Grammar schools: For hard working children?

By - Monday 24th February, 2014

Adding to the grammar school debate, Cormac Mannion asks what value, if any, grammar schools have

Image taken by Christopher Sessums and used under Creative Commons licence.

In his article that recently appeared in the Croydon Citizen’s second print edition, Benjamin Flook rightly addressed the pressing issue of Croydon’s schools’ inability to cater for our rapidly expanding population. As a solution to this, Mr Flook suggested drawing on the success of neighbouring Sutton and reinstituting grammar schools in our fair borough. While I applaud Mr Flook in drawing our attention to this serious issue in a well-written article for the Citizen, I must respectfully disagree with his proposed solution.

Arguments in favour of grammar schools tend to hinge on the belief that grammar schools provide a quality of education to rival those of independent schools without the exorbitant financial cost, thus affording talented children from less well-off backgrounds the chance to stay abreast of their well-heeled privately educated peers in the ‘race to the top’ (if you’ll forgive the Americanism). Writing for the Independent, Mary Ann Sieghart described grammar schools as “turbo-chargers of social mobility”. There are scant few people in today’s society that would declare that only the children of the rich should have access to first class education or that socio-economical divides should be immutable (at least openly). The rather awkward problem for pro-grammar-schoolers is that almost all of the available evidence suggests that far from increasing social mobility, grammar schools tend to entrench class divisions.

Why is this? Because grammar schools are, to quote head of Ofsted Michael Wiltshaw, “stuffed full of middle class children”. Research by the Guardian on England’s grammar schools found that for every student attending a grammar school from a poor enough background to be eligible for free school meals, four grammar school students previously attended private schools. The most recent Ofsted report for Mr Flook’s very own grammar school, Wilson’s School, found that the number of students eligible for free school meals was “well below average” (referring to the national average for schools, which last year was 16.3%). The problem is that despite the fact that grammar schools are ‘free’, the children of wealthier parents are still much more likely to be accepted, and working class children are woefully underrepresented.

While pro-grammar-schoolers may be well intentioned, it does appear that they are just plain wrong

There are several possible reasons why this is the case. One is that sharp-elbowed middle class parents can afford to give their child the competitive edge by paying for private tutoring and exam prep. Another is that more affluent parents have the financial wherewithal to up sticks and relocate to ensure they fall within a good grammar school’s catchment area, a luxury that hard pressed working class families lack. Perhaps it is a combination of these factors and others that lead to the seemingly ineluctable link between the educational success of a child and his or her parents’ income, a link that helps explain why the widening gap in inequality seems to be paralleled by a widening gap in achievement amongst Britain’s children.

Indeed, Ofsted even went so far as to warn of a “two nations” gap in school achievement. To hammer the proverbial nail into the coffin of the pro-grammar-schoolers’ argument for enhanced social mobility, Owen Jones’ polemic Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class cites research suggesting that working class children who defy the odds and manage to attend a grammar school still underperform compared to their middle class counterparts. In fact, studies undertaken by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Education and Poverty Programme found that just 14% of variation in individuals’ performance is accounted for by school quality, and that “most variation is explained by other factors“. So while pro-grammar-schoolers may be well intentioned, it does appear that they are just plain wrong.

The concept of ‘meritocracy’ has become sacrosanct in today’s political rhetoric

What made my stomach turn a little was Mr Flook’s use of that most holy of holy words, ‘meritocracy’, to explain his ascension to the higher educational plane of the grammar school. The concept of ‘meritocracy’ has become sacrosanct in today’s political rhetoric (I’ve yet to hear of any of the political parties in the country decry the notion of meritocracy, no matter how extreme their views on other matters), but to apply it to eleven year old school children seems to me to cross the line into the absurd. It brings emetic visions of the Tories exploring new uses for their current preferred mantra… Perhaps in the near future we will be subjected to the slogan ‘Grammar Schools: For Hard Working Children’?

I did well in my primary school in Upper Norwood, but I’d be a tad reluctant to attribute this to the hard work and endeavour of my ten year old self rather than to a financially secure, stable family situation in which I was heavily encouraged to read and write and was taken on plenty of trips to museums (largely against my will!). It would be farcical to claim that children can have any control over the socio-economic conditions they find themselves in, and if these conditions have as much influence over educational achievement as the evidence seems to suggest, who exactly are grammar schools or any selective school systems designed to reward and/or punish? The child or the parents? On a more positive note, Croydon seems to be getting by without grammar schools as, according to Flook himself, “the number of pupils achieving five GCSEs from A* to C has increased from under half the borough’s pupils to over 90%.” Which begs the obvious question, whither the need for grammar schools?

Cormac Mannion

Cormac Mannion

A born and bred Croydonian, Cormac has recently completed a PGCE at Cambridge University following a History and Philosophy degree at Exeter University. A keen sportsman, Cormac worked for two summers in America at an underprivileged sports camp in New York and spends his spare time playing for local Croydon rugby team the Old Mids. When he’s not playing rugby or writing for the Citizen, you will most likely find him at Nandos complaining that he has yet to receive a Black Card despite his inordinately frequent custom.

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  • lizsheppardjourno

    Been in the woods with the bears there, Cormac Mannion :) There are real issues of underperformance in some of Croydon’s schools. For all the reasons stated here, re-introducing grammar schools would do absolutely nothing to improve matters or help those so badly let down.

    • Stephen Giles

      I’m not sure that I fully agree because in theory a grammar school, being for the benefit of brighter children, who of course have needs just as much if not more than children with “special needs”, will offer an increased opportunity for them to excel.

  • nmakwana

    Your article is well written and has merit. However, it fails address the reality of Croydon’s parents pushing for places in neighbouring borough’s Grammar schools in Sutton and further afield in Kent. This fact alone suggests that there is a need for a good Grammar school in the borough.

    It is true that the many Grammar school students may well be from middle-class backgrounds. However, this means that many will also not be and there will be a far greater diversity of backgrounds at a Grammar school compared to any free paying school.

    That the percentage of pupils eligible for free school meals at Grammar schools is lower than the average a slight misnomer, as it implies that one is automatically considered ‘middle-class’ if one is not getting free meals. This is simply not the case. I attended Wilsons school and can provide anecdotal evidence that there were many pupils who whilst not underprivileged, were certainly from families where any education beyond the age of 16 was unusual, mine included. A grammar school afforded them a high quality of education, and one which they certainly could not have afforded to pay for.

    Rather then writing off Grammar schools, a better policy may be to provide selective streaming in comprehensive schools. Alternatively, an interesting answer to the ‘coaching for the eleven-plus’ exam is for schools to administer their own tests. This was done by grammar schools in Buckinghamshire after realising that students were well coached for the Local Authority set tests.

  • NRD

    You say the fact that 90% of children in Croydon receiving 5 A*-Cs at GCSE begs the question, what is the need for grammar schools. However I believe that this should be the aim of any comprehensive school, whilst the grammar school is intended to allow children to reach their full potential, possibly achieving 5 A*s, or more.