Grammar schools: Learning from the past to avoid repeating mistakes


By - Monday 17th February, 2014

Patrick Ainley suggests that Benjamin Flook’s advocacy of grammar schools is contradictory


Image by Richard Harrison. Used under Creative Commons Licence.

Benjamin Flook is 17, but if he really wants to be a Tory MP, he ought to learn the history of his party. In the year he was born, for instance, John Major promised ‘a grammar school in every town’ in the general election he lost so badly. This was a vote loser because people can see that grammar schools are good for the few who get into them but the majority who don’t are relegated to a second class schooling.

The effects are seen when you compare areas with grammar schools to those without. Everything else being equal, the overall achievement in less selective systems is higher. However, if Sutton has higher average attainments than Croydon, this is not because of its grammar schools but because Sutton is a more affluent borough than Croydon. Predictably, without grammar schools Sutton’s overall results would be even higher; with grammar schools Croydon’s would be lower.

Nowadays, the only social mobility is downward

Today politicians offer everyone a chance of rising up through education, ignoring the fact that there isn’t employment for all those who qualify. They think bringing back grammar schools will restart what sociologists call the upward social mobility that existed after the war when selected working-class children could move up into growing managerial and professional jobs. Politicians also promise to bring back ‘apprenticeships’, even though most employers don’t need them.

But nowadays the only social mobility is downward as new technology automates and outsources so much work in a largely low-skilled service economy. In this situation education seems to offer the only hope of a secure job with prospects and so parents are desperately pushing their kids up a down-escalator of devaluing qualifications.

Image by Ben La Parole. Used under Creative Commons Licence.

Unlike John Major and Benjamin Flook though, most politicians don’t promise to bring back grammar schools. Instead, Education Secretary Michael Gove and his Croydon sidekick, Gavin Barwell MP, promise an even more deluded message, offering to make the state schools as good as the private ones. This of course isn’t possible without a lot more funding to enable the state schools to enjoy the smaller class sizes and expensive facilities that parents pay for so their children can be taught separately from the hoi polloi.

Despite mounting evidence against it, nearly all politicians ‘left’ and right believe that competition raises standards in education. But what competition in passing written exams does is sort out children according to their family background because all teachers know that poorer children on average read and write less well than richer ones. This has nothing to do with inherited intelligence – as Boris Johnson thinks – and everything to do with more or less affluence or poverty at home (Sutton compared with Croydon again).

Students study harder and harder but learn less and less

The various types of free, academy, foundation, faith and community schools that now exist in the state sector are in competition to cram their pupils in an academic curriculum like that of the highest attaining private schools. It is a competition they are bound to fail. Except for the exceptional few, it means an education sapped of any meaning as all students study harder and harder but learn less and less.

That’s why Benjamin Flook should learn the lessons of the past, so as not to repeat them in the future. Because failing the majority and making them feel they are failures, which is what our education system mainly does nowadays, is a recipe for more riots.

Patrick Ainley

Patrick Ainley

Patrick Ainley is co-author with Martin Allen of Lost Generation? (Continuum 2010). Their latest books are Education Beyond the Coalition, Reclaiming the Agenda, £6.99 and The Great Reversal, Young People, Education and Employment in a Moribund Economy, £4.99. Both available from on-line distributors and from www.radicaled.wordpress.com where they also blog.

More Posts





  • Anne Giles

    I disagree. We are not equal and we do not have equal levels of intelligence. The less bright students will always drag the others down. It happened to me at school. Also – my husband’s two nephews went to a comprehensive school and were bullied for being studious.

    • PatrickAinley

      What is ‘intelligence’? Generally it is defined as the ability to pas academic tests. Surely this is not all education should be about!
      You refer to your own individual case and that of your nephews but three swallows do not make a summer and overall statistics show the opposite – the majority of ‘less bright’ (since you use these Platonic ‘men of gold’ antique terms!) are pulled up by not being relegated to the depressive effects of failure – all the stats show this in comparing selective with less selective systems, eg.Kent as compared with non-selective counties of same size and by country – Scotland as against England for instance or Finland compared with Gernamny (tho then cultural/historical factors come into it).

      • Anne Giles

        We all have different IQs, whether we pass exams or not.

        • Michelle Cannon, PhD student

          Shouldnt we then question the ‘wisdom’ of IQ tests in their various contexts of operation and what they actually tell us? Isn’t it time to widen our narrow conceptions of intelligence based on numbers or indeed grades? There’s a danger in thinking we can quantify and define intelligence in such a way. Some are executed in Texas on the basis of IQ tests… Martin Wilson was executed in 2012 because his IQ of 61 wasn’t low enough on the ‘retardation’ scale to be spared.

          • Anne Giles

            No. As a language tutor with years of experience, I can tell whether somebody is intelligent or not. There are some people who are completely unable to grasp anything, When I taught in a prison, there were remedial classes for the men who could neither read or write.

          • PatrickAinley

            Well you have a wonderful gift then, Anne – to be able to tell at a glance who is ‘intelligent’ or not! Perhaps you could tell me what ‘intelligence’ is – apart from the ability to pass ‘intelligence’ tests! There is hardly anybody who really can’t ‘grasp’ anything unless they are disabled in some way. And of
            course there are remedial classes in prison for young men who can’t read or write since they fill our overcrowded prisons but this is a sad indictment of the schools system, which has never succeeded in making 20% of the population more than functionally literate – another sad fact, not helped by newspapers like The Sun with its ‘reading age’ of 7!

          • Anne Giles

            I don’t tell at a glance. I tell after a few hours of teaching.

  • James

    I think Ben Flook’s article is far more valid and persuasive. Grammar Schools are really good educational institutions which provide students who can’t afford to go to private schools with a first class education. Without grammar schools, those very best working class students do not have access to a top class education. We should be promoting meritocracy, and therefore I disagree with this article.

    • PatrickAinley

      Your argument amounts to ‘I think grammar schools are really good’! This is not good enough! In what sense are they ‘good’ and what’s all this about ‘first class’ education? Why should this not be open to all instead of just those who can afford it? There is an argument against meritocracy in the article which you do not address, again just asserting your contrary and contradictory view! (C minus)