The Case Against Grammar Schools

Natasha Philips presents her argument against grammar schools.

After being phased out 50 years ago, grammar schools are back on the agenda. Theresa May has declared her intention to lift the ban on selective education to help children from poorer families to do better, while Labour continue to oppose the change. However, could prioritising grammars over existing underperforming schools be further reducing social mobility?

It is undeniable that grammar schools perform better – in 2015, only two of the 163 UK grammar schools had less than 95% of students achieving 5+ A*-C Grade GCSEs. However, the nature of selective schools is to segregate children in a way which will characterise the nature of their academic careers. Results of entry exams come to define the worth of these children; many students are put through months of tuition, only to miss out on a place and are branded ‘not good enough’. Passing or failing a test at age 11 does not accurately predict an individual’s potential and the psychological impact of such a label does nothing to help academic prospects. Evidence shows that children do better when taught in mixed-ability classes, where struggling students get brought up to the level of their more capable peers. Surely this is a more effective way of ensuring higher averages than only investing in select groups deemed capable of achieving excellence.

One argument in support of reintroducing grammar schools is that they provide more choice in the kind of education available, but it’s the school that gets to be selective, not the parents. According to the Prime Minister, the reintroduction of grammars will ‘level the playing field’ for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, but natural ability only goes so far when they have to compete with children whose parents who can afford the hours of private tuition needed to prepare them for the eleven plus exam. This also puts pressure on parents to invest time and money on children who aren’t capable in fear of leaving them at a disadvantage – private tuition has become the performance enhancing drug of entry exams, leaving children from poorer families in the dust.

The emphasis should be on existing underperforming schools and ensuring every institution can offer students an excellent education. The addition of a grammar school to a low performing area will not solve the problem of education budget cuts and teacher shortages. As an ex-grammar school student, I can see the benefits: students are constantly told they are capable of excellence and leave with the exam results to prove it. However, on a national level, this should not be an economic imperative. To foster a system of educational opportunity for everyone, we should be improving existing schools, not building more. Comprehensive schools aren’t going anywhere, and diverting the attention towards grammar schools is not going to fix the underlying crisis in the education system.