Should Croydon even get a new grammar school?


By - Thursday 25th August, 2016

Changes on the political scene mean that one of Croydon’s perennial topics is back on the agenda


Our new prime minister has indicated that she is minded to authorise new grammar schools. In response, Croydon South MP Chris Philp has written to the Education Secretary requesting funding for new grammar school places in Croydon. Chris has campaigned on this for some time, citing his own experience on a recent Channel 4 news programme.

Chris’s grandfather moved to Peckham, setting in train a series of events eventually leading to Chris’s election to parliament. He attributes some of this success to his grammar school education, “from Peckham to parliament” as he put it.

Having previously broadly found myself in favour of Chris’s proposal I thought the subject worth revisiting, having seen some dubious statistics and anecdotes which, like Chris’s story, although informative, are not hard evidence.

The two questions receiving most attention are:

  • Do grammar schools improve the lives of their pupils beyond what they might have achieved had they attended a non-selective school?
  • Are some groups advantaged less than others at grammar schools, could some groups from poorer backgrounds even be disadvantaged?

My previous article concluded that there was no evidence that grammar pupils did worse than they otherwise would have and that therefore parents should be given the choice. The second question is couched by the ‘anti’ lobby mainly in terms of social mobility.

This article from the Policy Exchange is typical. Their points (three through five in their article) are that grammar schools admit fewer pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and provide a poor education anyway, especially for disadvantaged students.

The first point is correct. Grammar schools do admit fewer children from disadvantaged backgrounds. A dig at private tutoring notwithstanding, the article unwittingly shows why (their point one). Children from lower socio-economic backgrounds perform less well generally, so in a selection test, inevitably fewer children from lower socio-economic backgrounds will pass. One can rightly question why, and what to do about it, but the problem cannot be blamed on private tutoring or grammar schools.

Nowadays a much larger proportion of pupils take a larger number of GCSEs

Evidence purporting to show that grammar schools provided a poor education, even in their heyday, I find a strange line of argument. If they are so poor, why would we deny parents the choice of sending their children there, provided that we show them the evidence? Clearly parents don’t believe this ‘evidence’. Neither do I.

The article proclaims that “in 1959, when grammar schools educated the brightest 20%, nearly 40% of grammar students failed to get more than three O-levels (equivalent to GCSE grades A-C)” as if this were evidence of poorly performing grammar schools. Yet this means more than 60% did achieve four or more passes.

What is not mentioned is that in 1959 the school leaving age was 15 and that the majority did not even take O-levels. It also fails to mention that ‘norm-referencing’ was applied whereby papers were marked and the pass mark then set such that only 75% passed. Nowadays a much larger proportion of pupils take a larger number of GCSEs. Norm referencing was abandoned in the 1980s, so pass rates now approach 99%. The current situation is not comparable confirmed by recent figures showing 99.1% of today’s Grammar School children achieve five or more GCSEs graded A*-C.

22% of grammar pupils from a skilled working class background obtained two or more A levels

So is more than 60% of students achieving four or more O-levels in 1959 good or bad? I have no idea, but it says little about the effectiveness of grammar schools.

Data is quoted from the same source claiming to show poor performance of grammar school pupils from lower socio-economic backgrounds at A-level. An excellent source of A-level data from the period is the Robbins Report into higher education. Table 23 in the report, shown below, is key.

Data from Statistics of Education, 1961 from Robbins Report, table author’s own.

We see, for example, that 22% of grammar pupils from a skilled working class background obtained two or more A levels. This lags the 37% of pupils from a professional and managerial background, but why?

A clue is to look at column three, showing the children graded in the top third of those who passed the 11+ examination. Children from an unskilled and semi-skilled parental background are actually the top performers, 81% of them achieving two or more A-levels, but only as a percentage of those that stayed on to 18. The lower overall attainment of children from poorer backgrounds was caused by their not staying on to age 18.

To summarise, children from lower socio-economic groups were less likely to get into grammar schools, but those that did performed extremely well, provided that they stayed on to take their A-levels. Did this aid social mobility?

It did for those from the lower socio-economic groups that got in. The problem is that not enough of them did, and not enough of them stayed on to age 18. Doing something about that is the issue, which increasing the number of grammar school places will help rather than hinder. I’m still with Chris.

Robert Ward

Robert Ward

Engineer and project manager, started work on the railway but most of career in oil exploration and production. For the last fifteen years specialised in helping businesses improve their performance. Conservative Party candidate to represent Selsdon and Addington Village on Croydon Council. He tweets as @moguloilman.

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  • Marjorie Daw

    So the real question is why you think Croydon needs secondary modern schools- as that’s the inevitable outcome of opening grammar schools? They failed in the past- that’s why both grammar schools and secondary schools closed, and comprehensives took their place.

    • Robert Ward

      You have misunderstood the proposal. No-one is proposing a return to universal selection or Secondary Moderns. This is a single school where parents would be able to apply, should they wish, for their children to study subject to passing an entrance exam. The rest of Croydon’s state education system remains the same.

  • Rima Armstrong

    I don’t usually find myself agreeing with the Tories, but I’ll make an exception for grammar schools. In my view, any number of students from low-income households that can benefit from a grammar school education is a good thing. I come from a family that reaped the benefits of social-mobility thanks to two generations of grammar school education.

    At the time of my 11+, my parents could not afford home tuition, but my mother (a non-native English speaker) encouraged me and tutored me to ensure I was prepared for the 11+. I did pass the exam and, at the same time, received a scholarship into a private school. I chose to go to grammar school because that is what had been drummed into me as being the best from a young age.

    I think it’s important that middle school teachers can identify and encourage a child’s abilities, no matter what their status or class. I don’t think I’d have understood the benefits of grammar school at that age had my parents not explained, so I do think schools should do more to highlight opportunities at grammar schools to all of their students. Some, of course, will be more academically interested than others.

    I think having a local grammar school at least enables some social mobility, which is better than none.

    • Robert Ward

      Thanks Rima, I think your example illustrates the positive case for grammar schools aiding social mobility very well.

  • Anne Giles

    I am definitely in favour.

  • Michael Swadling

    Great article, schooling should be largely a matter of parental and pupil choice, we have a shortage of secondary places in Croydon (now and coming up as increased primary numbers come through). Grammar schools should be part of the mix of new schools being set up.

  • Marjorie Daw

    Talk about going forwards to the 1950s! Schooling cannot be a matter of parental choice, if there is selection. It’s illogical. Some children will fail to get into the school whatever the parents choose. So how these children going to be selected for the grammar school? The 11plus has been discredited, as children develop at different speeds.. Different children would ‘pass’ if the test were set at age 9, 11 or 13. More girls than girls always pass as they usually mature earlier. Are you going to have differential pass-rates according to gender?

    Grammar schools were discredited 40 years ago – even Margaret Thatcher accepted it was a failed policy. The success rates in counties which still have grammar schools is lower than those with comprehensives. Why do you want to return to that?

    • Robert Ward

      On schooling not being a matter of parental choice, I could not disagree more strongly. Parents are key part of a child becoming a successful adult, along with education and the broader environment. They have responsibilities and need to make the best choices for their child.

      I think you also may be misunderstanding that this is not universal selection. A parent may choose for their child to apply to the grammar school. If not the system functions for that child exactly as it does now. This is not the universal selection eleven plus.

      There is no question of different pass rates for different groups.

      I am not sure what you mean by different pass rates in different counties other than the article by the former Financial Times journalist who now works for the bbc. This is in my opinion a completely erroneous interpretation of the data he put together.

      • Marjorie Daw

        Disagree all you like. If there is selection by schools, there cannot be free parental choice.