by Kristina Murkett
Wednesday, 8
December 2021
Explainer
14:15

Our grammar school system is broken

Regional inequalities are hindering social mobility
by Kristina Murkett

Covid has exacerbated the disparities in our education system, and almost two years on since the start of the pandemic, it appears that support continues to be given in the wrong places. The National Tutoring catch-up programme has been a resounding failure, with only 5% of the target number of pupils having been enrolled so far. On the other hand, a recent Freedom of Information request has revealed that grammar schools in Kent are taking significant numbers of pupils that have not passed the 11-Plus, thereby giving them an unfair advantage.

Grammar schools have been allowed to expand but the number of students taking — and passing — the 11-Plus has failed to keep pace, and therefore more and more places are being given on appeals. For example, in the Herne Bay area, around 10% of grammar school places are now given through appeals, whilst across the county 35% of 11-Plus applicants go to grammar schools, despite the target being 25%.

There is an argument that, aside from the knock-on effects on neighbouring comprehensives, this may be a good thing. Grammar schools tend to get excellent results; in The Times’ Parent Power 2022 school rankings, all of the top 20 state secondary schools are grammar schools, and 16 of these are based in London and the South East. In theory that means that the more students that get the opportunity to go to a high-achieving school, the better.

However, there is also an argument that allowing grammar schools to expand, but not allowing new grammar schools to be built, only exacerbates regional inconsistencies. Kent is already an anomaly in many respects. It has 35 selective schools, by far the most of any area in England; the next largest is Lincolnshire, with 15.

By contrast, there is not a single grammar school in the whole of East Anglia (Norfolk, Suffolk, and Cambridgeshire), nor in Oxfordshire, Somerset, Northumberland or Durham. Kent is also a very affluent area. The average price of a house in Sevenoaks is over £700,000, with an average household income of £60,000. Grammar schools are often accused of taking disproportionately high numbers of wealthy pupils, and it’s not hard to see why when you look at house prices: in Buckinghamshire, where there are 13 grammar schools, almost 9% of houses sold last year went for over £1 million.

Middle-class families in areas such as Tunbridge Wells and Cranbook will not only be able to afford the costs of living near a good grammar school, but they will also be able to fund private tuition to coach their children through the 11-Plus. If they fail, they will also know how to play the appeals system, and grammar schools, desperate to get more funding through expansion, will give more and more places based on money rather than merit. Many schools are already lowering the pass mark to fill the growing number of places. This not only makes a mockery of the 11-Plus exams (which are contentious enough already), but it also highlights the broken postcode lottery of our education system.

Blackpool, for example, is regularly listed as one of the most deprived areas in the country, but the nearest grammar school is just under an hour drive away. Colchester in Essex, a smaller and much wealthier town, has two, while Southend-on-Sea, which has a similar population to Blackpool, has four — the same number as the whole of Lancashire, the second most populous county in England.

If the government is serious about ‘levelling up’ then it either needs to limit the expansion of existing grammar schools, or consider allowing the introduction of new ones. Our current system does nothing for social mobility whilst grammar schools are so concentrated in affluent areas. The expansion policy may allow grammar schools to appear like they are opening the door, but the reality is that the bright, disadvantaged students who would benefit from them the most are still being shut out.

Join the discussion


  • Education has largely been controlled by Socialists since the mid1930s, by this I mean local government, civil servants, universities, teachers themselves and the various unions, colleges of higher education, teacher training colleges polytechnics, writers on education issues, etc. There has been plenty of time to study other countries especially Germany, Switzerland, Honk Kong, Singapore, India and combine the best of British methods with those from abroad, so what is the problem?
    The Greeks learnt how to teach Greeek and Maths; Rennaissance Italy and the Low Countries developed effective training in weaving( silk, cotton and wool ), tapestry manufacture, painting, sculpture, architecture etc; Britain produced Newton, Faraday, Clerk Maxwell, Darwin and created the Industrial Revolution; so why do we have a problerm creating effective education today ?

  • Interesting that Northumberland is mentioned.
    Northumberland is a deeply rural and sparsely populated county with some quite wealthy small towns and some deprived former colliery villages. Until the 70s it had a tripartite system; in my area, a grammar school, a technical school and several secondary moderns. The technical school was mostly attended by farmers’ children and had a farm and a boarding house, for children from very remote places. Both it and the grammar school covered the whole valley, however, and able children from the colliery villages were able to go there, with the vital transport provided.
    Now the grammar school is a very highly thought of comprehensive, mostly attended by the children of professional incomers. It is second only to Durham Johnston, another former grammar school where university children go, in the North East league of state schools. A very high proportion of pupils go on to Russell Group universities, including Oxford, Cambridge and Durham.
    And the other schools, including the former technical school, now shorn of its farm and boarding house, and with its sixth form decimated by the former Labour council’s abolition of free sixth form transport ‘because people who live in the country are rich’ (we have some incredible remote forestry villages, where people are definitely not rich, and there are no decent jobs for women at all)? I’m sure you can imagine what they are like.
    No one wants to go back to a world of underfunded, low achieving secondary moderns, with a restricted curriculum and no public examinations. All children should receive education of the same value. But there is no equality in a world where selection is by parental income and postcode rather than ability.

  • True! A youngish relative is a plumber. Now ‘manages’ the apprentices in the firm. It’s a highly skilled job and, apart from the technical side, his role is also counsellor, mentor etc. Often getting these sometimes fatherless young men to sort themselves out. Schools and careers and the managerial artsy class haven’t a clue as to how talented you need to be to do this stuff. In another vein, I’m still waiting for the rush of young feminists to decide that higher paid trades are better than lower paid care and retail. Too busy pouting on Instagram. Another issue is that schools get official kudos if they get numbers to Uni but not to college which is seen as the dim option. You don’t get this attitude in Finland- then again no private schools, no dumb exams at 16- all kids have to do maths and science to 18 with academic courses for those applying to Uni. Here you can give up all STEM at 16! Disaster.

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