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.

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Simon Denis
Simon Denis
11 months ago

Let’s be clear: education has nothing to do with “levelling up” per se. It only has that effect, to some degree, when allowed to pursue its proper vocation: the identification and cultivation of talent. Thanks to the few remaining grammar schools, this still goes on in the teeth of socialist malice; so the obvious solution is to reintroduce academic selection across the board in bold defiance of envious leftism. In addition to academic selection we need vocational, creative and practical selection to ensure that every point of the psychometric spectrum is catered for. This should also involve the reintroduction of special schools for special needs – meanly abolished by that fragrant ornament of our strongly aromatic elite, Arch-Snob Warnock – who belatedly and impotently bewailed and recanted this measure when, of course, it was too late for her to do anything about it. Bullying, the natural result of the left’s malignant herding, is a scandal in British schools. As well as challenging the anti-intellectual poison of the left, full spectrum selection would at last do something to address the violence and disorder of the modern British classroom.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
11 months ago

I will tell you all of a real distortion in education as well – one of those ‘Unintended Consequences.

I am a tradesman and know the scene well. There is also a lack of good tradesmen, and so people say we need to have more trade schools. And this is very true for the main workers in them.

BUT, what people do not understand is a good Plumber, Carpenter, Electrician, as well as the guy who runs roofing crews, and foundations, and Brick Masons – these professional tradesmen make good money – but they really need at least 110 IQ, and ideally the 115-120 it takes to succeed at university.

Trades schools are great, they make tradesmen, but the professional tradesmen – the ones with the full skills and ability to manage skilled jobs – they, like every kind of work – need to be above average.

Traditionally this was just normal, the universities did not siphon off the people cut out for this kind of worker, the skilled tradesman. Now it does. So many graduating – or just Not bothering with any more education, are pulled off into low paid degrees and wasted training because Universities have not adjusted to this reality – that they are taking all the brightest – who traditionally did ALL the kinds of jobs, and they are harming men who should have become professional tradesmen, they should think about this – directing young men to these skills.

There is good money in professional trades, but you have to have the ability to get high in it – and not many young people are directed that way, as they should be. (ps I searched IQ by job and the results were very wrong, do not believe them)

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
11 months ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

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.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
11 months ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Back in the day my local steel works, Shelton Bar had its own railway and was fed by four deep pits from which it took more or less entire output.
All that engineering and organization and not a degree in sight

Last edited 11 months ago by Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
11 months ago

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 ?

Caroline Watson
Caroline Watson
11 months ago

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.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
11 months ago

In some areas Secondary Moderns have returned. Where parents recruit from Oxbridge/LSE/Imperial/ Top 5 universities they examine the results of primary schools and comprehensives. Many either pay for their children to attend private education or move to areas where grammar schools are available. If one sends ones chldren to a top Church of England Primary School in an affluent area and pay for tuition, they more or less receive a prep school education and therefore most will be able to pass the 11+ exam.
The inequality is that most comprehensives lack teaching staff who teach to high enough standrads for pupils to obtain Grade A In Further Maths A level and languages, both classical and modern, for pupils to enter the top 5 universities. I would suggest it is not Russell Group Universities which top recruiters take people from but perhaps the top 2 to 5. In Engineering, top recruiters often look at Imperial and Cambridge first and then if they lack suitable people, elswhere. Also many top graduates are are also good at sports and/or music. So not only does one need a relevant degree from a top 2 to 5 university but played sport at county level or above. As Durham is in the news, having a degree in languages or engineering, represented one’s country at u19 level and played in the university’s first team, it is likely one will get an interview.
Historically, the ideal head for a public and/or grammar school was to have a first and Blue. Few comprehensives employ teachers from top 5 universities who have played sport at county and university levels and so do not have the ability to teach sport to high enough standards, such that peoples become selected for county teams and above.
One of the issues with education being in the control of state employees is that those who failed to pass the 11+, did not enter top 5 universities, did not play sport are often are resentful of those who have and become spiteful owards excellence. The reality is that much of the education system comprises philistines who are spiteful towards the Renaissance ideal of excellence.
There used to be two types of Grammar School Direct Grant such as Manchester, King Edward 6th, etc which received mony from Whitehall and via fees and were free post 1945 and Grammar Schools run by towns and counties. Most DGG went private post 1975 and apart from a few counties, town grammar schools went comprehensive. In many old grammar schools those with degrees from top universities left and went to public and or remaining grammar schools. The result was that few comprehensives had staff who could teach to Oxford and Cambridge Entrance Exam and University Scholarship Exam Standards, especially in classical and modern languages and maths. The ability to teach someone to high enough standard to say win a Top Open Maths or Science Scholarship to Trinity Cambridge or Imperial or to read Greats at Ballio, Oxford was way above them.
One of the reasons for our decline in technology( applied and industrial science and engineering ) is the abolition of grammar schools. Most of out top people came from grammar schools post 1850s – J R Mitchell and B Wallis being good examples.
The myth is that comprehensives teach all things to all people; they do not. In fact the comprehensive system combined with progressive education has done more to preserve the independent schools than anything else in the last 60 years.

jill dowling
jill dowling
11 months ago

Keir Starmer, jeremy Corbyn, Jess Phillips – the list goes on – all went to grammar schools. Yet they deny others this opportunity.
My Dad was from an extremely poor family but because of the grammar system was able to shine academically.
Having said that, his brothers joined the merchant navy and were trained in trades which they built on when they left.
There seemed to be more options available to young people then. We need a variety of educational facilities to help our children fulfill their promise, and I see grammar schools as just a part of this.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
11 months ago

Quite. I can’t but agree to the argument and proposals of this article. It is clearly unsatisfactory that counties like Durham and Northumberland have no grammar schools, whereas they are concentrated in areas of least need.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
11 months ago

Perhaps the title should be, “Our Grammer Skool sistem is broke”
Slowly and surely the UK is ceasing to be a meritocracy after hundreds of years of rule by educated and clever people.
In this history the cleverer and, maybe, physically weaker people have called the shots and been protected by armies and police forces. Today, the police force isn’t capable of protecting the weak from physical assault and ‘survival of the fittest’ is returning to its pre-historical meaning.
It is even possible to visualise a future where clever people are weeded out and sent to do the worst and dirtiest jobs as a punishment. Mao’s China comes to mind.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
11 months ago

There are no grammar schools left in Scotland at all, except in legacy names like Aberdeen Grammar.
Selection in state schools is not allowed except by geographical location, which has the inevitable inflationary effect on house prices in the most-favoured school catchment areas.
And the SNP lowered the voting age to 16 for Scottish local elections and Scottish Parliament elections.
We’re stuffed.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
11 months ago

I have a lot of respect for Kristina Murkett, but this argument is very strange “….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”
Eh? Grammar schools in Kent are helping pupils whose education may have been adversely affected by the absurd restrictions on education due to covid. Because other counties have worse education systems – their choice – Kent should be penalised? That sounds to me very much like ‘levelling down’.

Alastair Herd
Alastair Herd
11 months ago

Something I find very interesting about this:

“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.”

Is what happens when you actually look at the regional data.
While Kent maybe a comparatively rich county (it has the 10th highest Median Income) in the country as a whole it is comparatively poor when compared with the rest of the South East (6th out of the 7 Counties – Ignoring London).
This is also the same for Lincolnshire which is 4th out of the 5 Counties.
So perhaps Grammar Schools aren’t the silver bullet to inequality.

Data from HMRC Income and tax by county and region, tax year 2018 to 2019

Last edited 11 months ago by Alastair Herd
Lyn N
Lyn N
11 months ago

Regardless of the merits of selective education, it is over. Allowing grammar schools to extend is simply the drawing in of one last gasp. Logically, extending grammar schools could have opened their extensions anywhere in the country just as our universities open extensions across the world.
In practice, our educational policy isn’t set by our local or national elected representatives, it is directed by the UN through policy declarations that largely bypass nation politics by using professional channels and the declaration is discriminatory education, including on ability, will be disallowed.
We will all be equally poorly served together and “we, the people” may as well howl at the moon if we disagree because the UN has no democratic accountability to us at all. Fun, huh.

Sue Sims
Sue Sims
11 months ago
Reply to  Lyn N

That doesn’t explain why some countries have selective secondary education (e.g. Germany) and others don’t.

Bill W
Bill W
11 months ago
Reply to  Sue Sims

We should have state funded selective schools throughout the country. Even if only a few in every county. Boarding too. This country doesn’t stand a chance if we don’t enable everyone in our society.