The grammar conundrum

We are at a strange crossroads on selective education in this country. At no time have the main political parties been more united that selection should play no part in any future development of English schools. Yet neither party has concrete proposals for how they might eliminate selection in the many places it still exists.

Read the rest of today’s Guardian article, and Guardian readers’ comments on the piece, here.

6 Responses to The grammar conundrum

  1. Letters to the Editor
    Wednesday, 2 September 2009

    Grammar Schools

    Let us have grammar schools for the academically gifted but this begs the question as to what portion of a year’s intake can be so described (“The grammar conundrum”, 2 September). Most people, when asked, would say that no more than 5% of the population are musically gifted, similarly for the athletically gifted.

    Restricting grammar school intake to 5% has the virtue that the vast majority of middle class parents would have a personal stake in improving comprehensives.

    Yugo Kovach
    Old School House
    Winterborne Houghton, Dorset DT11 0PD
    01258 880 029

  2. I went to an absolutely horrific school and due to hard work, determination and social exclusion managed to work myself up to better. Why should my kids have to be the martyrs and have a terrible education because people like you don’t want good students to thrive?

    You talk about exceptional GCSE results? Passing 5 grade Cs at GCSE will not get my children, or anybody elses into a half-decent university. What’s wrong with selection? Why can’t clever children be nurtured to stay intelligent and those students who have other skills to offer be nurtured in a different way?!

    A significant proportion of tax-paying parents WANT to send their kids to grammar schools (hence why they’re so over-subscribed). Do you really want to take this choice away from them?

    You’re welcome to email me a response or follow-up here.


    • Hi Dan,

      Dear Dan,

      Always difficult to comment on other people’s personal experiences, but the first thing to say – this is a quick reply – is that a horrific school is a horrific school, but why do you – and half the media – equate this with all or even some comprehensives? I can point you to numerous examples of comprehensives that are getting good results every year ( and by good results, I do NOT mean simply 5 A-C’s but far far better than that.) The trouble with grammar schools is that they overwhelmingly take middle class children, often those with money who can afford to spend thousands coaching their kids to pass the eleven plus.

      That’s simply not fair on children and families without that start in life/financial advantages; if they fail the eleven plus and, in the fifteen selective authorities at least, are sent to secondary moderns they are already labelled as second rate.Despite what people say, this is hard to row back from.
      The point about all ability schools is that they nurture the talents of all children and do not decide who is clever and who is not at the age of eleven. A lot ofprivate schools are filled with kids who did not or would not pass the eleven plus, are pretty middling in their abilities ( if we’re going to use these kind of definitions) but whom with proper attention and teaching can develop in all sorts of ways. That alone shows how much can be done to develop childrens’ abilities. Why preserve this only for the rich?

      Personally, I think grammar schools are on the way out. Even the Tories no longer support them – although they will never close down those that exist. But they certainly won’t open any more. Why? BEcause they know they are unfair, class biased, damage the life chances of children who don’t go to them and are inefficient.

      It is increasingly obvious to me that a lot of people don’t realise how good a good comprehensive school CAN be nor how much they can nurture the talents of the academically gifted without separating them from other children and damaging those others childrens’ life chances in the process. The media is completely biased against high achieving comprehensives and where these schools do achieve they say it is all to do with area in which they are situated. Look at schools like Morpeth in Tower Hamlets or even academies like Mossbourne; an all ability, all social class intake, getting amazing results. Why write off most children before they have begun?

      Best wishes,

      Melissa B

  3. Melissa,

    You actually make an interesting point and I can support your argument to an extent. I agree that admissions are certainly biased to grammar schools (most of my friends who went would never have gotten in were it not for private coaching) and this is unfair. However, if enough tax-payers WANT to send their children to grammar schools then who are we(/you) to tell them that they can’t have that.

    Do you really think that ‘depriving’ state schools of ‘intelligent’ students will detriment the less academic ones? I can’t really buy into that. I imagine that what would happen (and happens in some state schools now) is that streaming would take place so that the clever students are in a class by themselves, the ‘middle of the road’ students in another and those students who require much more help would be in another. I actually think this is quite a good compromise because putting everybody in the same class (thus potentially holding back more intelligent students) will detriment the less intelligent students – hence my comment about martyring my children’s education for the (noble) cause of equality.

    I think the school system needs to improved much more before you’re really going to convince parents not to send their children to grammar/private schools. Even with comp school – it is very much a postcode lottery.

    I also agree with your point that perhaps 11 is too young to determine a child’s academic abolity.

    Anyway, you almost convinced me and I definitely support equality of education but can you honestly tell me that if your child was offered a place at a brilliant grammar school and the (rubbish, bad grades etc. etc.) local comp that you wouldn’t think twice?

    • Dear Dan,

      Just briefly – I would certainly not send my child to a grammar school, brilliant or not, because I do not agree with the principle of dividing children up at such a young age and saying to one group, you are not worth as much as these other ‘special’ children. I think it’s a form of apartheid, class based ( as I say) and wholly wrong. So I could never buy into that.

      I am only sad that for many children their local comprehensive is more comprehensive in name than nature because so many children/families have fled out of fear of what a mixed schooling can bring.

      But where a school is a genuine mix of children, not just of all abilities, but of all backgrounds too, I can imagine no better start in life. Yes, we need excellent teachers, good heads, smaller class sizes ( and schools) in my fear, and a more creative curriculum. Much left to do and I will continue to campaign for it. But as far as I am concerned a return to grammars and the separation of children into sheep and goats ,often as early as ten, should – and will – never happen.

      I have enjoyed our exchange. Good luck to you. You are obviously most determined and I always admire that in someone!


  4. Thanks for your response. Although I’m still not sure I agree, I certainly respect your opinions! Out of interest, what are your views on universities that socially select (as many do?). Should universities be forced to take on students from less-academic schools, even if they don’t make the grades?

    I have and continue to volunteer in the field of widening access to universities and one of the major fundamental problems that we/I face is that even if we manage to help able students into top university places, once they’re there they still require much more help and guidance (not necessarily academic) and are often likely not to thrive as well as those coming from schools that churn out students that go to these sorts of institutions.

    This to me is a failing of many comprehensive schools. Not everybody can have middle class, clued-up parents that push their kids into ticking the right boses for university applications (many see widening participation schemes as being a useful substitute for this) but there doesn’t seem to be a way of evening things out once the student gets to university. Obviously, this is not a universal problem and many students who hail from ‘sub-par’ schools and wokring class backgrounds thrive but this is not the case everywhere.

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