by government to improve early years, including nursery education and additional funding via the pupil premium. We need to address root causes of underperformance, not their result.

And by the way, what’s wrong with pushy parents?

And this is not an either/or choice. Extending grammar schools is not inherently at the expense of efforts focussed on closing the attainment gap, so there is no case on those grounds for opposing extra grammar school places. Extra places will even mean some more deprived children will get the opportunity for a grammar school education, should they and their parents wish it. Had this group completely caught up under the current system, not as many would have had this opportunity because there would be fewer grammar schools.

And by the way, what’s wrong with pushy parents? Within reason, isn’t that what we want – parents supporting their children, passing on the skills to help them succeed and challenging both them and their schools to improve?

A grammar school might not be right for every child, but I can see no reason to deny it as an option to those for whom it might be. I wish Chris every success in his endeavours.

Robert Ward

Robert Ward

Engineer and project manager specialised in helping businesses make better strategic decisions and improve safety, quality and effectiveness. Conservative Party Councillor representing Selsdon and Addington Village on Croydon Council. He tweets as @moguloilman.

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  • lizsheppardjourno

    Where to begin? I have two sons aged 14 and 12, so I know a bit about coaching.

    It’s big business these days, carried out intensively, sometimes from a very early age, so that children can pass the examinations for certain desirable schools. Some parents regard it as normal, having undergone it themselves when it was less common. Others are troubled at the strain it places on their children and upon family life. Increasing numbers feel they have no choice, despite their reservations. Others
    worry that they cannot afford it (many cannot – it is a considerable expense) and that their children will lose out.

    They will, too, since the suggestion that grammar schools lift up the academically able children of low income families is incorrect. Coached children pass entrance exams, and they are not from low income backgrounds.

    We all know what happens to the children who fail the exams – it’s off to the sink schools created by middle class opt-out, headed for precarious lives in low skilled work if they’re lucky. (Some, of course, will be saved by the purchase of a house in a desirable catchment area). My concerns aren’t just for the failures, though, but for all children and families caught up in this.

    Coaching creates great stress – tears, tension and scenes. Children worry terribly, feel their parents’ anxiety and worry even more. Many readers will already be aware of mental health issues among young people and the effects of such pressure from early childhood play a considerable part in this. I’ve witnessed families uproot themselves when a child fails an examination to a ‘desirable’ school: you’re
    never too young to know that you failed your parents. And some of the most harmed children are those who, for all the coaching, still only scrape through; they will spend their secondary education at the bottom of the class among the hot-housed, learning
    what you learn there about yourself and your abilities. The occasion child from a genuinely poor background who gets through will suffer too – take this scholarship girl for a coffee if you want to hear more about how THAT works. Ultimately, pushy parents harm everyone’s children.

    But even after all of this – coaching isn’t my main objection to selective schooling. My objection is this: I believe that children from all backgrounds should be educated together so that they learn about and understand each other. The more diverse a community, the more important this becomes. (Streaming is important since not everyone is equally academic, and it works very well).

    The very, very last thing we need is more entrance exams, more coaching, more social division and the return of grammar schools.

    • Robert Ward

      Thanks Liz,
      You clearly disapprove of how some people might wish to bring up their children and paint a very dark picture of the consequences. One could argue about how prevalent coaching is and what the impacts are. You seem to have had a bad school experience, others are very positive.

      At the end of the day, it is a matter of choices. You make yours and others make theirs. But I see no case for denying others an option that you are free not to take.

      On the separate point of children understanding and appreciating the diverse society in which we live, that is part of being a rounded person. It is something that sets a child up for success in the modern world and as such every school has a responsibility to contribute to giving that to their students, as do parents.

      If I read it correctly, your implication is that this can somehow not be achieved for a grammar school child. Here I disagree. School intakes in non-selective schools are determined by parental choice and amongst other factors, catchment area. There are wide variations across Croydon in the demographics of the various school catchment areas. That does not mean that children in these schools lack appreciation of those demographics poorly represented
      in their area.

      You may again take a different view, so if you believe this to be the case and you rank this skill highly you will chose to send your child to a different school from others. But again, I see no case for denying others an option that you are free not to take.


    • Stephen Giles

      There should be a Grammar Stream in every Comprehensive and Academy school in order to enhance the progress of brighter children, so that they are not held back by those less able, and any disruptive elements (who frankly during my time at Queen Elizabeth’s Boys’ Grammar School Barnet, risked expulsion for their antics!)

  • Anne Giles

    Difficult, of course. It all depends on the school. My husband’s two nephews went to a comprehensive school and were bullied for being clever and for studying hard. They did succeed eventually. One is a barrister and the other teaches languages. My husband went to a very good grammar school, but many of the teachers were bullies who caned the boys over anything. Needless to say, that turned some of them into rebels, so he failed his exams and concentrated on playing his guitar! Children need love, above all, and to feel that they are letting the family down if they do not pass exams is too stressful and causes problems. A teacher at a local private school informed me that there were many anorexic girls there. The daughter of a friend of mine at another private school was self-harming. I am in favour of grammar schools, but not in favour of bullying parents who expect too much of their children. Going to university is not for everyone and success is about being a happy and well adjusted adult, not necessarily doing what your parents demand of you.

  • Robert Ward

    Anne and Stephen,
    Schools are a reflection of the general environment in which we live, their intake and the school itself. There are always issues which need to be dealt with and the schools have a part to play in dealing with them, along with parents and the authorities.

    Disruptive behaviour and pupils struggling to keep up are something that every school has to deal with. Whether a particular school or type of school is good or bad at dealing with such issues is hard to pin down. Publishing good data where possible, vetting by the authorities and relying on the school’s reputation and the judgement of parents seems to be the best practice at the moment to ensure our children get the best education possible.

    The proposed school in Sevenoaks, being the extension of an existing school already has systems and a reputation in place. Being an annexe actually has advantages. Croydon having to follow that template is no bad thing.

  • Patrick Blewer

    Many many years ago I went to quite a (now) famous grammar school just over the Sutton border on the old Croydon Airport site.

    Wilson’s gave me a lot. An analytical capability backed up by research skills and a genuine love of language, both my own and french / German. Sport was great too. Cricket, rugby, XCountry mean I’m not as fat now as my appetite would make me.

    And yet…..Wilson’s was a deeply Conservative institution. We were told when to get there, what to think, how to speak. We were always told we were the top x% and how lucky we were to have the opportunity. Comprehensive education was implicitly and often explicitly sneered at.

    Control was as rigid as it could be without physical discipline (mostly).  It felt like a factory back then and I hear it is even more so now. We weren’t taught how to think. We were taught how to pass exams.

    My generation was actually quite mixed in terms of race and class. You could see it changing however as geographical restrictions were lifted and the school became less and less diverse.Coaching was rife as entrance exams weren’t just verbal / numerical reasoning. English / maths requirements were beyond what was taught at an average junior school.

    i feel grammars give the boys a lot, but they are a closed shop run for the benefit of a certain class and are partially designed to reinforce class distinction. keeping sections of society apart and telling 15 year old boys they are special is not an ideal combination for an integrated balanced world view.

    So in conclusion I’m not pro grammar. Im anti segregation. All schools should be good schools. How do we make comps better by removing some of the smarter kids?

    I’d only allow more grammars if someone could show me how they will enhance the grades of all students, not just those that passed an exam at the age of 11. 

    • Robert Ward

      Thanks Patrick,

      Your experience of a Grammar School sounds mixed.

      I am of an age where the eleven plus was universal so there was no Comprehensive education. Those who did not pass, like my brother went to a Secondary Modern.

      In common with your experience my school was a conservative (with a small c) institution. We were certainly told when to get there, although my youthful rebellion was to arrive late from the age of 15 so I missed chapel most days. This was never mentioned to me. Good manners and respect were part of the ethos.

      But we were certainly not told what to think, nor how to speak. We were never told we were the top x%, although we were on occasion told that we had been given the opportunity of a good education, for which we should be grateful. Since I was the first in my family to have an education beyond the age of 14, let alone go to university, I am grateful to this day. Secondary Moderns, nor indeed any other schools were rarely mentioned

      School never felt like a factory and we were most definitely taught how to think. I still remember being challenged to think about, for example, alternative religions (decades before this was fashionable) and WHY we should study Shakespeare. Passing exams was important, but not to the exclusion of all else.

      As to social class, my Junior School was on a Council estate and most, if not quite all the other families came from better off familiies than I did. Yet I was never once looked down on or treated differently.

      Writing all this makes me appreciate again what a great opportunity it was, one that I would like others to have too.

      • Patrick Blewer

        Different experiences at similar institutions have given us both entirely valid points of view and amusingly led us into separate sections of the same industry.

        Something I’ve always found refreshing about natural resources is the diversity of the staff that make it up.

        Lots of ex grammar boys, but at the same time, lots of comp and lots of public schoolboys and after a few years, no one cares. Are you good at your job? Are you a decent enough person to have to spend quite a long time in a potentially isolated and high pressure situation?

        • Robert Ward

          Indeed. Nobody knows or cares about your background, only whether you know what you’re doing and whether you can be trusted.

          Interesting to try and figure out how that comes about:-
          - Wide range of nationalities?
          - Need to manage risks which if not done properly can get you hurt?
          - Cyclical business so you have to get used to getting laid off?
          - Highly paid?
          - Likely to have to work in remote locations for long periods with a small group of people
          - Likely to work in foreign countries where you have to learn to blend in

  • ianr17

    Its really sad that the argument that most people believed was settled 30 years has reappeared. Everybody wants there child to go to a grammar school, but nobody wants their child go to a secondary modern. The reason Grammar schools were replaced was because the system failed the needs of the country.
    I believe when my father started teaching at Fairchild High School in the 1950′s he was the only university graduate teacher there, kids were taught at Secondary Moderns that they were failures by the system.
    From a personal point of view I passed my 11 plus I think I was the last year that did it, I spend five terrible years in a Grammar School in Clapham, because I was slightly different in outlook to life I had a bad time and walked away at 16 with next to know qualifications. Were taught not to think or question how life was ordered.
    I was lucky my dad managed to get me into the Sixth Form at the most wonderful Comprehensive School in Croydon Heath Clark High School, where in two years I managed to get three A’levels and other exams, because the teachers took me for what I was. I was so sad to see the school as long since closed.
    I also believe that much of the research behind Grammar Schools and the eleven plus was proved to be false. Children tend to always do better in schools which have better facilities, smaller class sizes.
    My children all went to the local comprehensive schools and they all did very well and have been to university.
    I always think the most interesting facts about the debate on education is that who was the education minister that closed most Grammar School was Mrs Thatcher, the darling of the Right.

    • Robert Ward

      I think the question of whether there should be a rigid, universal pass/fail system at age eleven with no way back thereafter is resolved. That is not what is under discussion.

      Given your bad experience of A grammar school does not mean that ALL Grammar Schools gave a similar experience. Clearly some did not to some pupils.

      My guess would be that you would not send your children to a Grammar School. That would be your choice, others would choose differently. It does seem though an odd position, (if I understand correctly) also posted by someone else, that you had a bad experience at a Grammar School so it should be a choice denied to others.

      Regarding class sizes, the Grammar Schools would get the same amount of money per pupil as a similarly sized Comprehensive. If the Grammar School achieves better results with smaller class sizes, that would be something to encourage and learn from in my opinion. I do agree with you on the data being subject to interpretation – it is very difficult to measure an educational ‘value-add’ of a school.