A positive case for a Croydon grammar school

By - Thursday 22nd September, 2016

With plans for a Croydon example advancing, Robert Ward takes another look at the grammar school debate

Attempting to approach the question of a grammar school for Croydon with an open mind, I was struck by how poor was the case on both sides. Proponents mainly quoted anecdotes about themselves; opponents were incoherent and miss-applied statistics. Locally and nationally this has even more than usual been a dialogue of the deaf.

Heretofore I have tried to maintain some balance although my conclusion has on both occasions been that more grammar school places was good for Croydon. But a legitimate criticism is that I have highlighted the weakness of the arguments without making a positive case.

The House of Commons Education Select Committee is currently considering the broader questions. Specifically:

  • What is the purpose of education?
  • How do we measure its quality against this purpose?
  • How well does the current system perform against these measures?

Three excellent questions, to which I would add: would an extra grammar school improve education in Croydon?

The Committee has yet to report but here is my two cents worth. Education should play its part, alongside parenting, to make the most of the talents of our children enabling them to contribute to society, deal with its problems and gain its rewards. We should measure educational performance by how well the young people coming out of the system are able to meet these challenges.


One of the trickier tasks is placing the boundary between parenting and education

Examination results are one such measure of success. Less easily measurable are life skills like critical thinking, the ability to work as a team, positively contributing to society and appreciating diversity in its widest sense.

But although education contributes greatly, parenting and environment have significant parts to play. One of the trickier tasks is placing the boundary between parenting and education, specifically how the state mitigates the impact of poor environment and parenting and, in extremis intervenes.

The system must deal with children with a wide range of abilities. Already at pre-school some children are behind their peers. A Department of Education study found a strong association between a child’s social background and their readiness for school as measured by school entry assessments covering language, reading, maths and writing. This achievement gap is still there when children start secondary school.

At GCSE, the state school sector beats independents hands down

At the other end of the spectrum we have high performing students from all backgrounds who also need to be developed. Often forgotten is the majority, with their array of talents between the two extremes.

Grammar schools, of which there are now only 163 left in England with 167,000 pupils, recruit from the top end of educational achievers. But even allowing for that selective input, their performance is little short of stunning.

In 2015, 99.1% of grammar school children achieved five or more GCSEs grades A*-C. This compares to 56.7% at comprehensives and 58.1% at independents. The state school sector beats independents hands down – something that in other circumstances would be trumpeted loudly by many of the same people who oppose grammars.

This was in the 1960s when getting two A levels was a far rarer occurrence than now

This is despite their being more likely to have English as a second language. The children are also more likely to be from a black and ethnic minority background, creating role models for the future.

Even looking back to statistics from the 1960s, 81% of the children from unskilled and semi-skilled families who went to grammar school and stayed on to age 18 achieved two A levels. This in the 1960s when getting two A levels was a far rarer occurrence than now. Grammar schools were outstanding then, even for children from less privileged backgrounds.

Yet instead of shouting from the rooftops, opponents draw attention to the proportion of children on free school meals being lower than the wider population. Grammar schools, they conclude, are socially divisive. Yet is that true?

Giving high performing children from this wide range of backgrounds a demonstrably outstanding education is surely a betterment to society

In short, no it isn’t. That stereotypes all children from a less privileged background as poor performers.

Whilst they may on average perform poorly, a significant minority are up there with the best. The same is true of the overlooked children in the middle, for example from the skilled families in the 1960s who showed similar or better performance to the unskilled group. They too benefited from a grammar school education. More modern studies show the benefit of a grammar school education, even to the socially disadvantaged.

Giving high performing children from this wide range of backgrounds a demonstrably outstanding education is surely a betterment to society. Denying them that opportunity, to use a sporting analogy, is like saying that because a proportionate number of children from a particular background can’t become Olympic athletes, none can.

No-one is suggesting a return to a fully selective education, but a tranche of high quality education places for Croydon begins to look like a no-brainer.

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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  • Anne Giles

    I am very much in favour of grammar schools.

  • Mark Johnson

    Grammar schools are the solution only if the new grammars retain the traditional grammar school ethos. Selection itself doesn’t solve our educaton problem. Good strong traditional British standards are whats needed. Thats what most of our academies don’t understand, they are far too Authoritarian Socialist.

  • Mikhail Bulgakov

    Advocates of grammars want us to go back to the halcyon days when only 10% of school leavers got 5 or more A to C grades at O’ levels, i.e. when the 11+ was compulsory in the 1950s. Only a fool would trade today’s 80% of school leavers gaining 5 or more A* to C at GCSE with that. Strange how outcomes have improved in the absence of selection, isn’t it?

    • Robert Ward

      I think you have misread the article. I am supporting a grammar school for Croydon, not the return of universal selection. No-one I am aware of is suggesting that.

      I would also point out that the low number of children achieving 5 ‘O’ levels in the 1950s was due to rather few children taking them. In those days the pass rate was fixed, that was the way the marking system worked. For many years now the GCSE marking system has attempted to fix a threshold as a result of which the pass rates have steadily increased, something that was impossible with the ‘O’ level marking system.

      So apart from the fact that you have misread the article and don’t understand the marking system you are right, but that doesn’t leave much.

      • Mikhail Bulgakov

        I don’t really care what you think. I don’t want the level of stress in 10-11 year olds to rocket for no apparent reason. I don’t want my son to be segregated from his peers on the basis of a test in maths and English. I don’t want the state’s resources sent to one type of school to the detriment of the others. I don’t want to go backwards. I want to go forwards.

        This government has squandered resources needed for current schools on ‘free’ schools. I would never back another move that grabs resources from all taxpayers to lavish on the children of a small section of taxpayers. Croydon has the Whitgift. If you want your children to go there, get them to take the 11+ and then pay the fees. Leave the rest of us alone.

        • Robert Ward

          There is no suggestion of making any child take an 11+ if they and their parents don’t want to.

          Evidence is that a Grammar School in Croydon would not be to the detriment of other schools in the area.

          Since state funding follows the pupil a grammar school gets the same amount as a non-selective.

          If, in spite of these facts you don’t want your child to try to go to such a school that’s fine, but others who also pay their fair share of taxes may wish to, especially when the evidence is that this produces better results overall for our country.

          • Mikhail Bulgakov

            Since state funding follows the pupil a grammar school gets the same amount as a non-selective.

            That’s nice. All those sharp-elbowed parents will be falling over themselves to get into a school that’s just as underfunded as the rest, won’t they? I think not. They’ll be expecting science classrooms to fully resourced so that their exceptional and gifted children can ‘thrive’ in the appropriate academic environment their special child needs. The failures can learn to sand down blocks of wood because they can’t grapple with algebra just yet.

            BTW, we all pay our fair share. 1/5 of virtually everything we buy is sent to the government as tax. Perhaps, they should use this to publish to the whole nation that despite what you say grammar schools have a detrimental effect on the overall outcomes of children in the areas they exist.

            No grammars in Croydon! If you this is what you want, Sutton is next door and Kent is but a short drive away. Croydon’s schools have been steadily improving so I say no thanks to grammars. I don’t want this improvement being set back by a grammar school.

            Final point: please can you tell me where the money is going to come from to pay for this white elephant?

          • Robert Ward

            I wish I could find a coherent argument in there to refute but could find none.

            However I am able to answer your question on funding. The school will be built with funds from the education budget. I believe new grammars are budgeted for about £50 million out of a capital budget in education of about £1 billion.

          • Mikhail Bulgakov

            Waste of money. Unfreeze teachers’ pay and solve the recruitment crisis instead. I’m not interested in coherent arguments as there are none for grammars. If it’s clever kids we are talking about, they pass their exams in non-selective schools and make their way through to academia unhindered by the experience.

            From a comprehensively-school graduate of a Russell Group university