The Covert Growth of Grammar Schools

Despite being dropped from the government’s agenda and, indeed, from the agendas of many newspapers and commentators, a covert rise in grammar school places attempts to bypass public and legislative approval for an expansion, but fails to effectively reap the supposed benefits of grammar schools.

During the disastrous election campaign of 2017, one of Theresa May’s more controversial Manifesto proposals was the lifting of the ban on opening new grammar schools in England. At first it was suggested there would be ‘a grammar school in every town’, but alas, as the campaign deteriorated and the conservative majority was lost, the proposal, along with many others, was ommitted from Theresa May’s new Government’s Queen’s Speech.

To many casual observers it may seem that was that. The issue is dead and buried (for now). No need for any further debate. Indeed, the issue has slowly drifted off the agenda (the ever-present shadow of Brexit and its legislative backlog doesn’t help either). The reality, however, is very different.

Take, for instance, my own alma matter, Upton Court Grammar School. In the 7 years I spent there, there were no less than 5 major expansions in capacity, and the century-old school is currently undergoing a complete refurbishment of its main building. In short, the school will have doubled its capacity in less than a decade.

A BBC analysis showed that there were 11,000 more grammar school places in 2018 than in 2010, and that, by 2021, the number of extra places created will be equivalent to 24 new grammar schools compared to eight years ago. This is worrying, not simply because one may be for or against grammar schools on principle, but becuase the covert way this current expansion is being carried out – making existing grammar schools larger – betrays the public, and indeed Parliament, of an opportunity to assess and approve what is, in reality, a multi-million pound expansion in grammar school places.

The core aim of grammar schools is to facilitate social mobility, and to push the smartest in society. In their current state, however, todays grammars do neither. Poor children are much less likely to go to grammar schools. The evidence is clear; the average grammar school has fewer than 3% of their pupils on free school meals, compared to an average of 14% across the state sector. The key reason for this is that the 11+ test, which is supposed to measure ‘natural intelligence’ (if there is such a thing) and is designed to be tutor-proof, but achieves neither of these aims. Parents near grammar schools in Slough and Kent for instance spend thousands of pounds on tutoring and tuition for the 11+ test, and there is no doubt that poorer parents, whose incomes and jobs mean thay cannot provide the same level of preparation for their children, struggle to keep up. Currently, the exclusivity of grammar schools means few poor children ever gain access to the benefits, and at the current level (There are 163 grammars in the country), this will not change with minor expansions. It is clear that, if grammar schools are to make a difference for the poor, they must be fairly distributed across the country and constitute a much larger share of places in poorer areas. Expanding grammars in their current, exclusive form is irresponsible and fails to reap the core benefit of the policy – social mobility.

If there were, say, ‘a grammar school in every town’, and an improved test were designed, then grammar schools would be beneficial, right? Say we had a situation where the smartest 15% of kids at age 11 were siphoned off to a grammar school in every British town, isolated from the rest of the population and allowed to ‘feed off eachother’, compete, and grow faster than they would have in a comprehensive. Alas, there is little evidence of this effect at work. In fact, multiple studies (1, 2, 3, 4) have shown that, once you control for a child’s wealth and background, grammar schools add little additional benefit when compared with a comprehensive school. On a psychological level, one must consider the social impact of creating, at the age of 11, ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ and separating them from eachother, especially when, due to the impossiblitity of a ‘tutor-proof’ test, the ‘winners’ will often be richer than the losers. This is my biggest qualm with grammar schools; like private schools, they create social division, snobbery, and put people in bubbles where they are not exposed to people different to them. We ought to prepare our children for the real world by educating them in schools whose pupil populations represent a true cross-section of modern British society, with no one left out.


  1. I was for a brief time a teacher, working in both a grammar and a secondary modern school. I was struck by the huge amount of middle ground, by the large number of children who could have gone either way in the 11+. The ones who ‘failed’ to make the grammar school were inevitably destined for a world of fewer choices, an impoverished curriculum. Yes, I know, those children would now be in a comprehensive rather than a secondary modern school, but if there’s a grammar school in town, what is the comprehensive but a secondary modern in all but name?

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